May 03, 2016

TOM STARK'S PLASTIC PASSIONS: Costs! “Is the hobby of toy soldiers that I love becoming extinct?”

This article originally appeared in issue 162 of Plastic Warrior Magazine and is reprinted here with their kind permission. Please visit their website HERE for details on this fine magazine covering the world of plastic figures. And stop on by the Plastic Warrior Blog HERE for the latest news shows and more...

“Is the hobby of toy soldiers that I love becoming extinct?”
by Tom Stark

I have seen this question asked in Plastic Warrior and many other hobby publications many times.  I don’t believe it is but I also believe the definition of “toy soldiers”  encompasses everything from mainstream painted metal to 54 and 60mm, painted and unpainted hard and soft plastic, to 28mm hard-plastic gaming figures to 1/72nd soft plastic. When looked at from this expanded  perspective,  and noting the vast amount of new product being released each month, I think it would be hard for anyone to conclude the hobby is dying. Nonetheless, our niche of 54 to 60 mm plastic is in some state of transition and, like the mysteries of global warming, it is difficult to see where it is going. Also like global warming, we may not understand the cause and effect but we are silly if we don’t do what we can to on our own behalf’s and that is what this article is a plea for.
The Expeditionary Force officer on the right is more detailed than his marx
counterpart but is it worth so much more? The scale of the market says yes!
As often as I hear that our hobby is in decline I hear that it is being murdered by robber barons. “ What do today’s makers think we are made of,  money?” “What are they molding their figures out of, plastic or gold?” “When I was a kid I could buy a bag of 100 army men for a buck!  Today folks like Replicants, Expeditionary Force, TSDS and others are asking  $2, $3 and even $4 for one guy!” Well  yes,  they are. And if you want to be seeing any new figures come along to help you escape the real world for  a bit and the support the hobby  that lets you do this, consider the following.

The days when half the male kids in America drooled over the Marx playsets in Christmas catalogs or the bags of soldiers in the Five and Dimes are gone and they are not returning. The comparable Eurozone makers such as Herald, Cherilea, Airfix, Timpo, Atlantic and others,  many costly even in their day to us Americans because they were painted , are similarly gone. The massive demand for them is gone and toy soldiers are like most any other product; higher production volumes mean lower prices. This is basic business.  Once big-ticket start-up costs such as sculpting, mold making and packaging development are covered, the money for every additional soldier sold goes largely to the bottom line; plastic pellets, power and labor are still pretty inexpensive when so many figures can be made in a unit of time.  But did you know that the cost to produce a 6 to 8 cavity mold for injection molding of plastic figures is currently running in the range of $20,000 to $30,000? Unlike poured metal molds, injection molds have to stand up to the injection pressures without deflection causing the figures to be ruined. When the market doesn’t include millions of figures for millions of baby boomers, those production costs get concentrated on the buyers left standing.  You and me.

We so called “adult collectors” have also contributed to higher per-figure costs. The standard figure these days is 60, not 54 mm, and while material costs are not exorbitant, the volume increase between these two sizes in a smaller market  is not insignificant. What’s more, we have told the makers with our wallets that a figure worth purchasing must not have    ”blocking” in its undercut areas. This has led to multi-part figures becoming the norm.  I admit these are great figures with dynamic poses but they add to sculpting and mold complexity and add an assembly step. Some of the current Russian makers have yet to go to this style and a smart sculptor can produce action-packed, one-piece figures but there are fewer and fewer of these. You don’t have to look back to the 50 and 60s to see the effect. What has happened to the figure production of Revell, BMC, Black Cat, Gun Ho and Weston? Gone or going! The market was not big enough to overcome their start-up costs.

"Blocking" on left shoulder and at left hip to fill undercuts and ease mold release
Blocking Eliminated by separate hands and precision mold making. TSSD on left, Cunningham, right
The improvements in sculpting is evident from Charbens on the left to Marx in the center.
Another leap from Marx to Conte on the right which also shows how much more
massive 60mm is than 54mm.
There are more new figures available these days from Russia and the East than there used to be but these aren’t pennies apiece either. Even though production costs are lower in these regions, I think it is still a shrunken  market that they are selling to. I have little information to estimate the size of the  “domestic” market in these areas but conversations with one active maker from the east indicated that the great majority of his sales go to the US with the Eurozone accounting for almost all the rest. And then there is shipping. As you likely know, these costs have skyrocketed in the last 15 years and show no signs of reversing. The cost of shipping product from the western Pacific may well be off-setting the regions lower production costs. 

Action is brought to life by multipiece moldings. Reamsa on the left and Conte on the right.
What to do?  A few hopeful makers have attempted to enter the business by crowd-sourcing the startup costs. This seems like a great way to reach a market that, worldwide-web wise, might not be as small as we think. When I see these invitations to “invest” I put money in sight unseen. Anyone making new figures deserves my support. Unfortunately the first contributions I have made have come back when the maker-to-be failed to reach its capital goal. Maybe next time.

So is there an answer? Yes. 

First, don’t give up hope. All those young folks working and playing with H0 and 28mm now are getting older and their eyes and hands may make them gravitate to our scale.  There’s a lot of them.

Second, don’t go all “Made-in America” (England, etc) on me. It’s a world economy now. Pay the shipping cost premium and accept that some of the figures coming from afar may have undercut blocking. If you really don’t like that, have some fun with a hobby knife or Dremel and improve them. Nothing like holding a figure in your hands and working on it a bit to really appreciate what the sculptor put into it.

Third, purchase at least a smattering of any new figures that come out even if not in your particular period of interest.

Atypical figures produced by Replicants. Who else will put the production effort into poses like these?
Fourth, if you see a crowd sourcing opportunity, participate. Anyone that is trying to contribute to our hobby deserves a nod of appreciation in the form of cash if you want to see the hobby survive. $100 is a typical cost to participate. 

And finally, keep some perspective. 1 box of 10 or 12 figures at $4 each is still only 50 bucks or your local monetary unit equivalent. For the pleasure such a box of figures affords me, I can certainly afford it, even if I dream of days gone by when it would have been thirty-nine cents!

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