The Faceless Iconography of the Power Rangers is Still Making Billions
The Mighty Morphins are a cash cow, even though the field has changed.
On Friday, at the same time as the new Power Rangers reboot movie was released into theaters across the country, the displays for tie-in merchandise at local Toys “R” Us are quiet and sparse. It’s a stark contrast to the pandemonium that gripped the American public in the early 1990s when the franchise first debuted. The only thing that’s morphed more completely than the Mighty Morphins themselves over the last 25 years is the American toy industry.
“My son was like a rabid dog for them,” one Toys “R” Us cashier laughed, recalling the Power Rangers boom of the early ‘90s. “A bunch of the neighborhood moms gave me money and a list of the Power Rangers they needed, and I was the one who went to the store and did the damn thing. It was every parent for themselves with those things, and it was kind of exciting.”
“No damn way,” the neighboring cashier laughed from a lane over, refusing even now to consider braving those mall crowds back in ‘93 and ‘94. It’s Friday morning and I’m the only person here, pretending to buy a Mojo Jojo doll for a niece that doesn’t exist. “I was the one giving the neighbor the money, I wasn’t trying to get trampled.”
One thing’s for sure, according to those who were buying and begging for Power Rangers merchandise way back when and now work in the same stores: Times have changed. When I ask what franchise in recent memory has made the biggest impact for onsite sales, the two names that most frequently emerge are the Frozen juggernaut and Lego toys, which includes everything from the building sets to tie-ins with the Batman, Star Wars, and Harry Potter franchises.
Power Rangers has, thus far, made a far smaller impact on in-store traffic, though that’s not necessarily indicative of the new franchise’s merchandising fate; online sales often eclipse what is bought off the shelf, even with kids’ toys. The industry has shifted entirely since the crime-fighting teenagers first emerged, and many of the kids who were begging for Power Rangers merchandise in the ‘90s are now parents themselves.
The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers began as a TV series in 1993 that featured American teenagers fighting crime in footage that, unbeknownst to its audience at the time, was actually re-dubbed footage from a similar Japanese series called Super Sentai. There is no way to overstate how popular the show became with kids of all genders between ages 2 and 11 nearly overnight — the Los Angeles Times estimated that 99 percent of viewers that age were watching Power Rangers on a regular basis by the fall of 1994, highs that even Spongebob and Frozen can’t touch.
Merchandise was in high demand in the year leading up to the bedlam that was the Power Rangers toy demand of Christmas 1993, but no one was prepared for a panic so great that it would inspire an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie.
1994: Crime, Punishment, and Power Rangers
Distributed by Saban Entertainment, a company whose bread and butter had become adapting popular Japanese television and movies for American audiences (Digimon would become another major export), the original series lasted for three seasons on the now-defunct Fox Kids TV block, reaching its peak in popularity between its second season from fall 1994 to spring 1995 and its first big-screen adaptation in the summer of ’95.
Because so much of the TV series consisted of repurposed footage and the battles between the protagonists and the villainous Zords could be generously described as lo-fi, the Rangers were cheap and quick to produce, and appealed to both boys and girls. Saban Entertainment knew they had a hit on their hands after the show’s first season concluded and their toy supply was very nearly cleaned out during Christmas 1993.
In many ways, the 1993 holiday shopping season was an opportunity for Saban to navigate the growing pains of their instantly successful franchise. The Rangers only consisted of four percent of the toy market around this time, but the demand still inspired a full-blown bootlegging minefield that parents who hadn’t gotten the action figures the opportunity to save face on Santa’s behalf. This was five full years before Toys “R” Us would bring their business online.
“It is no secret that organized crime is involved in all high-level counterfeiting. And yes, they are here, right here in the world of toys,” Angie Small, vice president of legal affairs for Saban, told the Los Angeles Times in November 1994.
Saban representative Trish Stewart assured the Times that she’d be “really shocked if there’s a shortage” that year, although reports of parents fighting over newer White Ranger merchandise had already broken out. The company had expanded the production of Rangers merchandise to 11 more factories, according to the Times, moving from five in China to sixteen in three different countries. This may seem like a steep increase, but the Rangers had gotten their spandex-gloved hands in a vice group around elementary school kids in the intervening year.
Power Rangers merchandising had swelled to 40 percent of the toy market and was poised to cross a $1 billion in profits that holiday season, a figure which nearly doubled the Cabbage Patch and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crazy at their respective peaks. For this brief moment, the only brand making similar marks for the Rangers was Barbie, but Barbie had been on shelves for nearly forty years and Mattel was prepared for the demand; the Rangers, by comparison, were still in their infancy.
Long story short: Trish Stewart was wrong. There was, despite all the precautions, yet another shortage.
In fact, what ensued in 1994 was ten times worse that the preceding year. Parents banned together and drove across state lines to buy out stores that had managed to acquire a Rangers cache; others camped outside to purchase whatever was left on the shelves at store opening. Author Leonard Pitts Jr. would describe this as the year of “those Damned Power Rangers” in a later column, and writer Randy Kornfield was so traumatized by his experience trying to get his son a Ranger that he wrote the film Jingle All the Way, one of the biggest-grossing Christmas movies of 1996, as an only semi-farcical ode to that bonanza.
That next summer, Power Rangers: The Movie didn’t garner rave reviews, but more than quadrupled its $15 million budget in box office receipts, and the property went from after-school show to a full-blown summer blockbuster. For comparison, the other major kids movie of that summer had far larger budgets and production schedules: Disney’s Pocahontas grossed over $300 million but took over $50 million and six years to produce; Casper made similar money on a slightly shorter schedule; both took at least two times longer to produce than Power Rangers had even existed in America. Saban continued to churn out TV series on a weekly basis to keep up interest, but after the second big-screen Power Rangers movie tanked in 1997, the franchise was relegated exclusively to TV and toy shelves for 20 years.
Selling tickets has never been the main priority of the Rangers, though, like the Transformers and Legos before them, the TV shows and film serve to a higher merchandising purpose and always have.
2017: The Mighty Morphin Merchandising Machine
Nearly 23 years later, the Mighty Morphin teens with attitude are attempting their first big-screen adventure since the abject failure of 1997’s Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, and are doing so in a considerably different entertainment and merchandising landscape. Sure, Box Office Mojo projects that the film will open relatively big and will almost certainly recoup its $100 million budget, but the market is far more fractured than ever before, and its PG-13 rating means that little kids are no longer the target audience.
In a modern entertainment landscape that prefers to sink capital into an attempted reboot rather than build a whole franchise from scratch, it’s surprising that Power Rangers weren’t big-screen targets sooner. Then again, the Rangers never truly left - since Turbo tanked at the box office, the franchise has spawned nineteen separate spinoff series, reinventing itself annually. Saban sold the property to Disney when Fox Kids was dissolved in 2001, then bought it back when Disney acquired Marvel in 2009. The series has more recently migrated to Nickelodeon with no more than a few months between the end of one series and the start of the next.
This weekend’s new Power Rangers movie hearkens back to the most successful, original incarnation - not-so-coincidentally, a look more tailored to the parents buying tickets to the film than the current kids might recognize from TV. If the PG-13 rating of the film and nostalgia kicks in, they’re likely to have just as much luck selling collectibles to the parents than to the next generation of kids.
In 2016, the NPD Group estimated that the industry had gone up by five percent in 2016, with doll spending up by ten percent and the collectibles industry — that is, toys for adults — growing by 33 percent; remarkably, it represented a full nine percent of the total toy industry grosses last year. Saban has capitalized on this trend, as it has veered into creating expensive collectibles marketed to people who don’t want to take them out of a display case.
This may explain why two out of three of the Toys R Us stores in the Los Angeles area don’t even have their Power Rangers display in the front of the store, granting that privilege to some mix of Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars and Lego Batman franchises. How much that placement impacts sales is now vastly different than in 1994 - even in years that the Rangers weren’t displayed prominently, they’ve still sold big, as they managed to gross over $900 million in merchandise in 2016, with a decent chunk of that coming from nostalgic adults. With the new movie and as many as six more on the way, these figures will likely increase as the decade continues.
The new Power Rangers movie has received modest reviews, nowhere close to the stellar reviews received by Frozen and the Lego films, or even the mixed reception of the live-action Beauty and the Beast. But it’s unlikely this will be too much of a damper on sales, given the franchise’s twenty-plus year history and the fact that the well-tuned merchandising machine that is the Transformers franchise has never cracked a failing score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Ideally, a nostalgia-fueled reboot will galvanize parents and kids in equal measure. Their advantage is that as icons, the Rangers aged into the millennium extremely well, a privilege reserved for characters that are mostly faceless.
Saban’s senior VP of development and production Brian Casentini said it best back in 2013. “It’s far easier for a child — or anybody — to project themselves into that costume and imagine themselves as a Power Ranger than it is with Superman.”
When it comes to the Mighty Morphin toy franchise in 2017, the greatest irony of all is that it’s barely grounded in the kids at all; instead, it’s all about selling those same action figures back as glass-case collectibles to the same kids who were begging for them twenty-three Christmases ago.