|Pop Culture Perfected|
|Written by Karla Klein Albertson|
|Friday, 13 March 2009 20:43|
A graduate of the Parsons School of Design, Robert Tonner, president of the Tonner Doll Co., has a strong fashion background, which is reflected in the elegant doll lines produced by the company. On the other hand, Tonner loves good fantasy fiction and the hit films inspired by these great books. So in the first decade of the 21st century, Tonner has worked directly with Hollywood studios to produce complex lines of licensed character figures tied to popular movies.
Tonner prefers the name âcharacter figureâ to distinguish his firmâs products from the high-end collectibles other companies produce for the hard-core fanboy audience. He says, âTheir name comes from the fact that they are movie or book characters and they are figures. Weâre a little bit on the softer side. We are a doll company. âAction figureâ says something different to me.â As realized by Tonner, the results have been collections of lively heroes and superheroes with incredible fashion sense.
The most extensive and successful line of this type is the Harry Potter series, reproducing characters from the Warner Brothers movies based on popular J.K. Rowling books. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will be released this July, and the last bookâHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsâwill be realized in two final movies. Tonnerâs doll line began with âHarry,â âRonâ and âHermioneâ but has expanded to include additional classmates, professors, animal friends, props and, of course, the major villainââVoldemort.â Head sculpts for the figures take the form of the individual actors who play the rolesâDaniel Radcliffe as Harry, Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort.
âWarner Brothers totally got it with Harry Potter,â says Tonner. âThey like the product. Iâve been adding one or two characters a year now. Theyâre vinyl and hard plastic. You can redress them. They all have rooted hair that can be combed and styled. It's easy because those characters become iconic quickly. Harry Potterâthe glasses, the shaggy hair, the robeâwere iconic almost immediately, and thatâs where a movie really helps.â The most recent addition to the group is the whimsical Hogwarts student âLuna Lovegoodâ in her Ravenclaw robes.
Figures can be purchased wearing alternate outfits, and casual changes of clothing are available for main characters. One variation which proved particularly popular with collectors were Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and âDraco Malfoyâ dressed for the Yule Ball, a scene in the Goblet of Fire movie; the limited-edition figures quickly sold out. Important props like Harry's owl, âHedwig,â and Hermioneâs cat, âCrookshanks,â can be purchased separately.
Commenting on the Potter collection, Robert Tonner remarks, âItâs just a classicâit sells day in and day out. We keep adding charactersâweâll have âBellatrix Lestrangeâ this year, âLucius Malfoyâ and âDumbledore.â I think we have very strong characters coming out for that line.â
Another cluster of character figures reproduces the main actors from Disneyâs Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Keira Knightley as âElizabeth Swannâ can be purchased in court dress, her âAbandoned Brideâ wedding gown, or âHigh Seasâ pirate garb, ready for action. Male characters include âCaptain Jack Sparrowâ and Elizabethâs love âWill Turner.â The most recent addition to the crew is enchantress âTia Dalma.â The elaborate outfits used in these period movies reveal Tonnerâs skill at adapting complex movie fashions to a 17-inch figure.
Other movies for which Tonner has produced figures range from costumers like Dreamgirls and Memoirs of a Geisha to the superhero-based Spiderman 3. Fantasy enthusiasts will find characters from the Narnia books and The Golden Compass.
Tonner crosses closest to fanboyterritory with its line of DC Stars, which includes everyone from comic hero âSupermanâ to the Women of Power series, available only at www.tonnerdirect.com.Â âWonder Womanâ is sold through specialty shops that carry DC comics. Robert Tonner points out, âThatâs whatâs so interesting about taking character figures into this market. There can be a guy who has never bought a âdollâ in his life, but he collects Wonder Womanâthe art, the comic books, the television series. And heâll buy our Wonder Woman figure to go with his collection. Heâs not a doll collector; heâs a Wonder Woman collector!â
Innovation at the company is ongoing. âWe have a weekly meeting here, and part of that is pop culture, where people can bring anything theyâve heard of to the table and weâll look at it,âÂ says Tonner. âI love history books, but I havenât read a history book for a long time because Iâm into reading pop culture books. Iâve read all the Twilight books and Iâm reading a series by Frank Beddor called The Looking Glass Warsâitâs a rethinking of Alice and Wonderland.â
âOne project Iâm really excited about is character figures from Get Smart, which came out last summer,âÂ says Tonner. âAnd the reason is Anne HathawayâIâm the biggest fan. I think sheâs unbelievableâThe Devil Wears Prada, Princess Diariesâso I was dying to do one. I had the head sculpted three times till we got one I thought looks like herâit has the feeling of Anne Hathaway. That doll comes out the first quarter of this year.â Look for Steve Carell as âMaxwell Smartâ as well.
Fan Enthusiasm Propels Twilight Series at Tonner
Like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Meyerâs quartet of booksâTwilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawnâwas originally targeted for the young adult market. The romantic tale that captivated teens proved to be equally popular with their mothers and grandmothers. The theme of forbidden romance âloving that guy with a dangerous biteâis as popular now as it was when Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897. The Twilight books are populated with interesting characters from the supernatural and human realmsâa varied cast of good vampires, evil predators, Native American shapeshifters, and human family and friends.
Long before the first film's release, Robert Tonner had secured a license to produce character figures for the two young lovers at the heart of the story: Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. He said in an interview last August, âI love the stories. To me, they are ageless books. I hope the movie does very well, and I hope we go on and on to make a lot of characters.â
Tonner is delighted his plan has worked out so well: âI loved the movie. I think the crucial part about a license like this and these character figures is likeness rights. If we get the sculpt of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, the likenesses of them, the clothesâas long as they represent whatâs on the screenâare okay. The face absolutely comes first.â
He continued, âWe do it from pictures. Sometimes a scan can be too real. You want a slightly idealized image, where it really looks like the person, but you don't have every little line or imperfection. We sculpt it; then send a picture of the sculpt for the actorsâ approval.â
As always with Tonner dolls, âEdwardâ and âBellaâ are fully articulated for easy posing. Both wear contemporary clothing taken from the film. The 17-inch Edward, for example, wears the stylish grey wool jacket that appears in several scenes and has the fabulous spiked bronze âbedheadâ hair fans long to touch. His body is based on Tonnerâs Matt O'Neill sculpt. The 15-inch Bella in peasant blouse, corduroys and jacket has some clothing interchangeability with the Tyler Wentworth body sculpt. Preorder price for each is $139.99.
Robert Tonner reports that preorders have surpassed expectations, spurred on in part by the movie's strong showing. âUnbelievableâI just came out of a meeting where we upped production numbers yet again,â he says. The importance of fan-based conventions for figures with pop culture connections cannot be overemphasized. Tonner will take the duo on to the big oneâSan Diego Comic Conâduring summer.
With the firmâs strong history of making complete lines of figures, Twilight readers are asking that important question: Who will be next to make an appearance on the Tonner runway? The movie version of New Moon has been scheduled for November 2009, but the president says, âWe still have a lot to cover in this first movieâthe Cullen family and the villains.â When asked about everyoneâs favorite female Cullen, Edwardâs sister Alice, he replies, âDefinitelyâsheâs been sculptured already, so sheâs coming out soon.â
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