The following interview is not a verbatim record of our conversation, but still conveys Joann's thoughts and opinions.
Raving Toy Maniac (RTM): Let's start with Lord of the Rings. Everyone wants to know, why is Strider a little late in his release?
Joann McLaughlin (JM): Strider is shipping now, and we'll continue to ship him into the next (third) assortment to help meet the demand for the figure. Viggo Mortenson has a lot of facial hair for the character of Strider, and unfortunately that hair makes it difficult for the laser scanning process to get a great likeness, and that has been the hold-up. In order to get the best and most accurate likeness for the character we've had to take a little extra time to make sure he looked right. Because of the extra work involved, he wasn't ready to ship with the initial shipments of assortment 1, but he should start to become more available since he is shipping now.
RTM: Did the Galadriel/Frodo 2-pack suffer a similar fate?
JM: Not at all. Galadriel and Frodo haven't been cancelled, but postponed to a future assortment (which we haven't worked out yet). The big reason is that the licensee decided that this toy might reveal too much about the scene it portrayed and they wanted to wait to release it until after the FOTR is in theatres. While it might seem ironic that books have been out for years, what they are doing is keeping the interpretation of the scene a secret for now. And by interpretation I mean how the filmmakers are expressing the scene. We'll get this 2-pack out, it'll just be a little more time before we do.
RTM: Who is your primary audience for the LOTR toys, adult collectors or children?
JM: We believe it will be both. Initially we are looking at a very strong collector base before the first chapter comes out in theatres. We're seeing the fans of the work wanting every possible character they can get so they can build their own Middle Earth and its armies one figure at a time. Once Fellowship is released, we expect that there will be a much larger interest as families start seeing the movies together. Then we'll see many children get interested and from there out we'll have a mixed audience for the toys. We've designed these toys to appeal to both collectors and kids.
RTM: So after Fellowship has run its course in theatres, how will you keep the line going during the lull until The Two Towers comes out?
JM: We are looking at continuing with characters from FOTR until next spring or summer (of 2002). So we expect to release several assortments between now and then. Along with that there will be a video/DVD release of FOTR in the fall of 2002, and we have some things planned to try and go with that release.
RTM: Anything in particular?
JM: Why of course! This December we'll have the electronic Cave Troll released, and he's very cool looking. He has a great likeness to the Cave Troll you can see now in the trailers for FOTR. He's going to be able to swing his hammer down and he's a lot of fun. He's also done to scale with the other figures, so he'll be around 10" tall. For the video/DVD release we're hoping to have the Balrog. He won't be to scale (since he's around 40 feet tall!!) but he'll be bigger than the Cave Troll. And he's really cool as well.
RTM: So do you see this line ever approaching the level of obscurity for characters that Star Wars does?
JM: We want to make as many characters as we can. There are so many fans that want to have every possible character made into an action figure so they can build their own armies and re-create Middle Earth for themselves, and we want to help as much as possible. Obviously, as long as sales can support them we'll continue to try and make the figures that people want.
RTM: How were the actors towards working with Toy Biz and making these figures?
JM: All of the actors were very enthusiastic and involved with their figures. They all provided tremendous input to their figures down to even the tiniest of details. Making the three LOTR films really created a very close-knit group between the actors, and they all were very interested in making sure that any of the merchandising from the film was done with the best attention to detail possible, and highest quality. These actors know their characters very well, and they knew every detail of their costumes from the months they spent wearing them. If the scabbard of their sword was a little off, they noticed and let us know so we could correct it. Elijah Wood was very interested in the action figures, as was Sean Astin down to insisting his water bag and sausages were added to his characters pack! Viggo Mortenson knew every aspect of his character inside and out, and Ian McKellan mentioned a scarf he often wore (but didn't always show up in our reference photos). Everyone involved was very passionate about making sure we did the figures the best we possibly could.
RTM: Was there any reason that the actor's names weren't on the packages for LOTR, like they were for the X-Men movie figures?
JM: It was a decision made by New Line Cinemas. They felt it was more important to emphasize the characters rather than the actors that played them. I guess it's like when a movie opens and they don't have all the credits at the beginning but get right into it (like Star Wars) - it helps you to get into the characters and story.
RTM: Did you end up working with WETA (the effects house that did costumes and effects for LOTR)?
JM: Yes, and they were great to work with. Richard Taylor at WETA worked very closely with Director Peter Jackson on the look of the film. They went to the extremes of actually designed catapults based on real catapults from history books, and even having blacksmiths help forge the armor worn by the characters. WETA gave us lots of input on the figures and ways to make them as accurate as possible. You might say we have sort of a mutual admiration society!!
RTM: Aside from the input from WETA and the actors, who did the work for LOTR?
JM: We have many people who worked on the line, and it would be impossible to name them all. Most of the sculpting work for the figures was done by four parties - Gentle Giant Studios, Phil Ramirez, Steve Kiwus and Dave Cortes. Gentle Giant provided the head scans and sculpts, and Phil, Steve and Dave did most of the sculpting for the bodies, costumes, accessories and detailed work. We also had a woman, Sophia Salazar who worked on the horses that isn't with us any longer (she passed away recently). That kind of makes those pieces very special for us all. She had a great eye for detail that really shows through the figures, especially in the Ringwraith with the plastic and cloth accessories.
RTM: Will you be working again with Gentle Giant?
JM: Certainly, as they are great to work with! For LOTR we chose to go with Gentle Giant due to their reputation, but Sony requested them for the Spider-Man movie. So we're working with them even now for Spider-Man.
RTM: Tell us some more about Spider-Man...Please!!!
JM: Well, Gentle Giant is doing about the same type of work for Spider-Man - giving us a head sculpt for some of the characters like Spider-Man, but we'll have other people do the sculpting on the bodies and such. We really have to spread the work around because with projects that are as big as Spider-Man or LOTR you really can't get all the work done in time using just one place for everything. Gentle Giant also did some full body scans of the Goblin for Spider-man since the costume is very techie and complex.
RTM: Let's talk about Marvel Legends. How is that line coming along?
JM: Very well so far, and the fan response has been more than we expected! Everyone has been begging for pictures of these figures since the SDCC, so we kind of jumped the gun on our PR and took some in-house digital pictures for the web just to get them out where people could get a look at them. There will be other pictures coming later to help show off the figures better.
RTM: Are there any tentative dates for release on the Legends?
JM: So far we are shooting for the first assortment in March, with the second to follow around June and the third for October, all in 2002. These dates could easily change, but that's what we are working towards right now. Each assortment will have four characters, though we haven't finalized the third assortment yet. We'd like to do Ghost Rider and Punisher in the third assortment, but we'll have to wait and see what happens. Also, we want to wait until the first assortment hits stores so we can see what the fans have to say about them and what characters they would like to see, as that might change our line-up.
RTM: What about chase figures, like the yellow Daredevil?
JM: There will one chase figure in each assortment of Marvel Legends. But I think I'd like to make it clear why we have chase figures in these assortments. We aren't doing this to make the figures harder to find, or to keep people from getting them. We're doing them because there are some figures that lend themselves to more than one version, but not more than one version that would sell equally well. Take Daredevil for example. We knew we could go with the red or yellow outfit, and we wanted to try and do both but we didn't feel they would both sell equally. The yellow figure is about 1 in every 400 or so Daredevil figures, and this makes it harder to find but not impossibly so. We wanted to add something for the collector that probably wouldn't sell as well as the red version. For Marvel Legends the first assortment chase figure will be Iron Man and the second assortment one will be the Thing.
RTM: It sounds like you are taking this line very seriously.
JM: Yes we are, because many people are very passionate about these characters and this line. We are striving for nothing less than the absolute best ever versions of these characters as action figures. And I stress action figure, because these aren't going to be statues but are going to have outstanding articulation. We know it's what collectors want, and we plan to deliver it. Most of the figures will have over 30 points of articulation, and we aren't adding articulation just to count points, but to make these the ultimate renditions of the characters. It is a big investment (in terms of cost) for us to add all the articulation, so people need to buy these figures to keep the line going beyond 2002. Everyone is really putting their hearts into these figures to make them the best, and we think collectors will respond.
RTM: What's the scale for these figures, and what characters will be the main focus of the line?
JM: It's going to be a 6" scale, with the Hulk being about 7.25 inches tall. We're going to focus on many characters, but probably not Spider-Man or the X-Men. Spider-man still has the very successful Spider-Man Classics line going, and there will be plenty of Spidey stuff available next year with the Spider-Man movie. The X-Men still have the Evolution line and the second X-Men film will be coming soon as well. It isn't to say we won't cover some of these characters in the future, but for right now they aren't going to be used for Legends.