Brian Volk-Weiss knows a lot about a lot of things—including toys. Brian and his team at The Nacelle Company have produced some of the most detailed dives into pop culture, including the Disney+ series Behind the Attraction and History’s Star Trek program The Center Seat. What they’re best known for, though, is the Netflix fan favorite A Toy Store Near You, which has spent four seasons highlighting unique toy stores around America and the fans who run them. Between that and the company’s The Toys That Made Us, Brian’s established himself as a toy aficionado.
With that in mind, it’s no shock at all that Nacelle has moved into the toy world for themselves. The company is about to release new Robo Force figures and is working on bringing other classic heroes and villains back into fans’ lives. I recently checked in with Brian about the transition from documenting toy stores to opening up his own (virtually), and to discuss what has made Nacelle one of the top brands in the entertainment world.
Brittany Frederick: Given your history, moving into the toy world is a perfect fit. Was this always an ambition that you had and now was the right time for it, or was it something that developed out of your success with the toy-focused shows you’ve done?
Brian Volk-Weiss: I wanted to do this my whole life, to put it mildly. I always assumed I would, but it’s funny when you’re running a company that does something different than what you might go into. There’s a lot of things going on…The catalyst for this was this guy named Michael Goodman reached out to me. He was very aware of Toys That Made Us and some of the other things we were doing, and we were [already] heading in this direction. We were already negotiating to get Power Lords, but it was just taking forever. I had been working on Power Lords for a year and a half, and hadn’t been able to get it done.
Michael Goodman reached out to me and he was a toy agent, and I didn’t really know what that was, but it is what it sounds like. He represents toy designers and he proposed [what] I would call a no-deal deal. And all the deal said was that we had a deal. That was it. And the reason for that was Michael believed if he could tell people he had a deal with us, he would be able to do much bigger, better things quickly. Very quickly, I would say in about six weeks…I called him up one day and I was like, “Hey, I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news, this deal we have doesn’t work for me. The good news, the deal we have doesn’t work for me.” I said to him, “I now believe this will work and I need to be able to talk to you every day.”
We went from having this non-deal deal to him becoming an employee of the company, and within six months of that, he had been able to get us Robo Force. He closed the Power Lords deal…It really was a matter of finding the right person at the right time. And then after we hired him, for about two months, we were trying to find a toy designer. I had known David Bonner from Toys That Made Us and we were calling all these people we knew and saying, “Hey, we’re looking for David Bonner 20 years ago,” and we just couldn’t find the right person. Twice we thought we did and twice, we didn’t even hire the person. And then one day it just hit me—you know David Bonner. Maybe David Bonner wants to do it.
I called him up and I basically told him the story I just told you, and I was like, “Any interest in joining us?” And by the grace of God, he said “Yes.” We announced Robo Force at the end of April and we’re going to be announcing our second line in about two weeks, our third line in August, our fourth line in September. We have product flow going until at least April of 2023, even if we don’t do another deal.
BF: What differentiates this expansion from other companies is that no matter what Nacelle does, you are involved. You don’t just slap the company name on something. How does this toy arm fit in with the other projects that you’re still developing?
BVW: It’s true that I love what I’m doing and it’s true that we make time. We launched a publishing arm simultaneously with the toy arm, and our first book, City of Likes that Jenny Mullins wrote, that’s coming out in June. We also launched our podcast division about six months before that. For the first time in my career, I’m like “Yeah, this is getting a little crazy,” because this summer, we have a bunch of shows that are in production right now.
We’ve been hiring. The company has doubled in size over the last 15 months, so we have a lot more staff than we used to. But your point is a hundred percent accurate. I’m very hands-on, especially when we’re doing things for the first time. Toys is brand new, books are brand new, podcasts are brand new, and I’m directing a lot of the shows we’re making, so we’re just going to have to figure it out.
I can tell you, and this might be a very bizarre thing for a quote-unquote CEO to say, there’s no strategy. There’s no plan. We see an opportunity. We think we can master it. We think we can make money for ourselves and our partners, and we go. I’ve been doing this almost 24 years. That has blown up in a bad way once. Every other time it’s to some degree worked; it’s just a matter of how long it takes to work or not.
BF: No matter what you’re doing, you’ve established a clear brand for The Nacelle Company. Your name is an indicator of quality and passion for these pop culture subjects. How do you maintain that brand as the company continues to diversify?
BVW: We have a couple very simple rules that everybody follows. The first rule is we don’t do anything dark. There might be stuff we do that has dark parts involved and dark things here and there, [and] I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with shows like that, but it’s just not something we want to do. The next thing you’ve already pointed out, and you’re absolutely right—it has to be high-quality. These Robo Force figures we’re putting out, if you saw how much money we had to risk to do it and then you saw what the profit margins are in success, you would think I should go to business school. It’s so insane.
I’ll give you a great example. I believe one of the most interesting things about Robo Force is the suction cups that they had. We’ve done this huge ad campaign all around the suction cups, turning it into a joke. The factory in China, through no fault of their own, they had a sculpted piece of hard plastic. We were just looking at pictures at that point and we assumed it was a suction cup, but they didn’t know it needed to be a suction cup. After a couple months, we finally realized there was a miscommunication, and it was not a cheap decision to go from a hard piece of plastic to an actual suction cup.
Now like I said, even before that our profit margin was tiny. Deciding to actually use a real suction cup, there’s a very good chance this will barely, if ever, break even. I was okay with that because it’s our first toy, so we have to prove to the public, we have to prove to companies, we have to prove to current and future partners that we are a trustworthy source to make toys…I think that story is a good example of how important quality is to us.
And then number three: no matter what, transparency. Another word for that would be honesty, but I call it real-time transparency, because what I’ve noticed is a lot of companies out there, they say these things that they know are not true. The public knows they’re not true and everybody just kind of lives with it. But I believe the public is smart. I believe the public would rather hear bad news than bullshit. That’s how the whole company works. I’m the first to admit those Robo Force figures are 50 bucks a piece. I think that’s insane. Why on earth would a single figure be 50 bucks? But I can assure you, they need to be 50 bucks. If they weren’t 50 bucks, we would lose lots and lots of money. That might be a very strange thing for a CEO to say when they’re in the process of trying to sell something, but in my opinion, like I said, the public is smart enough.
I just tell the truth—which is plastic is expensive. Shipping is expensive. Getting a factory in China that does quality work, that’s not cheap. We looked at other factories. We talked to a factory in Mexico that would’ve saved us almost 30 percent. The work was not good, so we moved on. I’d rather be honest and have the public trust me than just make up a bunch of bullshit they know is bullshit.
BF: And through all this, you’ve also stayed true to where the company started. You haven’t stopped anything even as you’ve started new ventures. How much does that mean to you?
BVW: We are not stopping making stand-up specials. I think it’s very important financially and culture-wise, for a company to never stop what brought them from A to B. Just because you’re at C, you don’t stop doing A. We’re heading towards scripted features. We have a feature film being written right now that we hope to shoot next year, and then we hope to do scripted as well. I’m not going to stop doing documentaries, and we never stop managing. I don’t manage personally, but the oldest part of our company is our management division. We’re not stopping anything we’re doing because it’s working and it doesn’t make sense to me to stop. We know the horse that brought us here and we’re happy to be here and we’re not going to stop riding that horse.
To order your Robo Force figures and check out apparel, collectibles and other cool stuff, visit the Nacelle Store.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.