Since 1998, vinyl figure factory Funko has been making it extremely simple to gift the pop culture fan in your life with a small-scale representation of their favorite movie, TV show, or video game. Engineered for maximum cuteness, their Pop! toys adorn million of desks and have inspired a devout following. If you’ve ever wondered about the larger story behind those button eyes and block-shaped heads, check out some facts about Funko’s history, its massive Washington headquarters that's open to fans, and why Tom Cruise may have shot down a chance at plastic immortality.
1. IT STARTED WITH BOB’S BIG BOY.
Your familiarity with the Bob’s Big Boy burger franchise may depend on your age and geographical location. The chain’s mascot—a large, pompadour-sporting hamburger server—has become a nostalgic touchstone for many. One of Bob’s fans, Snohomish, Washington native and T-shirt designer Mike Becker, went in search of a collectible but found the vintage figurines on eBay too pricey. Becker realized he could simply buy the Bob’s license and produce his own bobblehead figures, which is exactly what he started doing in 1998. While Becker’s mom wasn’t enthused—she told her son no one was going to want the figure—the Big Boy helped launch Becker's toy venture, which he dubbed Funko.
2. AUSTIN POWERS PUT THEM ON THE MAP.
Though Bob’s Big Boy did well, Funko wasn’t a success story out of the gate. Retailers leaving Becker with unpaid invoices cut into profits, and scores of unsold inventory were stacked in his garage. Looking to expand his bobblehead line, Becker put in a cold call to New Line Cinema to see if they had any properties available for license. They did: A sequel to 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was due in 1999, so Becker made a deal for $2500 to produce bobbleheads of Powers and some of the supporting cast. Funko shipped 100,000 of the toys, cementing them as a viable player in the collectibles category.
3. THEY TURNED DOWN A LOT OF BOBBLEHEADS.
As Funko continued to grow, licensors started seeking out Becker. Some were surprised he had the temerity to turn them down. Major League Baseball teams wanted to license bobbles to hand out during games, but Becker shied away from athletes and their penchant for troublemaking. He preferred to stick with fictional characters and food mascots. “I know Betty Boop isn’t going to get a DUI,” he said. Funko also vetoed offers from Disney—they were very strict in approving designs—as well as from adult film stars.
4. FANS HATED THE POPS! AT FIRST.
Having grown tired of the demanding work schedule of his modestly-staffed company, Becker stepped down from Funko in 2005; golfing partner Brian Mariotti took over. In 2009, Mariotti agreed to work with DC Comics on a line of “cute” plush dolls of popular superheroes like Batman and Superman. But designers within Funko decided their anime-style look was a better fit for vinyl. The resulting Pop! line debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con to a very tepid response. Funko fans were used to the bobblehead approach and kept their distance from the four-inch figurines. Licenses like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead eventually brought in new fans, and the Pop! figures went from a company pariah to their most successful line.
5. SOME POPS! GO FOR FOUR FIGURES.
Like any collectible, supply and demand can force aftermarket prices on Funko Pops! to climb. A Loki figure from 2012’s The Avengers that was available only at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con routinely sells for over $1000. So does Headless Ned Stark, a gore-caked variant of the doomed Game of Thrones character. A glow-in-the-dark Green Lantern limited to just 240 figures was released in 2010; that one will set you back over $1500.
6. TOM CRUISE MAY HAVE SHOT DOWN A POP!
When Universal was aiming to create a monstrous cinematic universe with 2017’s The Mummy, the studio struck a deal with Funko to create a line of Pops! based on the film. In addition to two versions of the title character, Funko also designed a Nick Morton, the character played by Tom Cruise in the film. The mummies escaped, but the Cruise figure—his first Pop!—never saw the light of day. No official reason was disclosed, but some speculated that the actor rarely allows his likeness to be used on merchandising and may have intervened.
7. THEY HANDLE BUSINESS FOR OTHER TOY COMPANIES.
Funko’s streamlined approach to toymaking has impressed companies that might be considered rivals. With a design able to go from paper to shelves in as little as 70 days and sporting a distinctive face attractive to collectors, some brands like Hasbro and Mattel have licensed out their characters for the Pop! treatment. Transformers and Masters of the Universe are among the properties doing brisk business.
8. THERE’S A SCIENCE TO THE CUTENESS.
Most Funko figures provoke an “Aww” reaction from people, and that’s purely by design. Funko art director Sean Wilkinson has said that putting the nose just below the line of the eyes results in a more endearing expression. Characters that appear generic can also be individualized by focusing on their hairline or using accessories. The otherwise nondescript Joey from Friends, for example, gets an identity boost by being packaged with his pet duck.
9. THEY MAKE CEREAL NOW.
Eager to explore new corners of pop culture, Funko is getting into the breakfast cereal game. Boxes of edible puffed corn are due to hit comic specialty shops this June based on movies like Beetlejuice, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gremlins, and Stephen King’s It. True to their overly-sweetened influences, many of the cereals will turn the milk a distinctively gross color: Freddy Krueger’s is blood red. The boxes will also come with their own mini-Pop! figure.
10. THEIR WASHINGTON HEADQUARTERS IS A FAN’S PARADISE.
Part business tower and part tourist destination, Funko’s home base in Everett, Washington is a collector’s paradise. The 17,000-square-foot ground-floor store has oversized Pop! figures, custom toys, and themed areas based on popular licenses like Star Wars and Harry Potter. Some of the nods are less stylized: There’s a full-scale Batmobile based on the 1960s TV series that’s screen-accurate and even sports a replica Adam West in the driver’s seat. (Yes, you can take a photo next to him.) Funko staffers also host free workshops on weekends for people in Everett who want to learn more about art, sculpting, and illustration.
11. THERE’S ONE FIGURE THAT HAS ELUDED THEM.
Funko Pops! number in the thousands and span virtually every recognizable license in entertainment, but there’s still one figure the company hasn’t been able to realize. According to vice president of creative Ben Butcher, a Pop! of Bruce Willis as the title character in the 1991 action-comedy Hudson Hawk is still on top of his wish list. Apparently, the rest of the company needs convincing.