Star Wars Celebration: Interview with Hasbro Star Wars Brand Team Members Jeff Labovitz and Joe Ninivaggi
Joe Ninivaggi and Jeff Labovitz probably have two of the best jobs in the world. They get to work directly with the Star Wars toy and action figure brand at Hasbro. The next several years will be very exciting for Star Wars with the beginning of a new trilogy of live-action films, along with new standalone anthology movies. One new live-action Star Wars movie is planned for release each year. That does not even include the Star Wars video games, novels, comic books and animated shows. Joe Ninivaggi (pictured above, Left) serves as the Senior Global Marketing Manager for the Star Wars brand at Hasbro, and Jeff Labovitz (pictured above, Right) serves as the Global Marketing Director for the brand. I recently got the chance to catch up with the duo during this month’s Star Wars Celebration 2015. Here is what they had to say on the future of the Star Wars toy and figure brand at Hasbro
Is there any one thing in particular you both are excited about fans seeing this weekend at Star Wars Celebration?
Jeff Labovitz: I’m really excited about Blade Builders. It’s a new lightsaber build system we have. Every lightsaber we’re going to do this fall connects together, so fans can create lightsabers like never before.
Joe Ninivaggi: I’m pumped about the Ahsoka Tano 6” Star Wars Black series figure that’s coming out early next year. Can’t wait.
It’s very exciting to me that Hasbro can take an animated series character like Ahsoka and produce her in the Star Wars Black style. What went into the approval for getting Ahsoka made?
Joe Ninivaggi: Yeah, it’s a very lengthy and detailed approval process. We have a great partnership with Lucasfilm and Disney. With a character as special as Ahsoka, we want to get it exactly right. I remember there was a video conference with our design team and Lucasfilm about the fold in one of the pieces of fabric because our team wanted to get the fold exactly right. So, a lot of detail and love goes into these figures, and yes, we work with Lucasfilm daily.
I am absolutely bonkers for the 6” Star Wars Black figures right now. I think these figures have been fantastic, so hats off to you guys and the Force is definitely with you gentlemen. How has it been seeing the line evolve over the last year, and how has the response been?
Joe Ninivaggi: It’s been really exciting. We kind of set out with this line to give fans and collectors to buy into this new expression. To see it become our new No. 1 item has been awesome. These new figures I think are getting better every time we release a new wave. My favorite is the Leia/Boushh. She just looks great.
Jeff Labovitz: Yeah, we started with the figures. Then we added some deluxe creatures and small vehicles. Who knows what’s to come? Maybe it will get even bigger…(saying it in a *hint, hint* manner)
Joe Ninivaggi: Maybe.
I like those implications, but Joe, would you like to confirm that Star Wars Black is Hasbro’s No. 1 item for the Star Wars/Hasbro brand?
Joe Ninivaggi: Yeah, it’s our No. 1 right now. Absolutely.
I also got to the see the new Star Wars Rebels figures. What strikes me about that line is that it feels very throwback-ish of the old school Star Wars Kenner toys. Was that intentional in terms of design? And that’s not meant to be an insult. It’s a total compliment. I find that there is a wonderful simplicity there that is missing from some toys these days that the old school Star Wars action figures had.
Jeff Labovitz: Yeah, it’s definitely a throwback for sure. That five-point articulation – we have a lot of kids that love that articulation, and fans too can appreciate that Kenner-esque [style]. Those sculpts are just so perfect for that Rebels animated form, and it’s a great figure. It allows us to do a good figure at a reasonable price for lots of kids – the new generation of Star Wars fans to collect, and we’re super happy with it.
Not just the articulation but the designs and also the vehicles having decals. I like decals and constructing the vehicles without everything coming pre-assembled, you know?
Joe Ninivaggi: Absolutely. They totally remind me of the toys I had when I was a kid, so it’s that same flavor.
Jeff Labovitz: We have a few members of our design team – Mark Boudreau, who was with Kenner in the early days – so the same team, some of same team who designed the toys back then are designing the ones now. So any kind of a throwback is very intentional, and the same hands are working on them.
Noting Hasbro’s history with Star Wars toys going all the way back to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in 1977, we are about to see a new era of Star Wars movies starting with Episode VII – The Force Awakens later this year. We saw a new trailer this weekend. How exciting are those possibilities, and how exciting is that for you gentlemen at the Star Wars brand to embark on this new era of Star Wars with new adventures?
Joe Ninivaggi: It’s thrilling. I mean the fact that we have so much content – obviously the movie or the movies, and then we have our comics and the novels, everything. We haven’t experienced this in a while. Just like every fan, we’re just as thrilled if not more that we get to bring this all to life.
Jeff Labovitz: It’s like a galactic fire hydrant. There’s a lot coming. Now the big decisions are: we want to tackle everything; how do we get everything out there because we love the original trilogy, we love Clone Wars; we don’t want to just do the new movies and what’s coming; we want to sprinkle in the goodness, some of the tasty nuggets from the past.
Speaking of having to get everything out there Jeff because after this year – we have Episode VII this year and next year is Rogue One – we are going to have a new Star Wars movie coming out every *year* —
Jeff Labovitz: Yeah!
For the foreseeable future. Is that daunting to think about, “We have our work cut out for us for the next however many years?”
Jeff Labovitz: Yeah, I’d say that’s daunting, but we have the right team in place. The design team back in Rhode Island, they’ve been doing it for decades, so we’ve got the right team on board.
Joe Ninivaggi: It’s an awesome problem to have.
Jeff Labovitz: Yeah, we’ll take it. We’re very fortunate to be on the brand at this point in time, to help get this brand out to a new generation of kids and to make fans like us happy.
Does it ever come up where you get to work with the EA Star Wars people or the design team at DICE? Does anything like that ever come up?
Jeff Labovitz: Yes, it goes both ways. We have a great relationship with Lucasfilm and Disney, and they help us out with relationships with EA and other partners. We have a terrific collaboration.
Speaking hypothetically, if there is one character in any part of the Star Wars mythos, any character you can pick out, and make them into a Star Wars Black figure, which one would you pick?
Jeff Labovitz: We did most that we need, so we’re done.
Joe Ninivaggi: Yeah, that’s it. There’s a certain protocol droid [C-3PO] that I would love to have come soon.
Jeff Labovitz: You know, I can’t say because this figure might be coming out soon.
What about a character you really love who has never been made into a figure yet?
Jeff Labovitz: Now that we’ve made the Prototype Armor Boba Fett, I’m pretty happy.
Have you sent one to Joe Johnston yet?
Jeff Labovitz: No, not yet, but that’s a good idea. I think we need a Max Rebo. … One that we were talking about just today, and I have to send a note back to our team back home; I want to get Lando [Calrissian] out there. We need a Lando.
Have you seen what Gentle Giant has been doing with the blown-up old school figures? Just the old Kenner molds blown up in size?
Jeff Labovitz: That’s right, just blown up in size.
Joe Ninivaggi: Gentle Giant’s throwbacks are really cool. All that throwback stuff is amazing.
Thank you gentlemen. May the Force be with you, and I can’t wait to see what else Hasbro has in store for us with Star Wars.
Joe Ninivaggi: Awesome, thank you
Jeff Labovitz: Thank you.
Thank you to Jeff Labovitz and Joe Ninivaggi for taking the time to speak with us.