When it comes to designing coveted collectible toys for sale at Comic-Con, the annual celebration of pop culture lifting off Thursday in San Diego, the sky's the limit for the designers at Mattel.
Fittingly, the building where Mattel Inc.'s (Nasdaq: MAT) dreamers conceive of their limited-edition playthings is just down the street from the Los Angeles International Airport.
Inside the colorful design center -- a Hot Wheels-themed shuttle bus transports employees from Mattel's parking garage -- the designers have spent the past year working on 10 toys created especially for the Comic-Con crowd, including a replica of the Batmobile from the upcoming game “Batman: Arkham Knight” and a 9-inch-tall action figure of Superman killer Doomsday.
“We don't have to worry about retail. We don't have to worry about margins,” said Doug Wadleigh, Mattel's senior vice president of global brand marketing for boys and entertainment. “We don't have to worry about operational efficiencies. We only have to worry about creating the coolest toys for our fans. Period.”
It also offers some escape from Mattel's reality these days. Like other toy makers struggling in this digital, video-centric age, the company is trying to remain relevant in the retail world.
Core brands like Barbie have seen less of a demand, with a 14 percent drop in sales in the first quarter of this year. Mattel had a net loss for the first three months ending March 31 that totaled $11.2 million.
But things will at least seem rosier at Comic-Con, where eager buyers for the toys await (the only other place they will be sold is on the Mattel collector's site).
Mattel's exclusives this year run between $20 and $85, but elite toys can fetch much more when they're put up for auction.
The crown jewel for Wadleigh and his team this year is a Darth Vader die-cast car, the first official collaboration from Hot Wheels and the “Star Wars” franchise.
The car -- imagine if a Chevrolet Corvette C5 and the villainous Sith lord's helmet had a baby -- comes in a sleek black box and encased in a replica of Vader's lightsaber, complete with a swooshing sound effect.
“We've been trying to partner with Lucasfilm and Disney on this property for a long time,” said Wadleigh.
A full-size working replica of the Vadermobile will be on display at Mattel's booth at the massive San Diego Convention Center.
The vehicle is capable of going up to 80 miles per hour, and the dashboard inside will resemble the interior of Darth Vader's helmet (yes, it will emit his breathing sounds, too).
Comic-Con will be the first place that fans can see the initial line-up of “Star Wars” Hot Wheels. The first set is modeled after such classic characters as Han Solo, Yoda, R2-D2 and Chewbacca.
Several other toy makers and publishers are also pushing collectible toys and books at Comic-Con. The line-up from Mattel rival Hasbro Inc. (Nasdaq: HAS) this year includes a set of Marvel superhero figures that comes with a wearable foam Infinity Gauntlet, a box of Transformers figures depicting the `bots as rock stars and a giant foam replica axe from “Magic: The Gathering.”