AnJon, Inc. doesn't instantly bring to mind visions of toys yet, but it's only a matter of time before they do. Being a new company in an industry full of great products and people isn't easy, and being noticed is harder still. Starting with a great license, solid toys and the desire to succeed, they are on their way.
The masterminds behind AnJon are Dan & Judy Dern, Chris Dern, and Ivan Nagalo.
Chris puts hands to clay as a sculptor and much of his prior work is already in the hands of collectors everywhere. If you have the Resaurus Special Forces Seal figure, you have your very own Chris Dern voodoo doll as the head on this figure is his own. This started a trend among the staffers, and soon the heads of the accessory packs looked just like the people at Resaurus. Chris started at Resaurus right out of college, C.C.A.D. (Columbus Collage of Art and Design). He used the time there not only to sculpt but to learn what he could about the toy business. Chris jokes, "When I was hired at Resaurus they told me they had a five-year plan for the company," He looks at his watch and then looks up, "yep, they were around about five years!"
Ivan majored in illustration also at C.C.A.D. and shares one love that a pair of other young men from Cleveland (Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster) have, that is comics. Ivan wears his love not only on his sleeve, but also his finger as he wore a silver Superman ring when we met. Ivan does much of the contact work with other creators, and is constantly keeping in touch with potential licensees. "With cell phone technology I'm
available all the time, so whatever hours someone we're working with
keeps, I can keep."
Ivan and Chris
With AnJon, there isn't a five year plan, besides to start a new one after five are up. They want to continue to produce toys, and the goal for Toy Fair 2003 is to have three lines under their belt – the first two series of 'Dragon's Lair' and then a third line that hasn't been finalized yet. The name AnJon is an amalgam of Chris' and Dan's middle name (Jon) - Judy and Stacy's (Ann). "The president came up with that name; I want little or no credit. I prefer Sculpt This."
Chris is also the 'sculpt' in 'Sculpt This!' who began doing freelance work for other companies after ReSaurus and before AnJon decided to jump head first into the Toy Industry. Sculpt This has worked with such companies as Moore Action Collectibles, Playing Mantis, Hasbro, Toy Biz, Big Fun, and last but not least the gang at Plan B.
Sculpt This is a division of AnJon, Inc. "We wanted to remain a separate entity so we could still offer our sculpting and design work to others."
The initial license is 'Dragon's Lair' based on the revolutionary arcade game from 1983. Dragon's Lair was the first laser disc game and it introduced feature quality animation to arcade games, and was also one of the earliest games that cost more than a quarter to play. The game took input from the player, and this was fed into the machine to determine which clip to play after that, giving the player a chance to actually control how the game went. The animation is top notch, and Don Bluth's work started at Disney, but he later moved on to his own features like The Secret of Nimh and All Dogs go to Heaven.
AnJon is cutting their manufacturing teeth on a license that has many
traits that would make it attractive to any company, new or established.
Dragon's Lair has marquee value, as it was one of the major arcade games
in a time when the arcades were just becoming prominent. The game uses
animation, which makes modeling easier than having to get likeness
approvals of actors. The game is also virgin territory, as no one else
has tried to capitalize on the characters with toys. And there is
nostalgia for the game and a sequel on the way this fall. AnJon is
working with Digital Leisure out of Canada as their distributor. Digital Leisure has been involved with marketing and selling the original Dragon's Lair game for years and it just seemed like a good fit.
So how did a brand new company land this license while others never touched it? Serendipity. "It was really just great timing. We were looking for a particular license that would lend itself to have great action figures so we could get started designing and manufacturing our first toy line, and Dragon's Lair was a great fit. We first contacted The Bluth Group proposed our idea for Dragon's Lair figures, showed them what we were capable of producing for them, and the rest is toy history."
display area in studio
Any new toy company starting a new line of action figures is bound to have a few hurdles, starting with just what figures to make. Even if the schedule is meticulously planned, all the designs and sculpts go well and the production is finished, there can still be a few bumps. Just such a hurdle is facing rookie toy company AnJon, one that only waiting will solve.
"One of our big goals with the first line was to have a great product and have them produced on schedule. Our future reputation would depend on our ability to get these done well and on time, so this was a high priority. The figures have all been manufactured and they are ready for release August 1."
We are coordinating with the release of a new Dragon's Lair game for the Game cube, PA2, Box, PC and Mac so there is a bigger marketing push and a bigger presence. "While we're ready to get these out onto shelves now, it'll be better for the toys and the game for everything to hit at once. All the retailers understand and they've been great in seeing the big picture and working around the new schedule with us."
The figures have been a rousing success at Toy Fair with retailers, press and other companies alike. "We've been incredibly pleased with the reactions from everyone who saw these at Toy Fair. The instant recognition of Dirk has been amazing, and we've had such positive reactions from everyone."
The first license and production toys are the key to future success for any new toy company, as it will be the benchmark that any possible licensors will measure you against. More than that, getting something produced is the first step to proving you can do the work and that opens many doors. They explain:
"It's very hard to go to a company and obtain a license and then tell them it will be your first line. Companies are naturally concerned about what you can deliver and how large your channels of distribution are. Once you are able to get that first line into production you've passed your initiation and then many more companies are willing to sit down and discuss what you have to offer."
If there's a bigger goal for AnJon, it may be evident in the studio. Toys are all around the office, some by them and many by others, but one brand of toy dominates Chris's desk – Spawn and McFarlane Toys. It seems many small toy companies all use Todd McFarland's success as a target, but is it the same for AnJon?
"Of course, we would love to have the success of a company like that and eventually have the freedom to design and create our own action figures, but that isn't why McFarlane is a popular target or a goal for other companies. I believe it is because they continue to be innovative. McFarlane continues to push forward with respect to material, paint, detail, and most important overall design of his sculptures. Todd has changed the industry and what a company could do with a toy action figure, and he keeps doing that. That is why companies aim for him, because he's the leader when it comes to these issues. For example the sports figures they are doing now, because of it I believe Hasbro has recently added improved poses to their Starting Line-ups and paint washes. McFarlane quickly pushed the limits with the new sport figures and they have become by far the best mass produced sport figures I've ever seen. (Actually I'm just waiting to buy Brett Farve.) What is great about pushing the limit is that it offers collectors and fans better and better product."
AnJon designed the Dragon's Lair figures from the toe up to be toys. "We wanted a product that looks like the characters from the video game so a fan could be proud to set something like this on his/her desk. At the same time allow the figures to be a fun toy to play with as well. I feel this is most evident in our Singe figure especially. We used softer PVCs in areas to allow more movement and to allow for a different material for touch and feel. The inner armatures in his tail, his bendy neck and soft rubbery fin."
The production pieces for Dragon's Lair are very impressive, especially with the use of various materials in the figures. RTM will have a complete Spotlight feature on the figures when the release date is nearer to show off these excellent toys.
And keep your eyes peeled for more information on the Series 2 Dragon's Lair figures, as they are being sculpted and may be revealed in the near future.
This article was written in May 2002, after a visit to AnJon in April 2002. The photograph montage of Chris and Ivan is courtesy of and copyright Chris Dern and Ivan Nagalo. Used with permission.