Pop Culture Firm Funko Has Strong Ties To Coronado - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Home And Business

Pop Culture Firm Funko Has Strong Ties To Coronado

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Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2018 6:32 pm

What, you may ask, is ‘Funko?’

Two weeks ago, I had a similar reaction when an invitation came to attend the Coronado debut of the documentary “Making Fun - The Story of Funko.” It turns out that Funko, is an international pop culture mainstay that produces a wide variety of nostalgia items, most notably ‘Pops,’ which are 3¾-inch tall vinyl figures that are incredibly popular among collectors, who are often referred to as ‘Funatics.’ Pops typically retail for $10, which allows for an easy entry for collectors into the hobby, from a cost perspective. 

To set the cast of characters in our version of the Funko story, they include Funko Founder and current Vice President of Apparel Mike Becker; the Producer-Writer-Director of the Funko documentary David Romero; and Brian Mariotti, CEO of Funko. As an added bonus, Mariotti’s parents Richard and Vicky Mariotti are long-time Coronado residents, as are both Becker and Romero.

Funko started in 1998 when Becker, who was more concerned about playing the bass guitar in a rock band with his brother in his early days, than making pop culture history, hatched an unusual idea, which he explained. “At the time, I was living in Redmond, Washington, the high-tech capital of the world. Microsoft, Nintendo and then Adobe were all headquartered there. I saw what the crowd was doing, and I decided to do the exact opposite; the most low-tech thing I could do. I was going to swap meets and garage sales and I always liked to collect old junk. I decided to bring back bobbleheads. They were made from paper mache, and a lot of them were cracked and broken. I brought back old characters, made them from plastic and they were affordable. I was going to China a lot for my job at the time, so I knew making the molds for the bobbleheads was possible. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something that was basically a hobby and a love and turn it into a dinky company? My goal was to earn exactly half the money from my job at the time, which meant I would make $25,000. That would be a dream come true. That was the goal and that’s how Funko started.”

The Funko version of a bobblehead is called a Wacky Wobbler and the first one issued was the Big Boy from the Bob’s Big Boy and Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurant chains. Becker said of the unusual choice of subjects for his first production item, “It was really weird that I picked that. It was because a small resin chalk Big Boy was selling for $1,000. So, I had a mold created and made several of the bobbleheads. For the same price as a vintage Big Boy figure, I could make a mold. I had been going to licensing shows in New York, and it’s not as hard as everybody thinks to get the rights to create characters.”

Last week I watched Romero’s documentary “Making Fun - The Story of Funko,” and one of the most poignant scenes in the movie shows Becker accidentally coming across Ita Golzman at a trade show. Golzman, who has long-since retired from the King Features Syndicate, but in the late 1990s she licensed the likeness of Betty Boop to Becker for a Wacky Wobbler. “I had known Ita from going to conventions and she was one of those neat, magical people who had a feeling and believed in me and my stupid little dream,” Becker said in his Downtown San Diego Funko office last week. “She said, ‘Whatever you are doing here, it will work out just fine. With Ita it is more about people than the bottom line, the advance, the guarantee or the royalty amount. I thought she had retired years and years ago. I was really surprised to see her sitting there at the King Features booth. She is such a people person and in a lot of ways, that philosophy made me think about how to run Funko. We probably gave away more product in the early years than I sold, just to get people excited.”

Becker grew Funko the best he could, establishing a strong international following for his Wacky Wobblers, but by 2005 he wanted out. “I was 30-40 pounds heavier, I had high blood pressure and I was so over it. The business part can be really ugly. There are people who don’t want to pay their bills. They would receive shipments of thousands and thousands of units and not pay. There are so many things you find out about in business. You can only stay awake so many nights. We had to deal with a longshoreman’s strike, with products tied to the date of a movie release on ships that couldn’t be unloaded. You have employees you trust, who you find out are stealing from you. Crazy stuff happens, and a lot of people don’t survive in business. I thought I could be a kid the rest of my life, have fun, take it easy and make toys, but man it’s tough.”

Enter Brian Mariotti, a long-time friend of Becker. Both men were avid collectors of Pez dispensers, play golf together and each in their own way are crazy aficionados and collectors of pop culture items. Mariotti and a group of investors bought Funko from Becker, who promptly retired for a year.

“I kind of went crazy,” Becker recalled. “I didn’t know how much my sense of purpose was wrapped up in Funko. I had 10 years of design experience and I eventually went to work for Four Seasons Design in San Diego and I worked for them for nine years. They make the T-shirts for our apparel line now. I started three or four little companies, would do a Comic Con and Brian would want to buy it. One company made little tins and one was a papercraft company and one was Flophouse that made game boards and stuff. With all these little companies, I wanted to get back into something like Funko again. After the last go around when Brian bought Flophouse, Brian said, ‘Just come back to Funko.’ But there was no way I was moving back to Seattle. The weather isn’t good for me. Certain people aren’t equipped to live there. When it’s not raining, it’s overcast, and the traffic is terrible.”

Mariotti in the meantime built Funko into a giant company, which now has 500 employees in Funko’s world headquarters building based in Everett, Washington. More importantly, the licensing roster for their 3 ¾ inch Pops is impressive. A partial list includes: Marvel; Disney; DC Comics; Hanna-Barbera; the Walking Dead; Black Panther; Wonder Woman; Ready Player One; Star Wars; Harry Potter; Game of Thrones; Muppets; Masters of the Universe; Lord of the Rings; Star Trek; Power Rangers; Moana; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; NBA; NFL; NHL; WWE; Breaking Bad; Sesame Street; Peanuts; My Little Pony; Dr. Seuss; and South Park. If it was or is culturally relevant, Funko has a Pop for it.

An unexpected element from the interview was Becker releasing a world-wide exclusive news item about a totally new Funko product line. “One of the fun things is we are about to release our own line of cereal, with a mini-Pop inside. We got all the cool licenses like He-Man, Wonder Woman, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, Freddy Krueger and our own Freddy Funko. We start shipping to stores in June and we have the distribution set up and the product is pre-sold. It’s just one more of those feel-good Funko items. I used to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings while I was eating cereal. There are prizes in the cereal and it will sell for $7.99 a box. When you add milk to the Freddie Kruger cereal, it looks blood red. With the Beetle Juice cereal, when you add milk it looks like slime. The idea is to sell the cereal to retailers who carry collectibles. We can’t compete with Kellogg’s at Ralphs. We think people will buy one box to stock and one to rock. They’ll probably open one box and enjoy it and never touch the other one, because it’s a collectible.”

Becker has lived in Coronado for five years and gets to make fun on a daily basis at his office which contains a staff of 12. “During San Diego Comic Con, we have a pop-up store at our office and our neighbors hate us. The line of people circles the block twice. We make a lot of money, but that’s not the goal. We always stake the claim, ‘We are here and here’s what’s new.’ We have a big Fun Day event and that’s a big deal. We squeeze 2,000 people into the Hyatt. The tickets cost $140 now because we have added so much production value. Those tickets are immediately re-sold on eBay for $1,000, because we give out so many cool prizes. My team is in charge of that. David Romer did all of the video and production. We made some funny vignettes and shorts that we showed to the crowd. It’s been a wacky ride to relive all of this again. David and I became good friends because of the work. We were both ’80s guys in ’80s bands with big hair, trying to get a record deal. There are a lot of similarities and we hit it off right away.”

Romero is a native San Diegan, graduate of St. Augustine High and San Diego State University, where he majored in English. Basically, it was his job to take the history that has been described above, mix in the Pops, the fun, interviews with collectors and celebrities, and create a coherent documentary.

Romero, who wrote and performed two songs that appeared in the movie said, “Story telling has always lurked in my blood.” He went on to describe the making of the Funko documentary. “I met Mike Becker through mutual friends in Coronado. One of the first things I discovered was how much Mike loved documentaries. I had known him as the ‘Bobblehead Guy’ and I didn’t really know Funko that well. Mike said, ‘There is more of a story here than just the toys. It’s more about the fans and a happening that was going on.’ When I first talked to Brian Mariotti about the idea of the documentary, my original concept was to tell him, hey if you ever consider a documentary about the Funko Fandom, let’s talk about it. That was the day before the 2016 San Diego Comicon and Brian said, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’ We shook hands and it was a go. We started the next day and we’ve been at it since. I put a crew together and we just went for it. Funko is one of the biggest attractions at Comicon. And Fun Day itself is an experience. That year they had Marvel’s 50th Anniversary of Captain America. It all happened within a four-day period. Later we did interviews in New York, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. No matter where we were, people were connecting to Funko in the same way.”

One of the many celebrity interviews in Romero’s documentary was with Peterson, as Elvira Mistress of the Dark and Becker is a big fan. “She is really approachable. We did the interview at Knotts Berry Farm, between shows. She wears about 50 pounds of costumes and wigs and Cassandra is kind of a geek, like us. I got to go with David on some of the interviews and do the ‘fly on the wall’ thing as a fan.”

“Making Fun - The Story of Funko” premiered at the TCL (The Creative Life, a Chinese electronics manufacturer) Chinese Theatre in Los Angles, January 22, 2018. Romero said, “We filmed interviews for a year and a half and there are 60 in the documentary. The premiere was surreal because we were working in a vacuum for so long, you don’t know if you will have anything that will resonate. It’s not every day you have a get-together for a documentary. It was fun to see the fans react, to see the people from Funko telling their story and to have it resonate with them. It was a special night.”

Then there was a showing of “Making Fun - The Funko Story” at Coronado’s Village Theatre February 26, 2018, complete with appearances from Peterson and Sam J. Jones, better known as Flash Gordon in the 1980 film and for his more recent appearance in “Ted,” with Mark Wahlberg. All three screening rooms in the Village Theatre were full to capacity. Romero said of the Coronado showing, “It was fun and a way for Funko and my small film company to present the movie to Coronado, to our local friends and family what we have been working on for a couple of years. To have Cassandra and Sam join us in our little theater was great.” Becker added, “Everybody in town was there. All the people, David’s family and Brian Mariotti came in for it. Since Brian’s parents live in Coronado, that was neat. There was no reason to have the event other than to just share the movie with family and friends, the people we hang out with in Coronado.” Romero added, “Friends were saying, ‘So this is what you have been doing for the past two years.’ It was a fun night.”

Romero has a fourth and final version of “Making Fun” in the works, which includes an interview with 85-year-old Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek television series from 1966-69. Becker said, “Nichelle had a cool connection with a local Funatic who identifies with her. It’s not just about the fans connecting to the figure, but how Nichols, or Flash or Elvira interact with the fans as well.” Romero said the final edit will be, “Completed in just days.” He is working on another project about Soapbox Derby racing in America, where he follows a team from Logan Heights and documents their success. KPBS in San Diego has picked that documentary up for air.

Since Romero has a firsthand perspective about the first 20-years of Funko, we’ll let him provide the final word on what makes the company, and his documentary work. “One of the things you learn from this movie is Funko is based on friendships. The movie is heavily rooted in the friendship Mike Becker and Brian Mariotti have had all these years. Brian took the baton from Mike and took Funko to whole new levels. Plus, the movie is about the Funatics, who travel to the Comic Cons in San Diego, New York or Seattle. That becomes their vacation time and they meet up with friends and that becomes their social circle, which is world-wide.” And that perhaps is the ultimate description of what puts the ‘fun’ from Funko.

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