At Comic-Con 2018, Funko reigns as unofficial king of pop culture
The 3.75-inch vinyl figures cast a large shadow over San Diego's massive geekfest.
Roger ChengFormer Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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At a place like San Diego Comic-Con, where Deadpool and Wonder Woman are regulars on the show floor, Robert Williams still manages to catch your eye thanks to a shiny, adorable little chrome Thanos strapped to the lid of his baseball cap.
He isn't paying tribute to the ultimate Avengers villain. No, he's hoping to entice someone standing in line at the Funko booth to nab a few exclusive Pop figures for him in a potential trade. His Moby Dick: Pop figure versions of four characters from The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, a beloved show from his childhood.
"I figured I needed to have him obvious," he says, pointing up to his cap. "So I bought a cap and drilled some holes in it, chucked electrical wire to hold him place, and now I have Thanos on my head."
Williams, a 46-year-old comic book store owner from Australia, wasn't one of the lucky few to have won a ticket to purchase a Pop. That's right, you can't even line up to buy a Funko product from the booth -- you needed to have entered a lottery system put on by Comic-Con weeks in advance. Those not chosen to earn the right can console themselves with the countless booths on the show floor hawking older Pop figures, often at a dramatic markup.
Watch this: Why Funko Pop rules over Comic-Con 2018
Funko, whose products are traditionally among the most elusive and coveted at Comic-Con, may be the ultimate expression of our society's ever-increasing obsession with pop culture. Its rise, perpetuated by the ceaseless licensing of virtually every genre film, show, video game, athletes, anime or whatever, has coincided with the mainstream embrace of once-geek topics like The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dragonball Z.
And nowadays, it's not enough to simply be fan of something. You wear your geek flag loud and proud, even if that flag is a 3.75-inch vinyl figure.
Ultimately, Funko's success lies in its ubiquity. You can get the figures virtually anywhere, from Walmart to Target and Hot Topic.
In total, Funko has licenses with 454 properties -- including figures of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the presidential election. With a starting retail price of $10, they appeal to everyone from casual fans of Tommy Boy to hardcore collectors searching for that elusive red-haired Funko Freddy variant of cosmic bounty hunter Boba Fett.
"The fact that it's value-priced means it's a guiltless way to feed a guilty pleasure," said Stephanie Wissink, an analyst at Jefferies who covers Funko.
Funko's attention to all facets of fandom helped the company ring up $137.2 million in sales in the first quarter, up nearly 39 percent from a year earlier. It also swung to a profit of $2.2 million, reversing a loss of $5.6 million a year ago and proving there's big money to be made in these tiny figures.
But CEO Brian Mariotti doesn't see Pop figures as a one-off toy, but rather a vehicle for all pop culture.
"If you have new content to put on that platform, then you're never going to run out of ideas to keep it fresh," he said in an interview at Comic-Con.
To Williams, the finances don't matter. He just wants those Banana Splits.
Funko's bobblehead beginnings
Funko was the brainchild of Mike Becker, who started the company in 1998 to bring back kitschy, nostalgic brands in toy form. His company's first product was a "Wacky Wobbler" bobblehead of iconic burger chain icon Bob's Big Boy.
But Becker's enthusiasm for running a business waned, and in 2005, he sold Funko to Mariotti and a group of small investors.
It was Mariotti who introduced what would be Funko's marquee product, the Pop figure (at the time, the line was called Funko Force 2.0) in 2010. The line's debut, which included a blue Batman, metallic blue Batman, metallic Black Batgirl and glow-in-the-dark Green Lantern, happened at -- where else? -- San Diego Comic-Con.
"It was a little dangerous to the old-school collector," Funko President Andrew Perlmutter said in an interview at the show. "They were caught off-guard."
Hardcore fans upset by a change to the status quo? Shocker.
With their oversized heads, beady eyes and tiny bodies, the cartoonish Pop figurines hit home with a wider audience. Mariotti took Funko's three early big licenses -- DC, Marvel and Star Wars -- and parlayed them to create a vast pop culture empire with tendrils in virtually all areas of fandom.
"Funko could have never ever gone to where it has gone today without Brian Mariotti," Becker said in the company's official documentary, Making Fun: The Story of Funko. "He took Funko in directions and with vision that I really didn't have."
Funko at Comic-Con
How big is Funko at Comic-Con? Despite its modest booth, the company casts a large shadow over the convention.
"After Lego I thought, what's like the next thing that fans love just as much as Lego and it's Funko Pops," Eckstein said.
Then there's Funko Fundays, an annual party held as a love letter to its Funko Fanatics community. Each Fundays is different, and for its 20th anniversary, the company opted to go with a prom theme thick with '80s nostalgia, with giant screens airing clips of Welch's juice commercials and the intro to Magnum P.I. Becker served as the vice principal, while Marrioti was the superintendent.
Held in the Manchester Grand Hyatt's Seaport Ballroom, Fundays featured Marrioti, Becker and a host of special guests like Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and former Black Power Ranger Walter Jones entertaining the crowds. The show included the kind of novelty acts you'd find on America's Got Talent mixed with silly party games for prizes.
Brandon Carmedy, 38, and his girlfriend roared with joy as Marriotti announced that the crowd would be getting free Funko items like a Funko-themed Pez dispenser or Pop figures of Scoops Ahoy Steve and Robin from the upcoming season of Stranger Things (Maya Hawke, who plays Robin, came out to announce the giveaway).
Carmedy, who founded the Deaf Funko Facebook group and has attended a total of three Fundays, was left impressed again. "This year was definitely the best," he said.
Permission to be geeky
Funko President Andrew Perlmutter was sitting on the couch with his wife when she suggested his company make figures out of the Golden Girls. The next day, he brought it up to his team members and they thought it was a terrible idea.
"Hear me out," he said. Funko is a company that entertains all ideas, no matter where they came from. In the end, The Golden Girls figures were a hit, and Funko even showed off a skateboard emblazoned with the characters from the show.
Another example of a niche that no one else thought about pursuing: figures based on the late artist Bob Ross. Marrioti said Funko sold half a million Ross figures. Perlmutter said his dream license is Nintendo, and he envisions a series of figures from Mike Tyson's Punch Out.
That willingness to go after different areas has fueled the growth of its community -- particularly online, where people can connect through their common love of a show or movie. Wissink, for instance, finds out what a new employee is into and gives them out as gifts.
"It does spark conversation," Wissink said. "There's a level of intimacy created when you give it to someone."
Even if you're not comfortable cosplaying as your favorite Overwatch character, a Pop figure offers you a subtle way to show off your fandom. After all, how could you muster any animosity for a tiny Bob Ross or Deadpool?
Funko Fundays is like Woodstock for pop culture geeks
"It catches your eye, the way they did it, " said Victor Vega, co-owner of Cali Collectibles, a store in Alhambra, California, that's completely devoted to all things Funko.
How does a store survive on just selling Funko products? Customers will spend $200 to $300 -- per visit, Vega said.
Someone spending several hundred dollars on Pop figures -- or even a single figure -- isn't unheard of. While Pop figures are a casual expression of fandom for some, others take it far more seriously.
Variants of normal products, known as "Chase" figures, to exclusives found at conventions like Comic-Con can fetch dramatically more in the secondary market. That Boba Fett variant I referenced earlier? It can sell for more than $3,100, according to the Pop Price Guide. There are YouTube channels and shows devoted to breaking down the most valuable Pops.
Among the rarest are figures made in the likeness of Conan O'Brien, who hosts his talk show in San Diego for Comic-Con every year. Vitaliy Kosanovskiy, a 25-year-old IT professional based in Seattle, found out up close just how valuable these figures can be.
Kosanovskiy attended a taping at SDCC last year and walked away with a Flash variant of the comedian, complete with autograph. He was hustling back to catch up with his friends when a male voice from a dark alley bellowed at him, asking for the figure. When the man asked him how much he wanted for it, Kosanovskiy laughed and asked for $450.
"The next thing I know, the back alley seller pulls out a stack of cash and begins counting $100 bills," Kosanovskiy said. "I kind of freaked for a bit and was thrown off by the response."
This focus on supplying exclusives through conventions and retail partners generates buzz, but it also has the side effect of attracting collectors largely interested in flipping the figures for a profit. That risks crowding out actual fans and even retailers who actually care about the products.
"What's stressful is just trying to keep up," said Saul Vega, Victor's brother and the other owner of Cali Collectibles. "There's so much announced."
Vega admits that if doesn't get an inventory of exclusives, which often go to bigger stores, his business suffers. Still, he said he appreciates the phenomenon that Funko has created.
Mariotti defended the tactic of using exclusives as an important way to differentiate what it sells to its larger retail partners. Still a collector of Pez dispensers and mint '80s He-Man action figures, he understands the need for a Holy Grail to pursue.
"The idea of chasing things you love based on fandom is really, really important," he said.
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Funko will "retire" products and often introduce a limited run if it thinks a product has a niche audience. But Mariotti said the crazy secondary market is a byproduct of trying to be judicious about how many products it makes.
Vega's advice to Pop buyers looking to build their collection: "Don't buy because you think it will go up in value," he said. "Buy it because it calls to you."
Is this all a fad?
The fun and games were in short supply following Funko's terrible debut as a public company late last year. The stock decline raised the broader question of whether these Pop figures were just the latest fad.
Your love for Star Wars and Star Trek may be undying, but how you express that fandom can radically change over time.
Funko also runs the risk of overcommitting to properties that end up sinking in the box office, or face fan backlash. In the waning days of the Toys 'R' Us' bankruptcy sale, unsold Pop figures of characters from the reviled EA video game Mass Effect: Andromeda collected dust on a shelf tucked away in a far corner.
Perlmutter said it happens from time to time, but the company keep its initial orders low to stay conservative.
Marrioti, meanwhile, said that Funko isn't a company that makes toys held hostage to trends and the whims of children. His business is fueled by pop culture, and there is no shortage, as evidenced by the crowds and experiences at Comic-Con.
"I will tell you Pop will be around for 50 more years, long after I'm dead in the ground," Marrioti said.
Williams ended up getting not just one, but two sets of Banana Splits characters.
For such flashy headgear, he had a decidedly low-key response: "Yay," he said via a text message.