Nearly 40 years ago, Mattel took a chance at launching a new toy brand that was steeped in science fiction and fantasy and consistently fed kids’ appetites for adventure with a steady stream of epic storytelling and new toys. Masters of the Universe (MOTU) was one of the first transmedia properties to become a franchise, and it helped to shape the entertainment and licensing businesses into the powerful forces they are today.
“Back then, we weren’t even using the word ‘franchise,’” says PlayMonster President Tim Kilpin, whose first job in the toy industry was naming MOTU characters and writing stories for the mini-comics that came with each action figure. “We were making it up as we went along a little bit back in the ‘80s. The brand exploded in popularity, and we raced to keep up. New characters, new mini-comic stories, and new episodes for the TV series — it was all happening in real-time, with very little advance planning.” Eventually, Kilpin became the marketing manager for the entire MOTU line and led the brand through its first rise and fall.
According to a 1984 article from The New York Times, Mattel sold more than 70 million MOTU action figures in the first 2.5 years of the brand as kids scooped up He-Man, Skeletor, and every side character they could find. While it peaked with $400 million in sales in 1986, it crashed to just $7 million the following year. Although kids were starting to tune out, the company was still far ahead in development on some later toys that have since become some of the most legendary and sought-after collectibles on the secondary market. The most looming example: the Eternia Playset.
During his time at Mattel, Mike McKittrick designed and engineered numerous figures and vehicles for the MOTU brand, including Thunder Punch He-Man and Spydor. But, in terms of scale and sheer ambition, Eternia was something unheard of.
“The Eternia Playset was a huge project and I was assigned to it as the lead engineer,” McKittrick recalls. “The project was so big in scope that my manager assigned two other engineers to assist me. At that time, MOTU had already peaked and overall sales were starting to decline. Marketing wanted something big to keep the momentum and increase sales.”
Billed as “The Biggest Masters of the Universe Set Ever,” the Eternia set packed “Three Titanic Towers” into its gigantic box. The towers were connected by a monorail track on which mechanical vehicles could circle the play area. “Not only was this set meant to be enormous, but it was also meant to expand by having the existing Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain playsets attach to its sides for an even larger footprint,” McKittrick says.
According to McKittrick, the initial cost estimate was “through the roof,” and the company made its way through a list of more than 20 intended features in favor of replacing them with only a handful of features that were better. Still, the playset was extraordinarily elaborate and ended up with the highest tooling bill that Mattel had ever seen.
“I recall the original estimated production quota in round numbers was 60,000 units and break-even, I believe, was around 40,000,” McKittrick says. “As we progressed with final engineering and started making tools, the quota dipped down to around 40,000. As we approached the start date for production, the quota dropped to 20,000 plus or minus. Ultimately we produced a little more than 4,000 units.”
Eternia hit retail with a price point of around $140. With so few units produced and the tendency for the old plastic to break easily, complete sets in their sealed boxes sell for nearly $4,000 today.
Following a short-lived reboot as “He-Man” in 1989 and some rights issues involving the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe animated series, the brand went dormant until collectors became a powerful force in the toy business just in time for MOTU’s 20th anniversary.
Ned Ward was the senior product manager of boys’ toys at Mattel, led the launch of a commemorative series of MOTU reissues, and worked on the team behind the “200x” brand relaunch. According to Ward, MOTU opened the doors for Mattel to become a regular fixture at a then-developing new market for companies to peddle toys to the adult collector: Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC).
“Back then Mattel hadn’t done SDCC, and at that point was still not very serious about their collector fans,” Ward says. “But we knew that we had a chance to start excitement with the fans before the new product came out, and the show was a huge success! We sold out of the cold cast resin figures by The Four Horsemen before the show, thus paying for it and starting Mattel’s involvement with SDCC and being connected to the fans.”
While the 200x reboot didn’t necessarily connect with kids as intended, it launched a collector market that has grown ever since. Following a brief collaboration with NECA on a series of busts, Mattel launched MOTU Classics in 2008, selling direct-to-consumer via Matty Collector, before flipping the line to Super7, where it continued until last year, culminating with a playset that’s even bigger than Eternia: the MOTU Collector’s Choice Snake Mountain Playset.
Now, MOTU is back with Mattel where the company will relaunch it into the mainstream with its biggest presence at retail and on screens since the ‘80s, in an effort to bridge 40 years of fandom while planting the seeds for a new crop of Eternian enthusiasts.
“MOTU’s universal themes and focus on self-empowerment are ones that are especially relevant to both adults and children today. That’s why we are launching two series tied to Masters of the Universe this year,” says Mattel Vice President Rob David, executive producer on both shows. “The first, for which Kevin Smith is serving as showrunner, is called Masters of the Universe: Revelation and picks up where the story in the ‘80s left off, speaking to the original fans of the franchise. The second is He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a new kids’ series that will bring the world of He-Man, Teela, and Skeletor to a new generation of fans.”
Of course, the new series are backed with new toy lines, including 7-inch Masterverse action figures; the extensive range of retro-inspired MOTU Origins figures, vehicles, and playsets; and a ton of spin-off products and licensed merch and apparel from companies such as Chalk Line, Mondo, Factory Entertainment, Heroes & Villains, and many more. So, in the end, what’s the appeal?
“At its core, MOTU is all about becoming the best version of yourself,” David says. “The biggest opportunity we have is that we can take MOTU’s diverse universe of characters, with its signature mashup of science fiction and fantasy, and apply modern storytelling. Both shows tell an epic, serialized saga where every episode is a chapter in a larger story arc, where our characters can grow and discover the one thing they are born to be. Kids, parents, and adult fans will all have the chance to dive in and invest in these characters and their journeys — and together, we all have the power!”
This article was original published in Issue No. 10 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue! Want even more secrets of Eternia? Check out “Backstory: Masters of the Universe” at our sister publication, the Toy Book!