Macaluso, Jerry (SOTA Toys)
Ever since McFarlane Toys started making the Movie Maniacs line in the late '90s, us horror fans have had a wish list of figures we wanted to see come out in seven-inch plastic form toys that we could just walk into any comic book shop an pick up for about $15.
Over the years that list has grown shorter as more and more toy companies have stepped into the game, and this year SOTA Toys is ready to make a huge name for themselves with the Now Playing line. The first series alone consists of a Nightmare Zombie from An American Werewolf In London, Darkman from Darkman, and an amazing new sculpt of The Toxic Avenger!
With such a great lineup planned for their entry into our black little hearts (and Series Two will kick ass as well with The Creeper, The Mummy, and a Killer Klown!), we had to have a talk with the man that made it all possible, SOTA president Jerry Macaluso. Jerry generously agreed to a back-and-forth e-mail interview an gave us a lot of amazing info. Hope you dig it!
Johnny Butane: Let's start from the beginning. How did SOTA Toys get
Jerry Macaluso: SOTA Toys was originally a development house for other toy companies. I got a little bored doing movie FX and was really excited about what McFarlane, ReSaurus and some other companies were doing with action figures in the mid 90's. So I sent out some packages to those companies showing some of our movie maquette work and saying we'd like to do some toy work.
Pretty much everyone ignored me except ReSaurus. At that time Jay Borman, Chris Borman (who both later formed Plan B Toys) and Ken Lilly (now VP at Palisades) ran ReSaurus and they got back to me within a week and offered me a project. So they’re to blame.
Truthfully I way underestimated the amount of work that went into an action figure. I thought I would sculpt a cool monster and they would have some magic process in China where the articulation was incorporated into the figure. When they told me I had to sculpt the figure with the 30 POA (points of articulation) into it I almost turned the job down. I’m not a machinist and I knew the budget, and it wasn’t enough to have an FX guy machine the parts and still have any money left over for me.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment I took the job and thought Id figure something out. Well let me tell you, it took myself and a friend almost 2 months to sculpt this thing…I made maybe $200 a week when it was all said an done (laughs). I SHOULD have just turned around and went back to FX full time but I took it as a challenge to figure out a way to make it a more efficient process. I was still doing FX work to be able to pay bills, but I REALLY liked sculpting toys.
Anyway... The guys at ReSaurus introduced me to some other toy sculptors and through their generosity I started to get the hang of it.
My work for ReSaurus then led to working for other toy companies, which in turn led to frustration at the process. ReSaurus was great because the people there thought like I did, and I felt like I was making toys the way I’d do it if it were my own company. Once I started working for other companies it was so different. It was very rigid and unsatisfying. Unfortunately ReSaurus went out of business so I had no choice.
I had heard all the stories about how it costs millions to start a toy company and how there was no room left for any “newbies” etc. I was too stupid or hard headed to listen and thought I could break in with my brilliant idea…the Jenna Jameson Figure.
Jenna was a friend of a friend and she thought it would be fun. I kind of jumped into it without knowing what it would cost. I figured we just start with a sculpt. I was a huge fan of Clay Moore’s females and thought we should do Jenna in a similar style.
Ken Lilly walked me through the process and I sent the sculpt off to China. Looking back the amount of money they charged was complete rape…but I learned. I mortgaged my house, borrowed a little and finally got the Jenna figure made... course we had NO sales. Nobody wanted it. I had promised the factory 100,000 units in orders. I almost just called it a day (yet again) and was going to eat my loss (which by the way was tens of thousands NOT millions - you just have to do as much yourself as possible). Then Diamond Comics came knocking and wanted a couple thousand. Woo Hoo! Almost enough to break even! Well, that thousand turned into TENS of thousands. When it was all said and done the Jenna figure hit 40,000 units.
Okay so a smart guy would pay back his loans, invest and go buy a Ferrari right? Yeah, right. In my ridiculous delusion of grandeur I thought I would take this newfound cash and hire a bunch of people and have a real toy company! I figured if a Jenna Jameson toy sold 40,000 units a whole line of porn toys would sell hundreds of thousands…
So I proceeded to hire a sales person and a shipping person and bought licenses to all the porn stars I could find. Of course we burned through cash like it was going out of style using the most expensive laser scanners and paying (what I know now to be) ridiculously high licensing fees. About a year later (and ZERO cash left) the first line came out and guess what? They did sell well, just nowhere near what I estimated. I realized we had made enough cash to make it another 4 months and then we'd be broke again, so we had to get moving on the next series, (this is when I realized that it is a snowball going down hill and you are running for your life to keep out of its path or it will crush you).
So that’s the beginning of SOTA.
JB: What a great story! Who knew porn starts could be so profitable outside of, you know, actual porn movies?
You mentioned effects work, how long had you been doing effects at this point?
JM: I started in Special FX professionally at 17 on the film Scarecrows, assisting Norman Cabrera who later went on to fame and fortune being one of Rick Baker’s lead artists. Previous to that I spent most of my waking hours in my parents laundry room making masks and prosthetics.
I was 28 when I started working for ReSaurus so I had been doing FX for 11 years prior to getting into toys (which also goes to show that you are never too old to start a new profession).
JB: So how did you go from porn stars to video game stars?
JM: My/SOTA's big break came in the form a very cool lady by the name of Juanita Palomino. Juanita worked for Paramount Studios in licensing and was looking for a toy company to do figures for the second Tomb Raider film. Problem was the company that did figures for the original film kind of dropped the ball and the mass retailers didn’t want any more figures. Juanita saw our little 10' booth at SDCC promoting the Adult Superstars and figured since nobody wanted the license, and we could make hot chick figures, maybe we could pull off this project.
I immediately thought "Wow...big break!" The only problem was that when we showed Paramount our prototype, they realized we were not on the same page creatively. They wanted a "statue" style figure with limited articulation to show off Angelina’s curves. I wanted to make a fully articulate "action" figure. By this point it was too late to turn back and they accepted what we had sculpted. Lucky for me sales indicated I was right. Whew!
Tomb Raider opened many, many doors as it was nominated (and won) several figure awards.
The major door it opened was Street Fighter. Palisades had a deal for Street Fighter already in place but for some reason it just didn’t gel. Capcom's representative, Marc Mostman, knew our work and that there was a good chance we would have sculpted the Street Fighter figures for Palisades had the deal gone through. He also loved our Tomb Raider figures, which showed we could manage production in China (ah... if he only knew at the time). Street Fighter was going to be costly for us and I initially didn’t want to do it because I had no funds to develop such a big line (I had just made a deal with Paramount for "Charmed" and a deal with my buddies Insane Clown Posse). Plus the word coming back from retail was that it was dead and nobody wanted it. The final nail in the coffin was that I was told it couldn’t be an exclusive deal as High Dreams and Jazzwares both had Street Fighter deals already.
To Marc's credit he kept leaning on me and telling me retail doesn’t have a clue (which I now know for the most part to be true), and that High Dreams and Jazzwares were targeting different markets and if we did them right it would work.
Truth is I would never enter into a deal like that again where there were so many negatives stacked against me, so ignorance truly is bliss on occasion.
JB: What kind of time line are we talking about for all these?
JM: Lets see... Adult Superstars, Series 1 came out Fall 2002, Tomb Raider Summer 2003, and Street Fighter Fall 2004.
JB: So what about the other big license, The Chronicles of Riddick? How did that come to pass?
JM: Well...I was trying to get Van Helsing and I just couldn’t come up with the Dinero they wanted. They said they had a sequel to Pitch Black (which I’m a fan of) and would I be interested in the license? I felt that even if the movie bombed people would want a Vin Diesel figure from Pitch Black (and his costume was virtually the same). Once I saw some of the amour designs I thought the movie really stood a chance of being cool. I’m not a big Vin fan but the Riddick character is his best role so I went for it. Needless to say we lost money on it.
The good thing is we formed a very tight relationship with Universal and we are approached about everything they do now.
JB: Did they ever approach you for doing figures from the Dawn of the Dead remake?
JM: No they didn’t approach anyone, actually. The film was kind of a bastard stepson that the consumer products group looked down on. As a matter of fact when I approached THEM, we couldn’t do a deal because their lack of faith in the film caused them to not bother to secure actors likeness rights for action figures. Its still possible, but would be costly as they’d have to go back to the actors and negotiate rights.
JB: Well, that brings us up to the here and now, I think. Let’s talk the meat of this interview; the Now Playing line. Where’d you get the idea from for such a diverse line?
JM: A lot of people think Now Playing is a rip-off of Movie Maniacs, but the truth is I had that idea before McFarlane ever announced Movie Maniacs. As a matter of fact I had sculpted a Pumpkinhead and an Ash to present to the licensors about a year before MM came out. That’s how I wanted to "break into" manufacturing. By the time I contacted the licensors with our sculpts in hand, they had done deals with McFarlane. So I forgot about it and was content as McFarlane did a great job…and I was buying them all.
Unfortunately, after MM series 4 our tastes seem to have severely diverged and I was disappointed that the characters I wanted to buy seemed to be doomed to never being made. I like Aliens and Predators but I LOVE Killer Klowns and American Werewolf, etc. THOSE are the figures I wanted. I will leave the Freddys, Jasons, Leatherfaces etc., to NECA and McFarlane...When it comes to Now Playing expect to see the unexpected.
So it’s summer of 2003. After Tomb Raider became a hit I started to nose around and see if any of my "dream" film licenses were available. I had figured McFarlane had them all tied up but to my surprise, they were available! By this time we had paid for Street Fighter, "Charmed", ICP and Riddick so I was broke…but these great licenses were staring me in the face. Time to mortgage the house again (literally)! So I got some cash together and went on a serious spending spree...
I understood why McFarlane steered away from some of these...they wouldn’t sell enough for them to make a profit. Myself on the other hand…well we are a small company and if we priced them slightly higher, we could make a profit and sell only half of what McFarlane would need to sell to make a profit.
Truth is I don’t know how Now Playing is going to do. I have enough film licenses for almost 5 years worth of figures...this is a serious labor of love by a serious fan. As some associates have told me, my vision of this line is blurred by my obsession for it. We have fought for retail space, as nobody wanted it. I have had to agree to buy back any unsold pieces...all sorts of things. Does anyone other than me want a Killer Klown? Or an Imhotep? Man I really don’t know. But I believe in these figures. I believe in the line. I don’t need to make money at this. As long as we don’t lose money it will go on for years.
There are two lines we are making for the simple fact that I am personally in love with them. Now Playing is one, and the other will be announced at Toy Fair.
JB: Wow, you're really putting your all into this series, that's very admirable. What kind of distribution is Now Playing going to be getting? We will see them in the Suncoasts and Musiclands of the world?
JM: So far we have gotten Spencers, Musicland, Hastings and Tower to take them. Though none of them ordered huge amounts. Other than those it’s an online/comic store kind of thing. We're talking about production runs of 10,000 units each…that’s very small. But it’s fine by me.
JB: So you're hoping, essentially, that the fans want these toys as much as you? I think you're safe there, I really do.
JM: Let’s hope so, cause I have some amazing licenses waiting in the wings that I know are going to make the fans happy!
JB: What kind of work was involved getting the American Werewolf In London license? Had Universal been approached about it previously?
JM: Universal had never been approached. It took several months of legal work to figure out the rights. It ended up being co-owned by Universal and John Landis (who has now become a good friend). John was totally stoked when he found out, as was Rick Baker...they took me to lunch to talk about their ideas for the line. For me, American Werewolf has at least half dozen cool figures to do. That’s one of the ones I was very surprised Movie Maniacs hadn’t picked up.
This leads to an interesting story on Darkman. Universal didn’t know they owned the merchandise rights. It didn’t show up on any of their merchandise sheets. I had to convince them to spend a little time and have their lawyers look into it. I knew at the time that film was made Sam (Raimi) didn’t have the power to retain those rights so it HAD to be Universal even though they said they didn’t have them. Turns out I was right and afterwards Darkman started to show up in all their catalogs of films available to license…
JB: Nice work, it’s good to know the fans know more about the movies and their rights than the studios that made them!
So is the plan to try and do multiple figures from the same over the course of a few lines like you said you plan for AWIL?
JM: Basically, yeah. Some licenses, like AWIL and Mummy Returns, have several characters I think will kick ass. Some, like Darkman, are really only good for one. I will try and not put two characters from the same license into the same line. I like diversity.
JB: What was Raimi's reaction to finally seeing Darkman in glorious 7"?
JM: Sam called the other day and loved it. He authorized us to quote him in all ads, etc. I think we'll be working together in the future :)
Darkman was one of the very first films I ever worked on in Hollywood (I sculpted the 12" Darkmans for miniature shots), so it holds a very warm place in my heart. Everyone on that film was great. Making that and Toxie was a real full circle closure thing for me. So many of these figures are simply me indulging myself on recreating characters I grew up with. It’s very nostalgic and extremely satisfying in so many ways.
JB: Tell me more about the company. How many sculptors do you have working for you?
JM: We currently have 6 full time sculptors. Alexi Bustamante who has been with us for 4 1/2 years, since we were just a prototype company, is the lead sculptor for most lines including Now Playing. Will Harbottle has been with us only a year, but he was hand picked to head up the Street Fighter sculpting. Assisting on sculpting are Aaron McNaught, Jon Stevens, Dave Chamberlain and Conor McCullagh. Kat Sapene is our painter (and way overworked). Jed Haigh is in charge of molds/casts and has two interns we found through the internet forums, Rene Aldrete and Stephen Gomez. We also have some freelance FX sculptors doing some Now Playing work such as Len Burge, Russ Luckich, Tim Martin, Dave Smith and Patrick McGee. They all have extensive sculpting experience on film creatures. I also sculpt when I can find the time (usually during the weekend).
JB: How long does it take, in general, for a figure to go from conception to the final sculpt?
JM: In terms of development time everything is different. We don’t do a lot of concept sketches or anything like that because the sculptors are right here with me every day and I can make comments hourly. I’m not so interested in the studios ideas for the figures. Many times I will rough out the pose of the figure, as I know in my head what I want it to look like. This really speeds things along. A typical Now Playing figure takes about 3 weeks from start to finish. So far every figure has passed through studio approvals with no changes. This is generally because we know these characters better than the studio does. Street Fighters take a lot longer to prototype than your average Now Playing figure because of the articulation levels. Maybe double the time.
JB: Sorry to ask, but what does SOTA stand for, anyway?
JM: SOTA is State-Of-The-Art. It was what I had always hoped the FX company would be, but alas we never achieved that. I do believe we are living up to our name on the toy side though.
JB: Was it important to you that your sculptors had film experience rather than previous toy experience when you were considering them?
JM: For Now Playing I definitely wanted sculptors with creature FX backgrounds. There are a few toy industry sculptors I would trust with these characters, such as [NECA’s] Tankman and Dave Cortez, but their schedules are pretty booked. I know most of the sculptors in the FX industry and they were very excited about getting an opportunity to sculpt some of these classic characters.
JB: Can you give our readers an idea of what to expect from Now Playing, Series 3, or is it too soon?
JM: Series 3 will be announced at Toy Fair, and unfortunately I can’t divulge anything about it before then.
JB: When can we expect to see the wolf from An American Werewolf In London?
JM: Honestly, the wolf from AWIL is not on the schedule yet. I won’t start thinking about series 4 until summer. It might be in 4, might not...
JB: I wanted to ask you about the puppets from "When Zombies Attack!" that you recently put out. How did you get hooked up with the Grim Grotto Goods guys?
JM: I met Chad and Matt years ago during my FX career. They are two of the most talented FX guys out there and their “When Zombies Attack!” video is hilarious.
Truth is though that it didn’t occur to me to mass-produce the puppets, that idea came from my VP Jess Bansal (who coincidentally enough didn’t know that I knew Matt and Chad). So Jess came to me with this “great product” he saw at SDCC and it was the puppets.
I believe Matt and Chad were working on a deal with someone else but that didn’t pan out, so we jumped back in and started development. Funny thing is we sculpted about a half dozen different monster style heads to complement the zombies but when we showed them to retail, other then the pumpkin and witch, all they wanted were the zombies.
We some new ones planned for 2005 and we're revising the mechanism to be sturdier.
JB: What will be part of the new Puppets line up?
JM: Nothing too crazy, just some new head sculpts.
JB: One last thing I wanted to touch on was the upcoming line of toys based on the Cthulhu mythos. What can you tell us about them at this point?
JM: Well its a 3 figure line, the scale and price haven’t been set in stone yet. We're going to see the reaction at ToyFair first. Chances are they will be $19.99 though.
The first line will include Cthulhu, Dagon, and Pickman’s Model. If all goes well we will do a second series Halloween 06.
JB: Who designed the monsters?
JM: I did Cthulhu and Pickman’s Model, with Dagon being designed by Jon Stevens and myself.
JB: And they’ll all be on display at Toy Fair this year?
A huge thank you to Jerry for taking the time for the interview. This is truly a fan making the kind of toys fans want to own, so the more support we can give them the better they’ll get! Now Playing: Series 1 is due out in stores sometime in February, but you can pre-order the first line though Evilshop right here! And be sure to keep your eyes peeled on SOTA’s official site for the latest announcements!