While the possibility exists that some of the final pieces already in development may see the light of day in some way or other, the fact is that DC Universe Classics (aka DCSH/DC Unlimited /Club Infinite Earths/DC Signature Series) has come to a close. Its final incarnation, as an online subscription, met its end this week when Mattel failed to garner enough preorders to move forward for 2014.
So what happened? How did a 6-year-old toy line — arguably the definitive DC action figure line to date — meet a Crisis-like end?
First, let’s take a few things off the table. There are some common gripes about the line that many people have offered as the reasons for its demise. I don’t really buy most of them. Here’s why.
Mattel didn’t promote it enough!
While it’s true this line never had a real marketing budget, brand manager Scott Neitlich certainly did as much free marketing for it as he did for the Masters of the Universe Club Eternia subscription, even going so far as to reach out to fan sites and podcasts offering to do phone interviews while he was out of town on vacation. While there were a number of fan-made video and viral promotions for the MOTUC sub that may have given it a higher profile than DC, you can’t fault Mattel for those. Would a marketing budget have helped? Probably. But it also would have pushed up the price of the figures, so who knows what the final return on investment would have been. In the end, though, all the subscription needed was for the people who subscribed last year to subscribe again. So in that sense, marketing shouldn’t really have been a factor.
The shipping costs are excessive. The site isn’t as user friendly as it ought to be. Customer service is poor. These criticisms of Mattel’s online fulfillment partner all have valid roots; however, one has to admit that most of these issues saw improvement over the last two years. Day-of-sale ordering is much smoother, accessing/updating account information is easier, and the customer service department is more informed about the products. Also, quarterly shipping was offered as an option to mitigate the shipping costs. And while there still might be room for improvement, the MOTUC subscription, which uses the same system, achieved its preorder goal. So if these things didn’t keep people from ordering MOTUC, why would it affect DC any differently?
Mattel is greedy—they’re gouging us on the price
This is doubtful. At $20 each, the figures were priced right in line with lower MOQ, direct-sale type figures such as DC Collectibles (which, notably doesn’t have to recoup a licensor cost), NECA, and Mezco, all of whose standard 6-inch to 7-inch figures retail for between $18-$22. Of course, when you factor in shipping, the total cost goes up, but that would also be the case if you were ordering, say, NECA or Mezco toys online. And, again, quarterly shipping was offered this time out, which offered a savings of up to $70 depending on your location.
The figures don’t offer enough value
For all the criticisms that the subscription figures featured too few accessories and limited new tooling, they were actually right about the same in these departments as their retail antecedents were. This was a line built from the beginning on part reuse, and accessories had always been fairly rare. Even so, subscription figures did boast appropriate accessories in many instances (Mirror Master, Black Mask, and the colored Lanterns come to mind). The DC figures often faced comparison to MOTUC in terms of “plus-ups” like weapons and alternate heads. But MOTUC figures are priced 20 percent higher than DC figures. Had Mattel priced the DC figures at $25, perhaps they could have added more value, but they would have also faced the wrath brought on by a steep price increase. Something of a rock and a hard place.
The character selection was all wrong
This has to be the most prolific argument made against the DC line. If only they had made so-and-so, the line would be saved! But truly, over the lifetime of the subscription’s existence, including the revealed figures for 2014, the lineups reflect exactly what Mattel promised from the get-go: The most demanded characters and team-completers, along with fan favorites that would never fly at retail. Look through the Fwoosh DC Top Ten polls (and polls from other fan boards) going back three years, and you’ll see that Mattel consistently knocked out all the highest rated characters they could, while staying within production budgets. So while they weren’t able to offer Granny Goodness at a $20 price point, we still got Elongated Man, Wally West, Jay Garrick, Lead, etc. As long as the subscription was going to pull from all corners of the DC Universe, there’s no way that they could deliver a lineup where every collector would agree on every choice. But I’ll be darned if they didn’t do the best they could in trying to appeal to as many fans as possible. They also kept their promises that they would stay away from NU52 designs, simple repaints of existing characters, and endless variants of Superman and Batman.
People rebelled against the subscription model, on principle
There was some anecdotal evidence of people not re-upping because they felt the subscription model itself was unfair or unjust. But with the subscription missing by nearly 40 percent, it’s doubtful that this was the primary driver of its fall. As to whether the subscription model makes sense — it’s really no different from how toys are sold at retail, or anywhere else. That is to say — preorders. What a lot of folks don’t realize is, even the toys that we find at retail had to garner a certain level of preorders before they went into production. The only difference is, those orders were placed by retailers instead of the customer directly. The way I saw it, the sub model actually showed the fans more respect; it was we who got to say, with our dollars, whether we thought a toy was worth being made, instead of a comic-ignorant suit from a big box like Wal-Mart. But if people felt resentment at having to pledge their money prior to Mattel turning on the machines, they can take heart and know that Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Target, et al are in the same boat.
They didn’t show enough of the product up front
This is a valid concern, as far as it goes. But what was Mattel’s alternative? To have 12 “final approved” prototypes to reveal at the opening of the preorder window, Mattel would have had to take a year off from offering the subscription at all. Not to mention having to lay out a not insignificant amount of further development cost on pure spec. In hindsight, maybe that was the better way to go. On the other hand, taking a year off from the line could have cost it valuable marketing momentum. Also, there is no guarantee that showing all 12 figures would actually increase the number of sales. By confirming the entire lineup in advance, Mattel would run the risk of losing buyers who might not be interested in any of the characters shown. Which leads to…
So why did it actually fail?
Neitlich always said that for the subscription to succeed, they needed the completists on board. And that’s where the problem lies. As unbelievable as it may sound, there simply may not be that many “DC fans.” Sounds crazy, but think about it. There are many Batman fans, Superman fans, Green Lantern fans, Legion of Superheroes fans, and on and on (and, of course, combinations thereof). But there just aren’t a lot of collectors out there who are equally interested in every area of the DC Universe.
The evidence of this has been visible for a while to anybody paying attention. At one point, Mattel offered online exclusive 2-packs. Each one drew on a different area of the DCU. And even the most popular one (the Color of Fear set featuring two Sinestro Corps members) sold well below Mattel’s minimum target. At retail, there is evidence of sales declining as far back as wave 14, where Wal-Mart was stuck with a large amount of unsold, exclusive figures, and wave 16’s Robin, Riddler, and Azrael were cleared out almost instantly while highly fan-demanded, niche characters like Mercury and Creeper clogged pegs for many months.
There are maybe 25-50 characters with enough broad appeal that the disparate DC fan bases generally agree on them as “collection essentials.” But after six years, nearly all of those characters had been produced. That left people interested only in completing their niche favorites, and unwilling to commit to 12 figures in the hopes of getting 2-3 in that niche, at most. Thus, Mattel had a problem: any one of those niche fan bases is too small to support a subscription of its own (with the possible exception of Batman, I suppose). The only hope was to combine all those fan bases and somehow convince them to be all-in for whichever figures came. In the end, it couldn’t be done. Batzarro may seem like a terrible choice to anyone but the most devoted Batman fan. Only it just so happens that the devoted Batman fans outnumber every other brand of DC fan. In appealing to that must-have demographic, Mattel turned away others. The Legion fan dying for just a few more 24th century females wasn’t willing to commit to buying ten figures pulled from the JSA, the Freedom Fighters, and the Morrison JLA. The Green Lantern fan may really want that Indigo-1 and Arisia, but damned if they’re going to pony up for Black Mask, Phantom Stranger, and Superboy to get there. And you know what? You can’t really blame them.
I’ve seen a lot of talk about using a poll to determine the character selection from a pool of characters that Mattel would propose, but that doesn’t solve the problem. First, there is no “pool” of characters that would satisfy enough people to begin with. That’s the problem now. And even if there were, I think it’s extremely likely that no poll would result in winners that had anything more plurality support. So again, that would do nothing to fix the problem at hand, which is getting people to buy characters they aren’t interested in, for the hope of getting a few they want.
Digital River, shipping costs, Mattel, price, the subscription model…none of these factors can explain the failure of the 2014 subscription because they’re all issues that faced the 2013 DC sub and the MOTUC 2014 sub, both of which went through in spite of them. Several of these factors have even improved since last year.
It really comes down to the fact that there simply aren’t enough collectors interested in building a DC action figure collection that covers ALL corners of the DC Universe. While at the same time, each little corner of that Universe is far too limited to support a toy line by itself. How can Mattel solve that paradox? I wish I had the answer.