Interview With John Balen, director of Toys, Disney Store

I had a chance to talk with John Balen on Preview Night of San Diego Comic Con, and he was more than happy to share a little about this exciting new line of toys from Disney Stores.

So tell me a little about the pop vinyl line and how it kind of came to be.
It was a year and a half ago, that one of the designers from our pixar studios who we’re friends with and we work on a lot of projects with, including the design projects for all the movies. He saw the pop line for the first time at the toy fair in 2010, and we, he was like you’ve got to go see this line, like we love this line, I think it would be amazing, for our characters. And like, he never leads us astray. So we went and saw Brian at Funko, and we fell in love with the whole Pop line, and we were like we have to do these in Disney characters. So we did. We came out with Series one, which is actually there on the top shelf, all series one is available in Disney Stores, and starting last, in May. So that’s our very first series that we had out of those 12 characters, and we just loved having them, and what we wanted to do is to bring them out to comic con to really introduce them to the comic con guests, whose gonna get that connection of art and vinyl and the toy collectable movement. And to really be able to identify and say ‘hey this is the Disney store, like I wouldn’t expect to see this at the Disney store, so we wanted to introduce some special editions here for that guest to be able to discover what we have in our stores.
And then you guys just put out a release today about the new robot Mickey line.

A whole new robot vinylmation line comes out Friday, and its actually, we have this great signing happening at the fashion valley store Friday and Saturday nights with all the artists that worked on the line so they’re there to do signings and its going to be so much fun. That line is really near and dear to our hearts and its only the second vinylmation that Disney store artists designed, it’s the whole vinylmation line is a collaboration that started at the Disney theme parks. So Disney Theme parks started the whole vinylmation line and then Disney Stores designed villains and so that was our first series that came out in the spring. And then robots come out this Friday, and we’re super excited about this one.
Is that connected to any kind of movie or anything?
No. It is wholly inspired,  our idea about this retro 50s art style. We’ve got an amazing viral video that you’ve got to check out. Its like a whole retro throwback to 50s monster movies, that’s so cute and we just love it. We’ve already gotten an amazing response to it so far. And we’re real excited to launch that line. I think it will probably be our fastest selling line. I think we’re really excited about that one.
We’re do you see it going from here? You did the villain line, now you’re doing the robots.
So at Disney Store we’re committed to doing a new vinylmation series as often as we can crank out some art work or come up with a great concept, so we’ve got vinylmation plotted out for the next couple of years, all new series, some in collaboration with the parks, some on our own, some are Disney Store exclusives. So we’ve got lots of crazy things coming. It’s all a really fun job for our artists to do, because really they can think of anything they want, and when the designs look amazing and really click, its like a winner, which makes us really excited.
Well yeah. It’s great for kids, and the big kids.
That’s the thing. It’s the whole pop line has an amazing design aesthetic sensibility because it does appeal to little kids, but it does also appeal to like collectors and adults. Like I’m seeing adults come out of here with armfuls of them and you know what it’s not just kids who love them, so  like it’s great for us because we can introduce this whole line to this guest who may not be in the Disney Stores.
And then there’s also the Wizard of Oz series that is displayed here.
Funko actually has licenses for multiple lines. So they’re doing lots of properties, but the only ones you’ll find at Disney Stores are the Disney characters, though I think we may be introducing the Marvel characters soon.

Let me actually describe some of these to you, they’re really fantastic. There’s, my favorite in the line, the flocked Sully. The regular line features a painted Sully, but this one is flocked. He actually has a texture to him. There’s only 480 pieces to him and once he’s gone, he’s gone. And then his companion is a glow in the dark Mike Wazowski, which is amazing and there’s also only 480 pieces of those. Also there’s the chrome edition of Mickey, and a Mr. Incredible that’s actually in his retro costume. When this comes out in series 2, he’ll be in his regular Mr. Incredible costume, but this is the only place you can get him in his retro costume.

Are they going to have the other Incredibles or just Mr. Incredible.
We are going to introduce them in future series, so that’s a little preview to you. We started with Mr. Incredible, and we’re introducing other Monsters characters too. So they’re all an inkling of series we’re planning, we’ve planned all the way to series four. So we’ve got series 2 coming out this fall, series 3 coming out sometime after that, and series 4 is still in the design concept stage.
Are any of the Cars characters planning on crossing over to vinyl?
We are working on it. That is the biggest design challenge right now for our Pixar designer, Ben Butcher, whose actually gonna be here signing tomorrow. He’s going to be here doing a signing in the booth tomorrow, and Friday morning, and he is working on it. It’s a tricky aesthetic to convert into a four wheeled car, let’s put it that way. I’m like good luck Ben, go for it.
Do you think that the Cars are the hardest to convert, or was there another one that was more challenging?
They all have their unique challenges, but the cars are definitely hard, we still haven’t figured out how to do Lightning McQueen as a pop character yet, but we’re working on it. We’re working on it. I’m always like where’s Ben, because if Ben was here he could tell you how its going.
Maybe I’ll come back and ask Ben.
Exactly! Ask Ben tomorrow while he’s doing the signing. Just go, so how are you gonna come out with a Lightning McQueen in pop. That’s what I want to see.
So he can go, “Ooooo, Hmmm.” No they are adorable though, I’ve seen them in the stores, but they never have them all in.
We have the 12 here, but none of the series one are available. They’re available online at Disney Store and, but its starting to sell out. We’re real excited because it’s going real fast. 


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