Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins Get the Funko Pops Treatment
Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins Get the Funko Pops Treatment
There are more than 9,000 editions of Funko Pops, those ubiquitous vinyl figurines with their black, saucerlike eyeballs and oblong heads. There are likenesses of Michael Jordan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sailor Moon and the Incredible Hulk, Hermione Granger and Ned Stark. Recent releases include a Filipino fast-food mascot (Jollibee) and a TV egghead (Bill Nye); to date, there are 34 distinct figures of Conan O’Brien, in assorted costumes and looks.
There is even a popular series based on film directors, which began in 2016 with a Paul Feig figurine, tied to the release of his “Ghostbusters” reboot. Since then, the line has expanded to include Alfred Hitchcock, Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, and four others (five if you count the producer Jason Blum, which some collectors do).
But Funko has never released a Pop based on a female film director, living or dead — until now.
In March, the Everett, Wa.-based toy company debuted a Pop based on the director Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us,” “Selma”), complete with signature black glasses and a T-shirt with the name of the director’s indie film distribution company, Array, on the front. This month, Patty Jenkins will be similarly honored with her own Funko, which was initially timed to celebrate the June release, since postponed to August because of the pandemic, of her sequel “Wonder Woman 1984.”
Jenkins has her Pop in her dining room. “I keep thinking I should put it away,” she said, “but it’s so fun to see.”
With more than 600 active licensed properties, Funko has made much of its fortune ($795 million in total sales in 2019 alone) on these pop culture creations, with many of the hottest sellers coming from superheroes (Marvel and DC), fantasy franchises (Harry Potter, “Game of Thrones”), and animation series (“The Simpsons,” “Dragon Ball Z”).
The directors series follows the same profitable format, focusing on popular filmmakers most likely to click with fans of, say, Funko Pops. A third of buyers are avid collectors, around half are women — and nearly all are fans of pop culture, of one sort or another. So while there are no Pops based on Fellini or Kurosawa, the series does include James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), whose limited-edition figurine can be purchased online for around $1,000, and Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”), resplendent in matching pineapple-emblazoned shirt and shorts.
(In the weird world of Pop nomenclature, the DuVernay and Jenkins figures are actually the first in Funko’s official Pop! Directors series. The previous honorees are in the Pop! Movies category, but identified as “Director” on the boxes. So DuVernay’s Pop, labeled “O1” to designate it as the first, has the redundant labels of “Pop! Directors” and “Director” on the packaging.)
How does a director become a Pop? The selection process can seem arbitrary, but there are back doors in. Quentin Tarantino isn’t in the directors line, for example, but got a Pop for his role as Jimmie Dimmick, a minor figure in his own 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” The German director Werner Herzog didn’t make the cut either, but was honored with a figure for his small role as the Client in the “Star Wars” spinoff “The Mandalorian.”
In 2018, Leslie Combemale, a film critic and creator of the “Women Rocking Hollywood” panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, penned an essay for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, wondering why Funko had never created a Pop figure based on a female filmmaker. She nominated Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins for the honor, and even posted mock-ups (created on Funko’s own “Pop Yourself” app) to accompany her plea.
“Ava’s really important now, because she’s not only a woman of color who’s breaking barriers as a director, she’s also bringing in female filmmakers of all colors,” she said. “And I picked Patty because she didn’t just do ‘Wonder Woman,’ she stuck to what she wanted to do and say to make the second film.”
Making Pops of real people, female directors or otherwise, presents special challenges, said Lauren Winarski, Funko’s senior manager of brand and licensing. Some people have never heard of Funko; others might not want to be depicted with a weirdly shaped, oversized head.
And then there’s the dangers of making Pops of people who end up being hated by a significant portion of the population. “A few years ago, we thought, we’ll do Bernie and Hillary and Trump,” said Ben Butcher, Funko’s senior vice president of creative. “And people were like, why’d you do that person? Do you agree with them on this? So we learned our lesson.”
Plans for the DuVernay and Jenkins dolls received a push from another director and Funko Pop honoree. “J.J. Abrams was involved in me being chosen,” DuVernay said. “He had said, as he does, great guy, do you have any women directors involved, and do you have any people of color involved? And that’s how they started to include me in the thinking, which I thought was pretty fantastic.”
According to Abrams, Funko had called about making a figure of him, and “it occurred to me how much more people would enjoy having Ava and Patty on their shelves. I was essentially doing Funko a favor.”
When Funko got the go-ahead from both directors, the work began in earnest.
For DuVernay’s Pop, the director pointed to a Barbie that Mattel had created of her in 2015, the year “Selma” was nominated for a best picture Oscar. “I told them you can just take the same Barbie outfit, which is basically what I wear on set: the tennis shoes, the glasses, my hoops and bracelets.”
“I wanted them to pay attention to the hair, because I have different hair than most directors,” she added. “And so my hair has tripped up Barbie and Funko. But I think they did a really beautiful job to try to create texture and celebrate my locks.”
Jenkins also had hair issues with her Pop. “I think the only thing I might change is having it have my more usual dark hair. My hair has been a little lighter recently, just on a whim, but maybe I should have stuck to my more general look.”
The earliest director Pops were released as exclusives, some copies only available to attendees of the New York and San Diego comic cons. Many have since rocketed in price (for example, only 200 Paul Feig Pops were made and now run about $300 a piece). Today, fans and honorees alike regularly post photos on social media of their latest Pop purchases.
“It’s become sort of a badge of honor,” Butcher said. “With ‘Game of Thrones,’ the talent started posting pictures as the first ones came out, and it turned into this thing where the others were like, hey, when’s mine coming?”
Who’s next? Funko won’t say, although Winarski admitted that there is one director they’ve been pursuing awhile. “I think we started the conversation three years ago,” she said.
Combemale is pushing hard for more female directors, with Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) and the French new wave filmmaker Agnès Varda topping her list. “It’s especially important to have representation in vinyl figures, or in whatever is the most popular way that pop culture is articulated in our society,” she said. “Part of the argument for female filmmakers not getting hired for big films is that they supposedly don’t have name recognition, and so getting that recognition in pop culture, in toy stores, makes a huge difference.”
As for DuVernay, she gives out her Pop likenesses to students who visit her Array offices in Los Angeles (back before the headquarters were shuttered because of the coronavirus); she also has one in her home, sharing shelf space alongside Pops of Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling that were created to celebrate her 2018 adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time.”
“I think the thing I love about the figure is the sweetness of it,” she said. “It’s like a little baby. There’s an innocence. And especially in these moments, it makes you smile.”