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The CEO of Funko talks the Funko Pop movie and beyond

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If Lego can do it, Brian Mariotti thinks Funko can do it

Funko Tony Stark Ironman toy Image: Funko via Polygon

The future of Funko was never more evident than at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. At a two-story booth mobbed from opening to close, the pop culture toy company had an endless variety of Funko Pops; the wide-eyed, spherical statues that cater to every pocket of fandom, and skyrocketed the company into the mainstream. Exclusives from the event ranged from Teen Wolf to a chrome Boba Fett to bearded Forrest Gump to the shark from Jaws devouring Quint to Moana to H.R. Pufnstuf and the Fortnite pinata for good measure. For the time being, if a movie, TV show, video game, or culturally relevant thing exists, there’s a 90% chance it has Funko Pop.

So it’s no surprise that, according to Deadline, Funko and Warner Bros. Pictures will team up for a film based on the collectible Pops. Warner Animation Group has hired Oscar-nominated director and designer Teddy Newton (Pixar’s Day & Night) to write the story with Disney Animation veteran Mark Dindal (The Emperor’s New Groove).

In the wake of successes like The Lego Movie and Hasbro’s live-action hits, the news isn’t all that surprising for the company, which recorded $191.2 million in net sales the second quarter of 2019, a 38% jump from the previous year. The hunger for Funko and the Pops line is so intense, and the licensing of the brand for a potential TV and movie being such a no-brainer, that I asked Funko CEO Brian Mariotti about the inevitability at SDCC. After hinting at a deal with WB, he insisted that he had no interest in making the movie as a kind of victory lap for the brand.

“I think for us there’s more to lose than to gain if we were to do a movie,” he said. “You have to have a story that is compelling, that engages boys and girls and adults, and it needs to not look like a cash grab or a brand extension of a toy. For us, there’s a lot more at risk by putting out an average to less-than-average movie than it is to elevate our status if we produce an amazing movie [...] You have to have an idea of what the story is like and what these characters are. And I think we’ve answered all those things.”

Four Funko Pops make big smiling black-eyed faces
Four new Funko Pop figurines arriving for NYCC 2019: Endgame’s Smart Hulk, Pikachu, Hello Kitty Lady Liberty, and Edgar Allen Poe
Funko

Funko’s Pop line debuted in 2011, but the company has been around for over 20 years. Mariotti, who previously designed, built, and ran nightclubs in Seattle, acquired the company in 2005, pivoting to toys out of a love for the industry and taste of what collectors are after. (“Unfortunately we don’t make nearly as much money as the nightclub businesses,” Mariotti jokes. “That is a high profit, high headache business.”)

When Mariotti started, there were two Funko employees. Now there are 800, a number that includes toy designers, writers, and even an animation studio, acquired in 2017 before the company went public. Mariotti says the biggest challenge Funko has faced since Pops hit the market, allowing the company to play in the sandboxes of a zillion IPs and acquire a number of smaller companies in the process, was maintaining the abstract Funko-ness of it all.

“The last couple of years with us has been about keeping the culture of the company. When you grow as rapidly as we have and you start buying other companies and trying to inject your DNA into other wonderful companies, it’s about making sure that it feels Funko, that it feels like a fast fashion approach to everything that is pop culture.”

Part of that is being on top of every imaginable area of interest and responding with a Funko product. “We just gotta make sure we have our geek antenna up,” Mariotti says of Funko’s pursuit of transcendent relevancy. “We’re looking at everything, whether it’s manga or anime or video games or TV shows or live-streaming — it doesn’t even matter. We know there’s a fan base for everything. Sports, music, all that stuff has fan bases, and we just want to make sure we’re connecting fans that things they love.”

freddy funko, king of the funkos
Freddy Funko, king of the Funko Pops
Funko

But what does a Funko movie look like? The CEO compares Funko’s cultural conquest to Lego, which was able to layer Harry Potter and Star Wars and Marvel over the Brick Person mold. The Pop line has a look — identifiable and trademarked — that will make the movie an obvious extension. One imagines, like in The Lego Movie, Warner Bros. Pictures-approved characters will show up. Missing for Funko is more original characters to call their own. That’s a priority for Mariotti.

“We have some amazing toy lines that coming up with our own look, our own feel, our own characters, and our own backstories,” he said. The company has some experience in this area; in 2017, Funko launched Pop Monsters, a line of cuddly, Pop-eyed beasts who “inhabit the fabled Wetmore Forest.” What began as in-house designers screwing around with monster designs became a full product launch aimed at preschoolers, with spinoff kid’s books eventually debuting at Barnes and Noble. A TV deal is in the works, says Mariotti.

“I think everything that we do in the future is going to feel authentic,” the CEO insisted. “You don’t want to just say, I’m just going to be the guy that does Pop. We want to do amazing handbags and apparel and consumables and board games and create our own IP and stories and all of that stuff. But it all got to feel organic and it can’t feel forced.”

The Funko Pop movie is inevitable, but not forced, which in the hyper-licensing frenzy that is modern moviemaking, should bring comfort to a few collectors’ ears.