This guest column comes from Brian Volk-Weiss, creator and executive producer of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us.
In 2011, I was in a Borders bookstore when the initial kernel of the idea that would become The Toys That Made Us hit me like a ton of Energon Cubes; why were there so many books about the War of 1812 and zero about the origin of Transformers? Or G.I. JOE? Or He-Man? The War of 1812’s importance notwithstanding, how was it possible that hundreds of millions of people knew the names Optimus Prime and Snake Eyes, had their youths shaped by those characters, and yet not one book out of the thousands that were on display could be purchased and taken home to learn about their origins? That was how my nearly five-year journey to get one of my most personal shows made and seen by the world began.
It’s worth mentioning that in 2011 I not only didn’t have a subscription to Netflix, but the majority of people who did were only using it to get plastic discs mailed to them through the U.S. Postal service; the term “streaming” wasn’t one most people were familiar with yet (including me), although that would change soon enough.
The first thing any producer does during a project’s inception is to figure out “what’s the show”? This term means that the parameters of the series must be established; how many episodes should be made? How long will the episodes be? What will the episodes focus on? Is this an expensive show to make, or something achievable on a smaller budget? The way I usually go about this is to make a “deck” 5 to 15 pages long that includes graphics, a description of what the show will be, and ideas for potential subsequent episodes and seasons. The original title was The Toys That Made America and we used that famous painting “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” as the cover, except our art department replaced all the soldiers’ heads with iconic toys (we replaced George with none other than Optimus Prime himself).
The title was inspired by a lot of shows I’d done for the History Channel and I thought it seemed right for them. If we focused on the history of the toys and their contribution to American culture (for example, Todd Beamer’s last audible words on Flight 93 during the September 11 attacks were “Let’s roll,” echoing Optimus Prime), I figured they would probably bite.
I called up an exec at History who I had done a lot of business with, Tim Healy, and pitched him the idea. He loved it immediately, which led to the next and obvious question: “Do you have anything I can show my boss?” Of course I did – I had been waiting for my cue. I exclaimed “Yes!” and hit send. Tim looked at the deck while I stayed on the line and he gave me, in real time, a few great notes. He also informed me that History was getting ready to commission a bunch of shows targeting the Christmas season, and “The Toys That Made America” might be a perfect fit.
My team immediately began incorporating his notes into our deck. During the course of our conversation it became clear that he intended this to be what is commonly referred to as a “one off” episode, meaning a single program, either one or two hours long, that would be aired to see how it performed. This is a common practice, also known as an “airing pilot,” or a “back door pilot.” In essence, it’s something intended to provide a “proof of concept” for the network before they invest further resources into the show. If the “airing pilot” attracts a significant number of viewers, it becomes very likely that more episodes will be ordered – but if it doesn’t, then it’s off to Snake Mountain!
Based on Healy’s feedback we refined the deck, working on it for a few weeks in order to get us to a place where the network would pull the trigger. Tim’s boss wasn’t quite onboard, so he had to sell it hard, and he eventually prevailed and swung things in our direction. Finally, we were at the one-yard line – and then the head of History Channel at the time suddenly decided that a show focused on toys wouldn’t do well. They killed the project the day I expected to receive word we were getting greenlit. I was crestfallen (a word I don’t use often or lightly), but like all producers, I decided to carry on, flogging my wares elsewhere. I was convinced of the project’s viability – somebody, somewhere, would agree with me.
The next buyer to bite was an exec I had known for a long time at National Geographic named Nicole Reed, who also liked the idea. She also gave me a ton of notes, spoke to her boss, and things appeared to be going in the right direction again. I should mention that when in the business of selling TV shows, flexibility is a requirement – the show based on NatGeo’s notes would have been significantly different from the show I was planning to make with The History Channel, or what would eventually air on Netflix; NatGeo’s version was much more celebrity focused. For example, the episode about Transformers would have been mostly centered on Mark Wahlberg and Michael Bay, with the toys serving as a device to get them involved. NatGeo’s business at that time was (and remains) focused on movie stars and high-end talent. It wasn’t ideal, but selling television shows is a difficult business, and the bulk of the work is done before anything goes in front of a camera. It also usually means that getting a show made at all is better than never having it see the light of day.
In any case, we had real momentum going and we got so far along in the process that we had started putting together ideas about what the set design would look like – and then, just like at History Channel, they pulled the plug at the eleventh hour. I was in Gilroy, California (the “garlic capital” of the world – you can smell it as you drive past on the freeway), producing a pilot for Discovery Channel when the call came. Once again, I was fully expecting to hear we were greenlit (a producer must live in hope – otherwise you can’t be one). I was wrong. Kicked in the teeth again, my project was dead. Again. And for the record, Nicole was as dumbfounded and bummed out as I was.
As fate would have it, while all of this was going on, I was in the midst of producing a lot of standup comedy specials (my bread and butter for many years) for Netflix. One of the executives I worked with there, Devin Griffin, is super smart, Stanford educated, and in my experience one of the toughest negotiators in the business. He had just helped launch Netflix’s new unscripted/reality department, which meant that, suddenly, somebody I had done business with for years was in a position where something like Toys could be of interest to him. At this point I have to explain that producers are like actors – we get typecast. Devin, like everyone, knew me as a producer of standup comedy specials, and Toys would be, from his (and anybody’s) point of view, a complete departure for me. Luckily, he had been in my house and seen my toy collection, so he understood that I was coming to the project from a place of genuine passion. I sent Devin the deck we had made for History Channel, and persistently kept calling and emailing him over many months to see if I could drum up interest in Toys.
I thought he was eventually going to tell me to stop calling because he wasn’t interested in making my show. But when Devin did get back to me, he gave me plenty of notes, but no definitive “yes.” Instead, he explained that the perfect example of a show Netflix was then streaming was That ‘70s Show. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what that bit of information had to do with Toys (I only went to the University of Iowa), so he explained, That ‘70s Show gets 40 and 50 year-old viewers because of their nostalgia for the era the show is set in, and it also gets younger viewers because of the appeal of the youthful and attractive cast. Therefore, it’s the perfect show.
Armed with this new feedback, my team and I went out and shot a five-minute sales tape on spec. We filmed half of it at my local vintage toy store Blast From The Past, where we interviewed all our subjects. With the That ‘70s Show example uppermost in my mind, we shot interviews of five-year-old girls playing with Barbie dolls, and also a forty-year-old woman discussing Barbie (my good friend Marissa Ordonez). We had young kids playing with modern Optimus Prime, and older people transforming a vintage Optimus Prime. We then turned my living room into a mini-sound stage (my patient wife provided catering) where we shot close ups of most of the toys from my collection to integrate with our interview footage.
We worked on the tape until we felt it was as slick and polished as we could possibly make it, designed to pull on the heartstrings and exploit as much childhood nostalgia as possible. Music is key to pulling this off – we opened with Chris Brown and Lil’ Wayne’s “I Can Transform Ya,” switched to Hans Zimmer’s Superman theme from Man of Steel, and closed strong with Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better.” Only a dead person could fail to be moved. I excitedly sent the tape over to Netflix… and waited. For months.
When I finally heard back from Devin he informed me that, while we still weren’t greenlit, he had hired a new executive named Nat Grouille who would be my contact for Toys moving forward. This was good news – we were making progress.
When I received Nat’s first call I was once again in Gilroy, overseeing additional shooting for the Discovery Channel pilot. He caught me in my hotel room, which had two halves, a sitting room-type area and a sleeping area. Don’t be deceived by that – a charitable description of this hotel would categorize it as a wannabe Comfort Inn. Nat started speaking and I immediately realized that my cell connection sucked and that Nat had a really thick English accent. I’m terrible with accents over the phone. Making matters even worse, the extremely old air conditioning unit in the bedroom was deafening. But I didn’t know Nat yet and Toys moving forward potentially hinged on what he was saying during that call. I frantically scribbled into my notebook, trying to get down all his points. Something about audiences. Or maybe about provinces? I ran into the sitting area, as far away from the noisy bedroom air conditioner as possible.
And then the deafening A.C. in the sitting room came on. I couldn’t spot the thermostat anywhere. While I continued to scribble frantically the A.C. in the bedroom turned off, so I ran back over there. But after a while it clanged on again, forcing me back into the sitting area. In this manner I ran back and forth with my pen and notebook, trying not to miss a single word, fully aware that my show’s fate hung in the balance, the outcome dependent on whether or not I understood what he was saying correctly!
Eventually, I was able to piece together everything Nat said (I think), and based on that, we tweaked the sales tape and sent it back to Netflix. And waited some more.
When we finally heard back – they loved it. With Nat’s awesome help we had secured an eight episode order from Devin Griffin! The Toys That Made America (now renamed The Toys That Made Us) had finally found what would turn out to be the perfect home!
Now all we had to do was make it…
The Toys That Made Us will be back for season 3: here’s everything we know about it!