It started in the San Fernando Valley. Like many tech companies, it was a group of guys with a small office, a garage, and a dream. For Jason Labowitz and his brother Aaron, that dream was to help collectors find and purchase something they hadn’t seen in stores for nearly a decade — new Kenner Star Wars action figures.
Following the discontinuation of the Power of the Force line in 1985, Labowitz was among the most enthusiastic collectors to learn that Kenner, now a division of Hasbro, was relaunching the famed, 3.75-inch action figure line for a new generation. To borrow from Resistance pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the pending launch of a new Power of the Force collection — dubbed “POTF2” by collectors — was the spark that lit the flame to create an empire.
On April 1, 1996, Entertainment Earth (EE) launched online. For a new website selling toys online in the age of dial-up service, finding an audience should’ve been a crapshoot, but the orders started rolling in. In an era when few people even had an internet connection, EE became a pioneer that sold toys online before Walmart, Target, Amazon, and Toys “R” Us (TRU). And in many ways, traditional retailers are still playing catch up to where EE has always been.
“Besides the epic shift from brick-and-mortar to online sales, we’ve thankfully seen a shift that includes toys being developed and marketed as collectibles to adults, instead of just to kids,” says Labowitz, now president and co-founder of EE, looking back on what’s changed during the past 20 years. “Studios and toy manufacturers alike are highlighting this sector of the toy industry, which makes the job we’ve always done easier.”
That job includes publishing a regular print catalog to support online sales.
“EE has always been an important part of our business and the specialty market as a whole,” says Randy Falk, director of product development at NECA. “While so much of the collectibles market has moved to online exclusively, the EE catalog is a welcome throwback — always fun to thumb through and see what is spotlighted.”
Although it was a competitor to an extent, like most of the toy industry, EE was hit by the swift collapse and closure of TRU last year — but in a very unique way. For events such as Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC), EE and TRU were partners and offered shared exclusives. And EE, which also operates a wholesale arm, was selling product to TRU.
Last July, nearly a full month after the last TRU location closed in the U.S., EE was in full swing at SDCC, greeting collectors at its massive, two-level booth. The company offered sought-after exclusives from top brands, such as Funko and Loungefly; an exclusive Voltron from Playmates Toys; a trio of limited-edition variants for DC Collectibles’ Artists Alley Batman by Chris Uminga; and the U.S. debut of Wow! Stuff’s Harry Potter Mystery Flying Snitch.
Additionally, EE debuted an in-house, exclusive Pin Mates figure of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda (and dog, Tobi), and played host to guests including Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer of KISS, Deadpool creator Rob Liefeld, and cast members from Showtime’s cult hit Twin Peaks throughout the weekend. When fans left the booth, they carried their new collectibles in tote bags that bore the EE logo on one side and the TRU logo on the other — prompting some other attendees to ask, “Where’d you get the bag?”
“This summer should be huge for us in terms of our SDCC presence and exclusive offerings,” Labowitz says. “July was our biggest month last year, and this July is going to be even bigger and better.”
At the EE booth (No. 2343) at SDCC this year, fans will be the first to purchase exclusives and convention debuts as a new collaboration is unveiled. Fans will receive a “Target x Entertainment Earth Collectors Unite” tote bag and a Bullseye limited-edition collectible enamel pin with any purchase, while supplies last. Additionally, Funko created a larger-than-life, 5-foot tall Pop! Statue of Bullseye, perfect for photo ops. Like last year, EE will host free celebrity signings and offer giveaways, including the popular badge ribbons.
This will be a massive year fueled by an explosion of licensed products. One hot item arrived early on, a reproduction of a Happy Days-themed tin lunch box featuring Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli. Crossing fandoms, the lunch box — developed in house via EE’s Bif Bang Pow! division — was featured onscreen in a climactic scene in Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel. Labowitz says the company is looking forward to new offerings based on Spider-Man: Far From Home and X-Men: Dark Phoenix, too.
This spring, EE collaborated with Funko on exclusive Avengers: Endgame Pop! Vinyl figures paired with exclusive trading cards. They sold out in just 48 hours.
Labowitz notes that anime is on the rise, with properties including My Hero Academia and Dragon Ball Z picking up stream. Additionally, DC and Warner Bros. are looking strong for the months ahead, driven by the Batman 80th anniversary celebration and growing popularity for some horror icons, including Annabelle and Pennywise from IT.
While many collectibles are destined to be showpieces, there are also some great new toys that are truly playable for cross-generational fun.
Labowitz says he likes seeing more licensed products coming from Playmobil. “Ghostbusters and How to Train Your Dragon [play sets] are a great start,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of great play sets anymore, so Playmobil’s environments, vehicles, and attention to detail are just fun to have.”
More than 23 years after receiving its first shipments of Star Wars figures at a garage in Los Angeles, EE is one of Hasbro’s top retailers, regularly offering collectors the opportunity to buy — with a “mint condition guarantee” — toys and collectibles that would be hard to come by anywhere else. Shipping from Simi Valley, California, EE carries items from thousands of vendors, often serving as a preorder partner for new toys announced at events, such as Toy Fair New York and Star Wars Celebration. The retailer is also one of the first places to get everything from the latest Pop! Vinyl figures from Funko to what EE touts as “really expensive stuff.”
EE has every base covered, from premium action figures from NECA and Mezco to high-end statues from Diamond Select and WETA Workshop, and even prop replicas from Anovos and Factory Entertainment.
Also, this October will see Triple Force Friday, a new toy launch that will appropriately bring it all back to the franchise that started it all for EE: Star Wars.
“I’m personally excited about products for The Mandalorian,” Labowitz says. “While the focus this fall will be on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Frozen 2, our sector will be particularly interested in the limited availability arising from the inaugural show on Disney+.”
As it approaches the quarter-century mark, Entertainment Earth continues to evolve, riding the waves of what collectors want and need today — with sights set on catering to pop culture enthusiasts for many years to come.
James Zahn, author
Original article: The Pop Insider