As comic-cons become bigger and bigger pop culture events, one things is true: Media members like to complain about things. Nasty publicists, poor access, no Wi-Fi, crappy coffee in the press room. The same is true of the toy sphere, and at this year’s Toy Fair, the toy media felt they got the short end of the pogo stick. It was definitely an odd situation. As big companies rely on fan media to get the word out about their products to the lucrative collector markets, the way they do it is being constantly reinvented.
My own relationship to the toy world is a tenuous one: I’ve been going to the Toy Fair for years (starting back when it was where Eataly is now) and it isn’t a main focus of this site, but I always have an item or two. Before the internet, there was no such thing as the toy media, and the only way to get into showrooms was to finagle some kind of tour with each company — which wasn’t always easy. Over the years, getting into the big companies — Hasbro and Mattel — was sometimes an arduous process, with no “fan days” at all.
As the toy media and hobby segment of the business grew and grew, eventually the “hobby media event” was born. Back in the day Jakks had the most fantastic events — especially for their WWE line. They’d bring in a wrestler — anyone from Mick Foley to Terry Funk — and give away great exclusives. Lego also had fun times — receptions with actual food and people dressed up like Anakin Skywalker.
This year the whole enterprise was weird. Things kicked off with Hasbro on Saturday. Whereas last year there were perhaps 50 or 60 people — all the usual toy site suspects — this time there were more like 150, most of whom were, as far as I could tell, weekend toy bloggers. Everyone was herded into an auditorium for two and a half hours listening to brand managers unveil the Star Wars, Marvel, Transformers, and GI Joe lines. I think the intent was to be informative but in actuality it was…..long. No food or drink was allowed and if, like me, you forgot to eat a hearty lunch beforehand, it became a bit grueling. There were even two in memoriam sections — one for influential toy photographer Gianni Lopergolo, who recently died of ALS and another touching tribute to artist Clément Sauvé who did the lovely character designs for the animated G.I. Joe Renegades. It’s not that these were not fitting, just that…well, it was a long afternoon.
What happened next — a scrum to shoot the toys in the show room — did not please the elite toy media, as Beat pal Paul Nomad reported:
Now we are made to wait in the cold til they are ready for us (a treat that was coupled with snow this year..the kind falling from the sky not still sitting on the ground) and then ushered into another waiting area where somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 “reporters” check their coats. I use douchey air quotes because some of these guys are shooting the show room with a camera phone. This means those of us that came to do serious coverage have to wait while someone slowly focuses, takes a shot, checks it, deems it unworthy, deletes and tries again. They also have no sense of decorum as we all que up waiting for our shot at a busy section like Star Wars..or Transformers..or anything at Hasbro…and these asshats either walk right past you or start in from the other end, whipping out their video phone to do an ultra slow pan of each shelf. Agony.
Now you can call this whining press entitlement, but to be honest, covering the toy beat is hard. How do you write about action figures that just sit on the shelf, anyway? The toy press traditionally comes in and shoots zillions of pictures of toys that they’ll be given media shots of on the way out (in theory). They are all the same toys and most of the shots look the same, but it’s the only thing you have to set yourself apart.
After this long afternoon with no food and just bottles of Hasbro water to keep you going — upon leaving, you were given a Transformers poster. That’s it. Not even a media kit on a CD or thumb drive (which were given out in the past.) “Do you have any media kits on USB drive” I asked the lady as I checked out. “No, we’ll email you a link later on,” said the lady. Of course, there was actually a pile of USB drives sitting on the counter behind her. I’m used to this sort of denial but it does put you in your place — and as a bit of a Sunday toy blogger myself, I really had no right to complain.
However, I did get a bit peeved later on when I got the link and discovered it was to an FTP site that wasn’t even an FTP site — meaning that instead of being able to just download all the images in folders, I would have to sit there and individually download all the giant JPGs for the Thor and Captain America stuff. That was a lot more time than I wanted to invest — seriously, I can see not getting a USB drive, but how much does a CD media kit cost?
The Hasbro people meant well with the event, clearly, but I’m told they realized everyone fell sleep somewhere between Kit Fisto and Miko and afterwards were apologizing and asking how to improve the event.
Toy media ire was raised by two other factors. The main one is that all the toy news was released early to mainstream media sites like USA Today and io9 (I bet they got the thumb drive.) Now that nerd news is mainstream, there’s nothing special to getting covered on Raving Toy Maniac for a Hasbro. Of course, this is how the world works, but when it’s the fan sites that covered all this stuff and got people so excited that eventually USA Today wanted to cover it, it has to be a kick in the bollocks.
The other factor was more surprising. Word quickly spread among the toy corps that earlier in the day it had been “Mommy blogger morning” at Hasbro — the influential women who recommend products for actual children. There were far fewer mommy bloggers, they had the run of the place without being jostled, and –most galling of all – upon leaving, they were given giant bags full of products. Or as Have Sippy Will Travel put it:
Just got back from Day 1 at NY Toy Fair. It is HUGE!!!! I am SHOT, ladies and gentlemen! I have tons of photos, and I also have a Cold Stone Creamery contest for you- but right now I need dinner and a shower! I will either post tonight, or tomorrow when I get back from work.
This is sort of a “Mommy Bloggers Ruined Toy Fair!” type story, but I can see the point of veteran toy sites being peeved by not only being lumped in with total newbs but scooped by people with sippy cups.
The next day, Sunday, started with an even more brutal ordeal, Lego’s 7-9 am press event. Anyone who knows the Beat knows that mornings are our enemy, but Lego does give away cool toys so the alarms were set and we heroically sallied forth at 6:45 am. Oh beautiful mysterious morning world! People we know had to get up at 4:30 to get there. Lego did the right thing and offered coffee, juice and bagels and just kind of let people run around taking pictures. I would have appreciated more demos of the products, but again, I’m a part-timer. Lego spokespeople said the early morning start was because it’s the only time they would be able to give media free run of the showroom. I can’t help but think that it could be done at the end of the day just as well but…well it’s Lego’s call. Legos are really cool and that’s a fact.
After imbibing a ton of coffee in the press room (which was pretty lavish by comics show standards, with comfy chairs and a limited amount of food) we trekked around the show floor until 3 when the Mattel event kicked off. Once again, tons of people scrambling for identical photos of toys. At least they gave you coffee and soda at this one, and afterwards you were allowed to visit the rest of the Mattel showroom to look at things which, to my mind, were more interesting, like the latest Barbies and a baby proof iPhone case that doubled as a teething ring, or some such. The takeaways included some nice toys but no press kit (Although I’m sure you could ask for one–I didn’t try.)
Once again, I’m sure that everyone reading this is rolling their eyes at this as another example of press entitlement, but I definitely understand the frustrations I heard. Getting Hasbro and Mattel to acknowledge the collector market hasn’t always been easy but now they absolutely cater to it with tons of exclusives and chase variants and Comic-Con exclusives (many with bigger runs than stuff you see at the toy store) and so on. It’s a real money-maker for toy companies. And it’s the long-running toy sites that built and nurtured that audience with their coverage, even if that coverage isn’t anything that would win any journalism awards. With the vast influx of interest in all things nerd, everyone with a blogger account — which is everyone — feels entitled to access which perhaps has not been earned.
To get brutally honest about things, it’s also a matter of valuable toy exclusives and the eBay after market. Running any kind of specialty website is not the world’s most lucrative enterprise, and getting something to sell to help defray travel costs isn’t an unreasonable expectation. A bonus, not a right, but I can understand the grumbling on that account, as well.
Anyway, I’m more of an observer on this score than a participant. No one was mean to me, or unprofessional, and I think everyone meant well. My Toy Fair coverage is a bonus, not a matter of life or death. The toy press is not a slick bunch, and it definitely includes some oddballs that I wouldn’t want to deal with as a publicist year after year. But perhaps the people who do it well deserve a little more exclusivity, not less, in a world of intense competition.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.