Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Caliber pt. 10- Busy, Busy, Busy

I have to admit that the three years I was with McFarlane Toys is a bit of a blur when I look back. It was an incredibly hectic time. I was Executive VP at McFarlane and handled much of the advertising, TV ads, a lot of the office, and many other duties. The response to the toy line was unbelievable and exploded at a level that was not only unexpected but pretty much unimaginable. The toy line completely revolutionized the entire action figure market.

At the same time, I still had my comic shops, my wife and I had our third child at the beginning and our fourth at the end of my time with McFarlane Toys. And of course, I still had Caliber and Stabur. With Stabur, it involved a number of trips to New York and with Caliber and McFarlane, there were a lot of Hollywood discussion ongoing so that meant quite a few trips to Los Angeles and those often tied in with a trip to Todd’s office in Arizona. There was a lot of traveling and an ungodly number of meetings. During that time, Caliber had a number of opportunities with studios, particularly Fox, but they never were signed for a variety of different reasons.

It was becoming obvious that I couldn’t handle all the duties effectively in all of these different areas. Of course, at McFarlane Toys, I had a personal assistant and a staff and for the comic shops, I had some great managers, but it was Caliber that I had to deal with mainly. At the time, Caliber consisted of me and Nate Pride who handled much of the production aspects. Not too many people realized just how small of an operation Caliber was…it was mainly me and various production people such as Mark Winfrey, Guy Davis, and then Nate who would remain with Caliber for a long time. I remember one month, the two of us put out around 20 issues although it was usually less than that. When I think back on it, that’s pretty amazing since there weren’t the computer options that we have nowadays. I don’t even know if Adobe or Corel even existed then.

I needed to hire an editor…someone that would take many of the duties. It would have to be someone with the right sensibilities that understood independent comics. I was also evaluating on how many people I would need to hire, maybe one editor wouldn’t be enough. A lot depended on how much Caliber would expand. I didn’t even consider anyone with experience from the Marvel/DC set up as independent comics were a different beast. I had one previous editor on staff before and that was Kevin VanHook and even though he was only around for about a year, it was a great relationship and I learned from him and he really helped to alleviate the burden.

I’m sure I talked to Rafael Nieves at the time as he was working with the new Comico and he and I had become good friends. He probably didn’t want to uproot from Chicago and make the move. I do remember flying in Steve Jones who at the time had done a lot of work with Malibu. His wife accompanied him and they stayed for a few days and the plan was to bring him in for Caliber and his wife would work for McFarlane as she had experience with accounting which we always needed. Also, at one of the Chicago conventions, I had a lunch meeting with Brian Azzarello for the position. Brian was just getting out of working for Comico. Again, however, it was a major step for people to think about uprooting their lives to move to the offices in the Detroit area. Working offsite was not an option at that time.

I had talked with Joe Pruett who was doing a tremendous job on Negative Burn. Joe and I had hit it off pretty well and I discussed the idea with him. But he had a great job as did his wife and things were going perfectly for him at the time. He suggested that I talk with his twin brother, Jim who was single and not on the career path that he wanted. Now, I could be wrong on how all this actually played out as far as the order went, but I’m pretty sure it went that way.

So, after talking with Jim who I must have met before….but you know how it is with twins…I talked with a Pruett here and there at conventions but I don’t remember which was which…I decided to bring Jim into the Caliber fold. Jim was exactly what I needed and it would prove for years to be one of the best decisions I made. He was an invaluable part of Caliber for the remaining years that the company existed.

Caliber branched out into many different areas at this time. With Ken Holewczynski, we put out a music magazine, Arc, that had expanded distribution. It was at this time that we began producing comics for Wal-Mart, and we had a line of comics that came out on a fairly consistent basis. Negative Burn was a monthly anthology and would eventually hit 50 issues; the relaunch of Deadworld and Realm both hit over a dozen issues; Kilroy is Here started up and would eventually run some 15 issues, Brian Bendis was doing his AKA Goldfish and Jinx; Mark Rickets did his Nowheresville series (which I absolutely loved); Sinergy was launched with the 22 levels of Hell each drawn by a different artist; an adaptation of Nosferatu was released; David Mack moved from Young Dracula to Kabuki, Renfield came out; and we released the Big Bang line of comics. One of our more successful series was OZ and we would eventually end up releasing some 30 issues of that. There were a number of other one shots and limited series as well.

At this time, I wanted to also expand the presence of Caliber and so there was a renewed emphasis on promoting the company with the Caliber Rounds monthly newsletter/preview (which sometimes ran 16 pages) and we began a program of mailing directly to over 1,000 key retailers. Caliber also attended as many trade shows as possible and provided more of a presence at conventions. Caliber had done the usual conventions but now it was going to be expanded considerably. We had done Detroit and Chicago as they were nearby and of course, San Diego a few time but now wanted to do it big time.

The next couple of convention seasons were hectic as we were hitting many of the major shows…Dallas, New York, Charlotte, Atlanta, Columbus, Toronto, etc. besides Detroit, Chicago, and San Diego. Some of the set ups were quite large and at Chicago one year, I think we took over 18 (? Not sure, but it was a lot) booths and set up an actual store on the floor with bookshelves, t-shirt racks, comic racks, etc. Around the perimeter, we had some 20 creators in little alcoves doing signings. The thing I remember most is that we didn’t get out of there until early the next morning.

Another area we expanded to was the Power Cardz, a card game similar to the incredibly popular Magic Cards of the time but this featured superheroes. We created many heroes and also utilized many of the various creators’ characters that were published through Caliber. This was in association with Sky Comics, the company run by Blue Line Pro’s Bob Hickey. Joe Martin had worked with Bob for years and was the liaison between the companies before Caliber hired him full time and moved him up to the offices.

Caliber was developing more of an identity and having long running series such as the new Deadworld and Realm, Negative Burn, OZ, etc. gave us a more stable line. The Tome Press line continued to do well and though many comic shops didn’t support this type of material, the titles revolving around H.P. Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes did quite well in the comics market and outsold many of the creator owned titles.

Things were going pretty well. My stores were holding up well, Caliber was expanding, and of course, the toy company was growing at a phenomenal rate. We created property portfolios for Hollywood and were in discussions with a lot of people and it seemed that soon, something would develop in that area.

But as they say, all good things can’t last forever, but fortunately, things got better before they got worse.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Caliber pt. 9- Playing with Toys

By the fourth year of Caliber, we were considered by many a proven company.  We had launched with both critical picks and commercial hits---but often, one title was not both---and had built up a good following and outside of some scheduling problems (an accompaniment to creator owned comics), had provided a reliable product.   But a huge change, one that was totally unpredicted was about to occur.

In 1993, Caliber merged with Stabur Publishing.  Stabur was owned by Paul Burke who lived in the same area as I did and who I first met at conventions.  We became friends and discussed business often.  Stabur at that time was releasing the Stan Lee How to Videos which had Stan interviewing many of the top creators in comics.  Paul was also the force behind a series of cartoonist prints by the greats in the industry, and was also doing a series of Glamour prints.  It was Paul who connected me with Rocky Horror for our comic adaptation.

Paul was expanding into a lot of different areas.  He opened the idea of bringing our two companies together and combined, we could have the synergistic ability to do more.  It was quickly set up as both of us agreed and the two companies merged together with the notion that for the most part, things at Caliber would continue as before but with hopefully, more opportunities.

Things exploded on the Stabur end initially.  We ended up in discussions with some major players in developing product.  There were a number of meetings with Disney, Penthouse Magazine, the Miss America pageant, Romantic Times (magazine about romance novels), and many more.  We would be launching a series of books based within Disney and on the other side; we would be doing a special 25th anniversary on Penthouse Magazine.  One of the jobs we had would be to go to New York into the files of Penthouse and sort through all the photos of the Pets to choose the shots we wanted to include.  It was amazing to see the effects of air-brushing and breast implants on the newer years compared to the earlier years.

While all this was going on, Paul received a call from Todd McFarlane.  Todd had met Paul during the shooting of the Stan Lee videos and Paul had produced some specialized and limited jewelry for the Spawn line (rings, pendants, etc).  Todd knew Paul was involved in lots of different things and wanted to discuss the idea of toys with Paul.  At this time, Todd was receiving offers from the major toy companies to do toys based on Spawn.  Todd was hesitant, first off on what changes they might want to make to a “devil spawned” figure and also of the quality that existed in toys at the time.  He and Paul talked with essentially the discussion boiling down to if Todd wanted to have great toys, he would have to do it himself.  And of course, Paul could make that happen.

So, Todd and Paul had decided to co-own a company to make Spawn toys.  At the Michigan office where Stabur/Caliber was at (it was actually the Stabur/Caliber offices and Todd was in Arizona), we sat down to discuss the formation of the new company.  It was Paul, I, and Bill Martin who was formerly a manager for a major printing press company in Detroit.  Bill’s expertise was in production.  As we discussed how to make a toy company, we realized that although none of us really had much of an idea on how to do it, we knew we could figure it out.  One of the key occurrences was that one of the graphic designers we used had a brother that was a toy designer in New Jersey.  We contacted them and thus, AEB (Ed Frank and Tony Bilotto) were brought in to design the toys.

It was at this stage that things moved the Spawn toys into the direction that would make them unique.  The edict from Todd was that he wanted cool toys- that’s what mattered the most.  Cost and even sales were not important.  If only a handful of toys would end up being produced, well, at least they would be cool.  The designers were given the okay to go all out and design the ultimate toys and not worry too much about cost or what was the “norm.”  As Ed and Tony designed the toys, Todd would look at the pictures and prototypes and suggest changes.  Some were minor, some major but again, the thought was to just make them cool and whatever happened after that didn’t matter as much.

On the management side (in Michigan), we had to develop all of the other considerations.  We had to structure the company, handle all the financing and logistics, and figure a way to make it all work.  Paul handled almost all the financial part, Bill dealt with the production aspects such as finding manufacturers in China and tooling companies and I sort of structured the office. I hired a lot of people the first couple of years and I almost always hired people on what they could do rather than what they’ve done in the past.  I felt that intelligent people with the ability to see things in different ways was more important than their educational degree.  Don’t get me wrong, I value education as extremely important, but sometimes intelligence and degrees don’t coincide. I also dealt a lot with PR and promotions, including buying TV spots which was something totally foreign to me.  But almost everything we did at the beginning was by informal committees but as the company grew, we had to start specializing in certain areas.

 As I had a background in comics and also as a comics retailer (in fact, while all of this was going on, I was still publishing Caliber, had taken over Stabur as President, and still had my comic shops) that the collector’s market was huge.  People would pay more for quality and you could turn toys into collector items, not just based on nostalgia, which was the collectors’ market for toys at that time, but also on supply and demand.  Of course, the others saw this as well, it wasn’t just my idea.  I did push strongly for a collectors club and that proved to be a very successful part of the toy line for years to come.

We ended up hiring a sales manager and we got a guy that knew the corporate world but also could fit into the collectors’ world.  The launch at Toy Fair was a simple affair, mostly just pictures but the reaction was amazing.  As we started talking to the major chains such as Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, and others, we also offered specialized variants which for the most part, toys didn’t do at that time.

I think one of the key things that launched the company to such heights was the Malebolgia figure.  It was heavy…almost too heavy to hang on the stores’ shelves.  If I remember right, we made very little money on the Malebolgia figure (maybe even cost us money to make).  We decided to pack one Malebolgia figure to each case and so that was the “chase” figure.  You wanted a Malebolgia, buy a case.  We later found out that at Christmas time, a lot of the part time employees, hired for the season, would rifle through all the cases and pull out the Malebolgia figure and so they never even made the shelves.

The launch was incredible and we went from a startup company to a company that had revenues over 10 million dollars in the first full year and the company would grow almost exponentially from there.  It was a whirlwind of growth in all aspects.  When we started, it was essentially three guys in Michigan and Todd in Arizona.  After the first year, we had new offices, a warehouse, and offices in AZ,  NJ, and China.  I think we hit around 40 people on the payroll.

When I look back on the time at the toy company, which was about three years, I think I played a key role.  In the early days, we sat around and figured out what we could and everyone contributed to the overall success.  It wasn’t a case of stumbling around in the dark, we lined up what we had to do and figured out how to do it. The only time we ever really made mistakes were when we came down to the traditional methods of “doing things” and that wasn’t too often.  So, I was a key member but I certainly wasn’t indispensible.  I realize it would’ve happened if I wasn’t there but I can feel I was part of it.  But making toys was not something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing but I enjoyed it for the time I was involved.

Of course, while all of this was going on with the toy company, Caliber was still moving along and I’ll come back to that next time.

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