Maximum Cute: How Funko Conquered the Toy World
Jerry Seinfeld is one of the few still missing. In December 2014, Funko president Brian Mariotti announced his collectibles company had secured a license to produce figures based on NBC’s Seinfeld. Their Vinyl Idolz line, a series of slender, saucer-eyed caricatures, eventually released Cosmo Kramer, David Puddy, Newman, Frank Costanza, Mr. Peterman, and The Soup Nazi.
No sign of Jerry. “We’re waiting for him to warm up to the idea,” Sean Wilkinson, Funko’s creative director, tells mental_floss. “Maybe we’re not high on his docket,” says the man charged with “cute-ifying” hundreds of characters from film, television, music, video games, and sports.
Seinfeld’s hesitation is a rare example of someone resisting Funko’s charm. From Game of Thrones to Sesame Street to Taxi Driver, the upstart toy company has put its distinctive stamp on almost every major franchise in popular culture, in the process wedging itself into store shelves dominated by giants like Hasbro and Mattel. Funko's Pop! line, a series of highly stylized, vaguely anime-looking figures standing 3.75-inches tall, have become a retail sensation. (Not to mention 75 percent of the company’s total revenue.) Collectors travel hundreds of miles looking for store exclusives and building personal inventories so vast that the squared-off plastic heads often begin to scrape the ceiling.
“I call it the irony of cute,” Wilkinson says of the Pop! appeal. “We can literally do anything. If you’re a fan of it, we have it.”
It’s unprecedented growth for a brand that started by peddling fast food mascots out of a garage in 1998 and now deals with merchandising Goliaths like Disney and Warner Bros. But Funko originally had no ambition to juggle hundreds of licenses or marquee names like Seinfeld. For its founder, the brand's plans didn’t go far beyond making a bobblehead version of Count Chocula.
What Mike Becker really wanted was a Big Boy. An avid collector of things from his childhood—particularly advertising icons—Becker had his attention drawn to a bobblehead of the fast food mascot for a chain of burger joints popular in the 1960s. (Depending on your region, he was known as Bob’s Big Boy, Frisch’s Big Boy, or any one of a dozen other names.)
Becker saw an original ceramic bobble on eBay for $1000. “For that price, I could just about license it, make it out of PVC, and then everyone who wanted one could have it,” he tells mental_floss.
Based out of the entrepreneurial hub of Redwood, Washington, Becker had already been thinking about getting out of the apparel design business and into manufacturing. He had been to licensing shows, knew some people in the industry, and figured that even if his salary was cut in half, it would be worth it if he was having fun.
Enlisting his friends Wilkinson and Rob Schwartz to assist with design artwork, Becker started Funko in 1998 using $35,000 of his own savings. When he finalized the deal with the Big Boy restaurant, they told him a distributor for the store’s gift shop might want to place an order. The guy wanted 20,000 of them. “I fulfilled the order with pretty much all the money I had left,” Becker says.
When 30 days had passed and Becker hadn’t been paid on the invoice, he called the distributor. “Well, the guy said, 'I can’t pay ya.'"
“What do you mean?” Becker replied.
“I don’t have the money right now. Next week, maybe I can give you five grand.”
It was, Becker says, a rude introduction to the world of licensing. “People went Chapter 11. People skipped out on their bills. People would cut corners.” Boxes of Big Boys idled in Becker's garage. He showed his mother, pointing to them as the reason he had quit his job. “They’re wonderful,” she said. “But no one’s going to want them.”
At the time, bobblehead figurines with spring-loaded heads that would shake and nod like they had a nervous condition were nearing obsolescence. Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t until Major League Baseball teams began promotional giveaways in the late 1990s that they experienced a resurgence. Becker had preceded that by a good six months. It didn’t look like he’d be around to share the wealth.
On a whim, he phoned a contact he had at New Line Cinema to see if any properties were available. There was one: a sequel to 1997's Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, a send-up of spy films starring Mike Myers, that was due out in 1999.
Becker agreed to a $2500 license fee. He wound up manufacturing and shipping over 100,000 Austin Powers bobbleheads. “That gave us the boost we needed.”
Soon, Becker was putting Funko displays in Sparky’s, a collectibles store at Universal CityWalk. All the surplus Big Boys were diverted there. When they sold out, the manager became a believer. “A lot of retailers go to Universal CityWalk every year,” Becker says. “It was a big deal to have a window display there.”
Funko’s line—which he called Wacky Wobblers—grew to include a wish list of Becker’s childhood favorites: the General Mills cereal mascots (Count Chocula, Franken Berry); Betty Boop; Felix the Cat; Rat Fink. Mr. T, experiencing a resurgence in popularity thanks to his 1-800-Collect commercials, signed on and became Funko’s unofficial cheerleader. “He’d go to children’s hospitals and ask for cases of bobbleheads," Becker says. "He’d show up for appearances just to support us. He’s an incredible guy.”
After several years of niche marketing, Funko was fielding offers from bobble-crazy sports teams. It seemed like any licensee’s dream, but Becker wasn’t interested. “Sports Illustrated once called and asked, 'Why not?,'” he says of refusing to make athlete bobbles. “I said, ‘Because I know Betty Boop isn’t going to get a DUI.’ And that’s how I felt. Sports heroes let you down. Cartoons don’t.”
He also rebuffed an opportunity to make Disney merchandise. To Becker, Funko was a way to target a few thousand die-hard fans snapping up a Kool-Aid Man Wacky Wobbler. Dealing with Disney meant more of everything—including supervision. “I love Disney,” he says. “But meeting with them, they wanted to design the packaging. They weren’t sure about the heads being big. I wanted to make my own decisions.”
In 2005, Becker made a big one. He had started Funko to play with his sense of nostalgia. Once he had exhausted the possibilities, he had also exhausted himself. The lure of Disney profits didn’t appeal. “I was just burned out," he says. "And I’m the kind of guy to step over dollars to get to nickels.”
Becker wanted to move on. One day he was playing golf with a friend and collector named Brian Mariotti. The two had gotten friendly after Mariotti called Funko’s office looking for Hanna-Barbera merchandise. Buying the whole company sounded good, too.
The prototypical Funko Pop! figure stands just shy of 4 inches tall. The head, rounded off and block-shaped, takes up roughly half of the toy’s dimensions. The pupils sit far apart, with the nose dipping just below the eye line. Some licensors demand a mouth; other characters don’t seem to look right without one. But in most cases, the Pops subtract any lips or teeth.
Applied to characters of existing charm—Cookie Monster, Daniel LaRusso, Chewbacca—the Funko house style fits like a glove. Dressed over Hannibal Lecter, Jason Voorhees, or a Walking Dead zombie, the Pops become an ironic, infantilized version of a malicious figure. “Hyper-cute,” Wilkinson says. The exact placement of the eyes and their relation to the nose: “The science of cute.”
With the limited market for bobbles, Pop! has become Funko’s signature line, bleeding into major retailers, specialty shops, and mail-order dealers. It was one of several ways Mariotti expanded Funko after taking over from Becker in 2005, though for a time it looked as though it would be disastrous.
Mariotti, Wilkinson, and Schwartz conspired to create the Pop! line after licensor DC Comics thought the company needed a fresh design. Working with influences ranging from Hello Kitty to Etsy-crafted creatures with buttons for eyes, the three of them created a stylized plush product for release in 2009. In 2010, Mariotti debuted a vinyl version of the approach, dubbed Funko Force 2.0, with Batman and Green Lantern exclusives for the San Diego Comic-Con crowd. The response was tepid.
“It was a slow build,” Wilkinson says. Funko’s bobblehead devotees were addicted to that style and didn’t necessarily warm to the Japanese-influenced tweaks. But the company noticed that for every frowning observer who arrived at their booth there was also an unfamiliar face that was charmed by the design.
“We noticed a different kind of crowd coming into the booth,” Wilkinson says. “I think that’s when we realized we had something special.”
The following month, Funko Force 2.0 became Funko Pop!. Sales went from promising to overwhelming when fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s The Walking Dead began to flock toward the line, amused by the irony of a baby-faced Ned Stark with a removable, lopped-off head. “People love The Walking Dead, but don’t necessarily want to put a rotting zombie on their desk at work,” Wilkinson says. HBO further endeared the line to fans when several of the actors were photographed holding their vinyl counterparts.
Fueled by the interest in those shows, sales at Funko doubled from $10 million in 2010 to $20 million in 2012; 2013 brought in $38 million. The addition of Disney and its library of fictional celebrities from Marvel and Lucasfilm further solidified Pops as the next great collecting addiction. Licenses from properties that had barely ever been touched by merchandising further fed the appetite of virtually anyone who has ever gone to a movie or turned on a television. At $9.99, there aren’t many better ways to please a fan of The Breakfast Club than by giving him or her a miniature Judd Nelson, oversized sunglasses hiding his enormous button eyes.
“Over $20,” Wilkinson says, “and you’d have to think about it.”
Ron Cohen has amassed so many Funko items—5000 at last count—that not all of them make it out of the box. “You need somewhere to put the box, too,” he says. “That’s twice as much space.”
A Funko collector since 2002, Cohen runs justanotherfunkoobserver.com, one of many sites devoted to curating Funko’s catalog of pop culture tributes. There are discussions on desired Pops, which chains are getting exclusive variants (metallic, accessorized, glow-in-the-dark), and the occasional insult directed at “flippers,” the opportunists who clear out a store’s inventory to resell at a steep markup online. Mostly, the sites celebrate the inherently low-tech approach of Funko, which prizes nostalgia over expensive toys that talk, move, and get test-marketed into oblivion.
Comments stand a good chance of being seen by Mariotti and other Funko employees. Beginning with Becker, the company has maintained a policy of interactivity, holding annual “Funko Fundays” that gather devotees for toy giveaways and offline socializing. Earlier events were in Las Vegas; today, the 1000 or so attendees converge adjacent to San Diego Comic-Con, where rare Pops are dispensed and amateur designers have an opportunity to make suggestions or show off their wares. It’s not uncommon for Funko to turn to the fan pool to hire talent.
“You get the sense they value your opinion,” Cohen says. “Some ideas to go after licenses come from people in the community. It makes you feel like part of the company.”
It’s getting harder, however, to suggest something Funko hasn’t thought of first: There may be nothing more esoteric than a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters burnt to a crisp, a doe-eyed Tony Montana, or a Mr. Monopoly. The company has also successfully gone after rights to render The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Jimi Hendrix in the Funko house format. Most licensors understand the visual continuity the company’s customers look for; others need some convincing.
“There can be pushback,” Wilkinson says of erasing the mouth. “For human characters, we generally don’t want one.” Other characters wind up looking too bizarre without it. “You look at Grover without a mouth, and you go, ‘Is that really him?’” A few licensors have tried to insist on packaging other than the standard, which features a name and number and stacks for easy storage. They're rebuffed. “The message is: Everything looks the same.”
That can be hard when dealing with nondescript characters like Joey from Friends: a blank-faced male is not readily identifiable. Funko typically adds a familiar accessory—for Joey, his pet duck—to compensate. “You’d also be surprised how much a hairline can capture a character," Wilkinson says. "But the Supernatural guys—is someone going to recognize them in 20 years? Sometimes you wonder.”
Roughly 20 new Pops roll out of the company’s 200,000-square-foot warehouse space in Everett, Washington every month; each winter, the company issues a catalog for retailers previewing the year’s coming releases. Collectors treat it like the Sears Wish Book, poring over additions to existing series and new properties that give them a warm twinge of recognition. That retro chord is a big reason why it’s unlikely Funko will suffer the same fate as Beanie Babies, which couldn’t offer a Doc Brown plush. Today’s cult movie is tomorrow’s childhood memory, even if it takes a decade.
While Pop! remains Funko’s most treasured line, the company has branched out. Tiny figures ride in familiar vehicles like the Batmobile; aside from the Vinyl Idolz, there are the Dorbz, an even more aggressively cute line of rotund heroes; Collector Corps boxes promise Pops and other surprise merchandise to subscribers; and Mike Becker is under the Funko banner once more, supervising the company’s T-shirt line.
Wilkinson has ticked off most of his own personal Pop! projects, like The Fifth Element and Willy Wonka. Of the few major franchises to elude Funko, James Bond remains just out of reach. “It starts and it stops,” Wilkinson says of negotiations. Nintendo is another holdout. “They don’t like seeing their characters altered.” (Among the recently converted: J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter is finally in Pop! form after years of rejection. There might be hope for Seinfeld yet.)
Despite its modest footprint in the billion-dollar toy world, Funko has grown large enough to make the notion of collecting everything impossible. Cohen flips through the catalog to see if a specific series has expanded, or if a new one piques his interest, but had to abandon the idea of keeping a spreadsheet of everything. “It’s impossible now,” he says.
Although Cohen tends to keep his Pops in their boxes, he has a friend who takes photographs of Pops in various settings. Snapping Pop! pictures is so common among collectors that Funko has issued four volumes of their photography. Despite their relative immobility, Pops seem to inspire more creativity than simply being stored away to bolster someone’s retirement. In an adult demographic, that counts for a lot.
“You just want to share your fascination with it,” Cohen says. “You should play with your toys.”
All images courtesy of Funko/Sean Wilkinson unless otherwise noted.