Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of FRIENDZ N' FAMILY, ACORN FAMILY, PLAY ALONG CLUB and other Products and Images created by Mel Birnkrant are Copyright (c) BIRNKRANT KISCOM/ The OBB
Now, the fun began. Hasbro was so excited that they told the toy inventing community not to show them any more doll projects, as they had their big girl’s item for the coming year! Meanwhile, for the next three years, they screwed around with Friendz 'n Family. They loved the Look of the dolls and vowed to reproduce them faithfully. But beyond that, they really did not know what to do with them.
That winter, Hasbro held a big brainstorming session, to which The Obb and I were invited. This really was unprecedented. My hugely impressed partners made it clear to me that they had never heard of such a thing, toy inventors being invited to a meeting at Hasbro’s Corporate Headquarters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, with 20 company officials from all departments in attendance. And so, it came to be that on a blustery Monday in the snowy cold of winter, on February 10, 2003 to be exact, we embarked on a long journey to the land where dreams come true, driving for hours, through sometimes blinding snow, to arrive on time for our three o’clock appointment with Hasbro.
By a curious twist of Fate a document that chronicles this entire adventure, written the next day, happens to exist. It consists of a long letter that I wrote to my good friend Cyndy Stevens the day after I returned home. There is a saying in the toy inventing community that puts forth the premise that “A successful toy invention is one that has been turned down 99 out of 100 times." That’s, more or less, the story of my life. This letter will not interest many, perhaps, not anyone but Cyndy. Nonetheless, I am including it here to share what a great day, that one in a hundred, perhaps, once in a lifetime occasion feels like to an often rejected toy inventor. Even if Friendz 'n Family, ultimately, proved to be a failure, I would still have this amazing day to savor.
Throughout the meeting, ideas were tossed out on the table, suggestions for a gimmick, like instant magic photos, albums, scrap books, etc. They were also looking for a marketing direction. Should they stress Friendz, or should the emphasis be on Family? Focus groups had been conducted, the results of which suggested Family. We were informed that thirty-five dolls were planned for the initial introduction, along with books, accessories, computer games, a website, and a TV show.
Meanwhile, I had not come to the meeting empty handed. I brought with me a sort of care package. It included a CD full of photographs, lots and lots of photographs, and extensive written directions to, hopefully, guide Hasbro in recreating Friendz 'n Family.
The care package contained several lengthy letters. I'll include one of them below. I don’t expect anyone to read it. I’m not even sure that Hasbro did. In fact, they made such a mess of Friends ‘n Family, in the end, thatI can pretty much guess they didn’t. But I'll include it here, just to enlighten anyone among you, who might think toy inventing is easy. This letter covers every aspect of the dolls, including most of what a manufacturer would need to know to reproduce them.
Meanwhile, Hasbro forged ahead, or so they said, working on the dolls. The first thing they did was hire me, right then and there in Pawtucket, to create final master sculpts for the heads, bodies, hands, and feet, as well as additional heads with new expressions. Therefore, on the way home from the meeting, I stopped at Pearl Paint in New jersey to purchase the Super Sculpey that I would be needing for the chore. In a wrinkle that had never happened before, Noah insisted that I give The Obb 20% of the fee that I would be getting for performing this work intensive feat of manual labor. And he proclaimed himself to be the official go-between who negotiated, and oversaw the billing, between Hasbro and yours truly.
In spite of that new nuance, which I found rather chilling, I eagerly began a "no holds barred" attempt to sculpt the most perfect heads and body parts I could. There would be three large, three medium, and two small heads. All these pieces were derived from the original plaster molds that had been cast from the the Plastilina originals.
On the day following the meeting, Hasbro issued this top secret summation. It is a fairly accurate representation of what took place the previous day, including every suggestion that those present made, in a first attempt to decide exactly how to merchandise Friendz n’ Family, including suggestions for a better name.
One day after that, this document was generated. It boiled down everything they learned on the previous day, and condensed it down to a single page. They were still looking for a new name. This might be as close as Hasbro’s creative team ever came to knowing what to do with Friends and Family. It indicates what is often wrong with large toy companies, the chain of a creativity is only as strong as its weakest link.
These are the finished heads. These photos are all that's left of them. I don’t know if Hasbro ever used them. I do know that they claimed to loose them. Years later, I had to sculpt them all over again.
One of the most complex elements in the doll’s design involved pre-posing the realistic plastic eyes. These had to be set in the molds, ahead of time. This photo shows a step in the tricky method I invented, through trial and error, working on the Baby Face dolls, many years before. At the risk of making everybody crazy, I supplied a long and somewhat apologetic letter, in which I was trying to be humble and contrite, as the product manager, a jerk named, Kirk proved NOT to be inventor friendly, and took offense at the slightest hint that anybody, particularly yours truly, might know something about doll making that he did not. Strangely, in the three years that Hasbro held Friendz 'n Family, we never saw a single sample. We never saw a single doll. What the Hell was Hasbro up to?
And here are the hands, and feet, and bodies, finished to perfection in three sizes, large, small, and, medium. I was paid well for creating all these Super Sculpey pieces, less 20%. Now I sent them off to Hasbro, never guessing that three years later, I would find myself begging them to let me refund their money, and buy them back again.
This correspondence marked the end of my involvement. The project now went undercover, deep into the secret realms of Hasbro. It was in their hands now!
In big toy companies there are frequent firings and hirings, and employees come and go. One most dynamic lady, who had worked for years on Barbie, was hired to be a consultant on this project. She had dominated the meeting in Pawtucket, and was full of great ideas. But she was released when her brief contract with Hasbro ended. Then, several months into the project, the young lady who was acting as Project Manager for Friends n’ Family went on maternity leave. More importantly, at the end of the first year, the head of Hasbro’s entire girls division left the company. It was she, who as a veteran of Cabbage Patch, had championed our dolls. This move spelled doom for Friendz 'n Family.
The woman, who Hasbro hired to replace her, took one look at Friendz 'n Family, which was supposed to be Hasbro’s lead girl’s item for the following year, and purportedly proclaimed. "I’m not betting my chances of succeeding here on a doll that doesn’t do anything!" And so, she "placed the dolls on a back burner."
We were not informed of this decision, until nearly a year later, when our two year contract was due to expire. At that time, this same new Head of Girls Product, who had managed to weather a lack luster year, without our Friendz n’ Family, came to the Obb, apologetically. She confessed that she had been responsible for putting the dolls on hold. And claimed that, since then, she had done a complete turnabout and "Now she got it!" proclaiming herself to suddenly be a "Friendz 'n Family Moonie!" Thus, Hasbro paid us an additional advance and guarantee, and extended our contract for one more year.
Charlie Brown and Lucy's elusive football has nothing me. I guess I’ll keep on trying to kick that fabled football, until someone takes it away, and puts a bucket in its place. So rather than being cautious and incredulous, I bought into the "Moonie" story, and enthusiastically set about creating a Puppy to join my Friendz ‘n Family! It turned out to be the last toy I began, and one of the first I never finished.
These Family Friendly Puppies were on their way to being the nicest dogs I ever made. They were carried nearly to completion. All their heads were cast in latex with a variety of expressions, along with all the body parts, ready to be assembled, and lacking just the flocking. At the time, I purchased several huge throw pillows of animal heads. I intended to cut them up to use their fabric for the legs and ears of the new puppies. Those pillows kicked around in the storage area, behind my desk, for years, since then, unused, and always in the way. Therefore, three years ago, I gave them to my grandson, Sammy, knowing that, once and forever, I was sealing the fate of the unfinished puppies. They will never happen now. All the heads and paws and bodies, along with the molds and clay sculptures are stored in boxes, way back in the secret storage area, under the floor.
Before that year was over, Hasbro dropped the project. Why? The short answer is:
One thing never changed, throughout the three years, Hasbro toyed with Friendz n’ Family; they could never quite figure out a merchandising angle. The dolls had visual appeal and play value, but they didn’t have a "feature" or a gimmick, or any "pre-sell." The term "Pre-sell" means a previous history of success that makes a property instantly familiar. Pre-sell is why everything "new" today, from toys to movies, is usually a sequel or reissue of something old that has already proved itself to be successful.
So what happened? Through the door walked "Trollz", the marriage of the ugly, and once popular, Trolls and the, now hot, smart-assed Bratz. Trolls meets Bratz! What’s not to understand? Two proven winners get together and dive into a blender. This, Hasbro could grasp; they knew the merchandising angle. They thought this misbegotten mishmash would be an easy sell. So Friendz n’ Family were replaced by "Trollz".
At the risk of seeming to savor sour grapes, I dare say, Hasbro must have, ultimately, regretted this decision. For Trollz were an instant disaster, and went directly to the close-out counter, in spite of an exquisitely annoying TV show.
Thus, in the end, we had been screwed again by Horrible Hasbro. Like Invasion Earth before it, they held our property for three years, then, tossed it back. The advance and guarantee that they had paid us, was a frustrating way to make a living, but better than nothing, and just enough to supply my family with three meals a day, while I continued to pursue my true life’s passion, the Great Adventure of Collecting.