We got to sit down with Brian Volk-Weiss, the Creator, Producer, and (sometimes) Director of The Toys that Made Us. The Toys That Made Us: The Search for Season Three and a new series, The Movies that Made Us, were announced hours before our interview during San Diego Comic-Con, and we were eager to learn more about the making of the show, which revelations caught Brian off guard, and what the future holds for one of our favorite nostalgic and highly entertaining shows.
Gaming Trend: We’re so excited to hear about The Toys That Made Us getting a season three, and the list of properties you’re going to be covering is really impressive! Are there any properties which you’re eager to tell the creation stories of, but you haven’t been able to do?
Brian Volk-Weiss: We’re in a very blessed position where, when we started out, for probably the first two months–but again, we’ve been working on this for probably three years now, between the green light and today–only the first two months was there a little hesitancy from, in particular, Hasbro, Mattel and Lego, where they were like, “Um… are you really making this for Netflix? Can we get a letter, please, from Mr. Netflix?”
After that, it’s now… I mean–there were two properties in Season Three, I’m not gonna say who, where they were aggressively, while we were making Season Two, saying “You gotta do us for Season Three!” So right now we have multiple properties aggressively, like… I got a–I don’t wanna get anybody in trouble or anything, so I don’t mean to be vague, but one of the bigger toy companies sent me a box. Like, the box a dryer would come in–that big, full of every single example of that toy that had come out in 2018, 2017 and 2016. So I called the guy at the company and I was like, “Hey, thank you so much, this was so nice of you, you didn’t have to do this…” and he was like, “You don’t understand, if we’re not in Season Four, I’ll get in trouble.” So we’ve been very lucky that that is the perception now that we have.
GT: We’re now seeing revivals of many of the properties you’re covering in Season Three. We’re seeing My Little Pony come back, we’re seeing Ninja Turtles come back. After three seasons of researching what makes toys popular, what do you attribute this revival cycle to?
Brian: I think that revivals, especially of the toys you just mentioned… you could either say they are revivals, or you could say all of these brands are designed to be revived every six to nine years. Part of the reason we chose–we had a bunch of rules about what toys we picked, one of the rules was–and we broke it only for He-Man, a toy — well, kind of Star Trek, too — A toy had to be in perpetual production, meaning that the minute G.I. Joe went on sale, it really needed to be going non-stop. Cheated a little with G.I. Joe, too, ‘cause that definitely had wound down a bit, but at least–
GT: (laughs) I like how quickly you’re walking back your statements.
Brian: I just–I’ve done enough of these what the comments I’ll be getting will be, so I want them to at least know that I’m aware of the problems with my statements. So My Little Pony, this is Generation Six! Before it came out, Hasbro called it Generation Six. It’s not really a revival, it’s just once the sales go down, they start stopping to make ‘em, they wait, they bring in new people, they try again and hope it works. So My Little Pony Gen One… huge hit, Gen Two, not that big a hit, there was almost ten years between Two and Three… Three was huge!
Part of the reason this keeps happening is… you need your fanbase to be old enough to have money… but also have kids. So then the little girl who becomes a mom — and I’m doing this with my kids! I mean, my daughter is obsessed with Princess Leia. My son is obsessed with Batman. So you have a father who loves Star Wars, you have a father who loves Batman. There’s, what, five hundred characters? There’s only one superhero I care about: Batman. Not a coincidence my son only cares about him. So you need that to help move this stuff along.
GT: Do you feel like, after three seasons of studying what makes toys popular, you’re ready to advise on what toys will be successful and what will flop?
Brian: Absolutely not. My goal, and I pray that Netflix gives us two things: I pray they not only give us a Fifth and Sixth season, but I pray they also do… “We’re giving you Season Six, and it’s the last one.” So I hope they’ll tell me it’s the last one, because if they do, the last episode that I wanna make is an episode called “The Toys that Should have Not been Made.” And it’s the perfect way to end the series, bookend wise, because the first episode is Star Wars. If this is the last episode, you will literally watch the series completely differently after this episode, because of the, what I like to call, the spinal column of this episode is LJN’s Dune Line. I don’t know if you’ve seen them, or if you know the David Lynch Dune?
GT: I have both seen and read Dune.
Brian: So the reason it’s so interesting is… LJN, if you interview these people, which we have… if you talk to them, they’re saying the same thing the guys at Kenner said about Star Wars. They were all like, “I read the script and loved it!” (snaps) You would cut to Jim Swearingen, “I read the script and loved it!” One got lucky, it became the biggest movie of all time, the other, it bankrupted LJN. I mean, LJN went out of business because of what happened, largely, with Dune. So there’s no way to predict. And the other thing is that toys now are so complicated with motion sensors, color changing plastics and everything, like, you really kind of get one shot.
GT: Jumping to the topic of your newly announced series, The Movies that Made Us, I feel like movies, and family movies in particular, have changed a lot since the 80’s. Can you tell us why you think that is, or do we need to watch the show to find out?
Brian: So we’re not really doing kids or family movies, we’re doing Ghostbusters, Die Hard, Dirty Dancing, movies like that, but we can talk about family movies! Basically, what happened, as far as I can tell–and a lot of this has to do with this lady named Margaret Loshe–who we’re doing a documentary about. Basically they realized… oh, you can be eight, you still understand drama. You still understand politics. So there’s a much more… it’s not just like… “Hey, there’s the bad guy because he’s wearin’ black, because he’s wearin’ white!” There’s a much more nuanced… like, if you watch Frozen, as an example, has massive subtext on multiple levels that Aladdin certainly did not have. And it’s funny, if you watch the new Aladdin, with Will Smith, you can see the subtext that’s been added now: economics subtext, race subtext, there’s stuff in the new movie that was completely not there in the Robin Williams version.
And Zootopia! I mean… one of the greatest movies ever made, not just animated. I mean, Jesus, that’s a–my kids love that… they don’t know what’s goin’ on! Like, they know there’s a rabbit with a f**in’ carrot? But they love it, and as they get older, the sh** that I love that makes me cry when I watch the movie, they will keep watchin’ it, they will keep crying, and that’s why there will be probably 20–hopefully–Zootopias.
GT: Is there any reason for us to hope you’ll be doing any episodes or a series covering video games?
Brian: Listen, I would love to do it. I think it should be about video systems, I don’t think it should be about video games. But if you did an Atari episode, of course you’d talk about Pac-Man, of course you’d talk about Metroid. I’m not a gamer, but I’m a huge video game history buff. Like, I’m not a gamer at all, I haven’t owned a video game system in over twenty years, but I have, like, in my collection, an Atari 2600. I have a TurboGrafx-16. Like, I love the history of that business, and that’s how I think you do that. So, I think you could easily do forty episodes of toys, I think you could do a thousand episodes of movies, I really think you could only do eight video game episodes. But yes, I would love to!
GT: Do you have any interest in covering phygital toys, like Amiibos?
Brian: I feel like I’m talking like a 43 year old man when I say this to you… I don’t get it! I mean, I’m not going to be the 80 year old guy going “It hurts imagination!” I mean, I’m not going to say that, because I don’t believe it to be true, but… My son has this — first of all, $45 price point, it is a Batmobile robot that is the craziest–it’s $45, it’s a Batmobile thing, it comes with a remote control, you hit a button, it literally stands up, it’s two and a half feet tall. Buttons shoot missiles from the arms, when you pop up a gun, it’s (mechanical sound) — I mean, it is so sophisticated — it can shoot disks remotely from the thing — I think my son’s played with it for an hour and a half and doesn’t play with it anymore, just like me.
GT: In my family it was the VoiceBot!
Brian: Okay, so you know exactly! Before that there was Teddy Ruxpin, yeah! So I think, you know, that famous saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes, my son–I had a Batmobile, I probably played with it for 90 minutes. My son’s Batmobile, taking into account inflation, is probably half the cost of mine. His can stand, it’s got a remote control, it’s got lasers and sound effects and can shoot… still only played with it for 90 minutes. So, again I think it’s about who we are as humans that says more necessarily, or is of greater value than what the toy is.
GT: You clearly learned a lot while working on this series, is there a fact that surprised you the most?
Brian: There’s a lot, but probably my favorite one, or at least the one popping into my head on my list of favorites is–I mean, the number one thing, easily was learning–and in real time, I mean I was sitting there in Cincinnati interviewing the Kenner lawyer when he was like, “Blah blah blah, blah blah blah, George made no money from the toys, blah blah blah.” And I’m like… no no no, you got it the other way around, he made no money from the movies. He made all his money from the toys. He’s like, “Well… I got the contract right here.” So learning–everyone I know grew up that he made all his money from the toys. So that is–I mean–that was… crazy! So I feel like that’s in a category by itself.
If I’m gonna just go with a fun one, that was just like “what?” it was learning that the original plan for G.I. Joe did not include Cobra, and it was Marvel who was like, “Hey, you forgot to send the bad guys,” and Hasbro was like, “Uh, no, they’re just gonna fight their Star Wars figures, or their Barbie dolls.” And Marvel was like, “Well… we can’t make a comic book without a bad guy,” and Hasbro was like, “Well, you come up with the bad guy!” And there was like a staff meeting–that’s the other thing that I find so funny about this business, that like, a lot of this stuff that changed my life, and inspired me … it’s from a bullsh*t staff meeting that no one at the company remembered two hours later. And there’s like a staff meeting and someone’s like (snaps) “Cobra!” And the guy’s like, “What’s Cobra?” “I don’t know, but it sounds cool.” And… that’s f**in’ Cobra! Something I grew up with, something you may have grown up with.
And that was always like… it’s my biggest regret, by the way, so far in the entire making of the show, is that was not the cold opening for the G.I. Joe. I love what we did, it was kind of artsy fartsy, but that should’ve been the opening to G.I. Joe, was that whole like… (snaps) “Cobra!” That cracks me up.
Thank you so much to Brian Volk-Weiss for taking the time to talk with us about The Toys that Made Us: The Search for Season Three and the upcoming The Movies that Made Us. You can watch the first two seasons of The Toys that Made Us right now on Netflix, and expect to find The Movies that Made Us during the last quarter of this year.