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From Batman to Vader: How Funko Pop! became your new favorite collectible

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Chewbacca and Buster Bluth. Doctor Who and The Big Lebowski. Joey Tribbiani, Hermione Granger, Bruce Wayne, and…a dancing baby tree.

The world’s largest characters have become the tiniest toys, and they’re making the biggest impact on the pop culture zeitgeist. Funko’s Pop! Vinyl line — a series of TV and film character figures recognizable by their squared-off heads and black eyes — has landed on a short list of must-have collectibles of the modern era, though it was a long road getting there.

“We started off with five characters in the DC Comics line. I brought them to Comic-Con in 2010, and got a horrible response from our diehard bobblehead fans,” the company’s CEO, Brian Mariotti, recalls. “But we were getting all these unique people in our booth — mainly women — that had never been in there before. And I knew at that point we had a hit on our hands.”

Five years later, Funko’s Pop! collection boasts almost 3,000 unique pieces via licenses ranging from Star Wars and Shaun of the Dead to The Breakfast Club and Orphan Black. (Most recently, EW debuted the newest line: all six Friends, plus their pets.) The collection of 3.75 inch figurines stands out in the marketplace thanks to a whimsical uniform style, a fair price point (most retail for around $10), and perhaps most vital, a “something for everyone” approach to its offerings of TV, movie, and video game characters from both massive phenomena and offbeat darlings.

“You have to have the huge Walking Dead or Game of Thrones items that everyone wants, but you also need to do Firefly or Dodgeball. There are fans looking specifically for that and we might be the only company offering something to have on their desk,” says vice president of creative Ben Butcher. “It’s very important that we’re not just going for the big home runs.” Adds Mariotti: “If it doesn’t sell out, that’s okay. If everything was bottom line-generated, our line would be boring and probably wouldn’t be half as successful.”

The company prides itself on employing a variety of fans from across the spectrum, and while some big-deal license negotiations happen in the conference rooms, other ideas are conceived on the floor. “There was a girl here who was a big fan of Supernatural,” recalls Butcher. “She pitched the idea, and [we tried it], and it really took off for us…everyone here is a fan at some level, and that passion drives whatever aspect of this company you’re doing.” 

The resounding success of the Pop! line — 40 million units in four years, leading to expanded lines like Mystery Minis and Marvel Collector Corps — has resulted in licensers now approaching them to get in on the action. “At first we had to call licensers and kind of beg them,” recalls Mariotti of the early days. “Now it’s kind of become a badge of honor to become a Pop!.”

Which is exactly how Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller felt when the company decided to immortalize him for a limited edition Comic-Con figurine. “There’s the initial perverse thrill of the mini-me and then the recollections of the violated action figures of most everyone’s youth,” Fuller says. “My friend Steve would do wonderfully horrible things to his sister’s Barbies. As much as I love the idea of Fannibals creating behind the scenes dioramas with my Pop and the rest of the Hannibal Pops, I love more the idea of them doing wonderfully horrible things with little me.”

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“It was just our way of saying, ‘Hey man, we love what you do,” says Mariotti of creating the rare Pop for a real person versus a character. (During Comic-Con, Funko also released a quartet of Conan O’Brien Pops.) The company is also considering Pops! for fellow creative minds like American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy and Game of Thrones‘ David Bennioff and Dan Weiss, though in limited amount. “We made a very small run [for Fuller]. It will probably end up being one of the rarest Pops of all time.”

Though there’s an even more rare Pop! to be found somewhere within the recesses of Bad Robot. “We’ve done some very secret, no-one-knows type of things,” Mariotti says. “We’ve done a J.J. Abrams Pop! for Kathleen Kennedy — they’re only one-offs, but somebody, somewhere has got a J.J. Abrams Pop!” 

But choosing who gets made into a Pop! is only the beginning. The five-year trial-and-error process of fitting the characters into the uniform Pop! style resulted in the development of an extensive library of exceptions that help tricky characters fit the mold, so to speak. Consider Cookie Monster’s googly eyes, which couldn’t adopt the black-eye style without looking, well, terrifying. “The basic rule is, whatever we need to pull in to make this look like the character, we will,” says Butcher. But once one exception is made, licensers feel that exceptions are then rules, which explains why Butcher feels the challenge of Pop!-ing new characters is only growing as the licenses expand and the characters become more complicated. “The most common pushback is to adjust the eyes or the mouth,” says Butcher, whose team submits, as a rule, just one design per character for the licensers’ approval. “Even if a licenser loves Pop!, they may not know what their comfort zone is of their characters being brought into our world.”

But Funko’s work stands for itself, and it’s helped bring around some high-profile licensers like Friends, Seinfeld, and perhaps the biggest coup of all, the world of Harry Potter. “We were the first company that [Warner Bros.] allowed to do the characters stylized,” gushes Butcher. “They’re a licenser that wanted to do it but were really uncomfortable going stylized, and so we dipped our toe in the water. Once they could hold one of these finished products in their hand, they got really excited, J.K. Rowling got excited, and so now we’re trying to dive in more and do a lot more variants and exclusives that you want to go hunt and find.” (The Potter roll-out will initially include the core seven — Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, Hagrid, and Voldemort — with the second and third phases exploring other creatures and characters in the wizarding world.)

The power of persuasion all goes back to the form. “We’ve established a form that we believe will be around for a decade or two, much like action figures have been since the ‘50s and bobbleheads since the ‘30s,” says Mariotti. Unlike similar variety toy fads like Beanie Babies, Mariotti maintains the key to Pop’s relevance is having no shortage of new content to channel into the potentially enduring template. “There are six Star War movies in 30 years, and suddenly there will be six new ones. There’s just a proliferation of great context in TV, video games, and movies that really is going to keep Pop! relevant for years to come.”

Additional reporting by James Hibberd.

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