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Our next insider interview is with another LOTR toy legend, Jesse Destasio. He has had a long and amazing career within the industry, from desk jobs to artistry.
I sat down with Jesse and chatted about his time working for one of the most recognizable companies related to Lord of the Rings, as well as one of our beloved toy lines.
Donnie: Hey Jesse, our community will be delighted to hear from someone who lived the Lord of the Rings merchandise explosion, and lived to tell his story.
Most of our previous interviews have been with artists. You had a different role. Can you tell us a little about your presence in the toy/merchandise industry, with a basic timeline?
Jesse: Sure, thanks for talking with me.
Donnie: What companies and positions have you held?
I started working as an unpaid intern at Play Along Toys in 2003 after cold-calling the CEO and pretending I wanted to interview him for a college newspaper that didn't exist.
He saw through my ploy but liked my moxy, so he offered me an internship (thank you Jay).
From there I went to work for Jazwares, followed shortly by moving to NYC (on advice of Toy Biz's Jesse Falcon) and somehow lucked into a role at New Line Cinema in 2006.
From there I bounced back and forth from toy companies to licensing outfits, finally leaving both industries in 2018 thanks to the growth of my own toy line Knights of the Slice.
Donnie: Do you have a favorite LOTR character, and why?
Jesse: The galaxy-brained answer is Figwit (which only true LOTR fans know), but my more pedestrian answer is Aragorn. He's just one of the most captivating characters ever written.
Donnie: Do you recall how the scale of Play Along/AOME would produce for LOTR, was decided upon?
Jesse: I came into the line just as Two Towers was hitting but prior to Return of the King, so those details were locked in place long before I was a tiny cog in the wheel.
But thanks to my later education in licensing I know deals are often structured via scale (6" versus 2") and category (figurine versus action figure).
In the case where there is not one single Master Toy licensee, you split categories by these classifications to be able to work with many partners. Again, I was not privy to that original deal, but those are my assumptions.
Donnie: What were the limitations you worked with, pertaining to size and playsets?
Jessie: I believe it was that figures had to be 1-2" and affixed to a base. Sauron, which is a fantastic figure, towers in at 4", but likely would've qualified due to him being in scale.
The bases had to be somewhat easy to assemble and also fit into price points retailers understood.
To Play Along's credit, and this continued into The Bridge Direct, they spent a lot on paint deco. Some of those playsets are just works of art.
Donnie: 2004 was the only year that Play Along released their LOTR line. What ultimately caused the line to cancel, considering how rich the world of middle-Earth was, and the amount of product that may have been able to be released encompassing the trilogy?
Jesse: I don't have any recollection of why it was cancelled, IIRC the initial sales were very strong.
Movie 3 hit not too long after these debuted so there might've been a cooling effect. Perhaps the Toy Biz items sold better? Had better margin?
A retailer buyer, with limited open-to-buy dollars, may not want two LOTR lines if only one sells.
I do believe the line continued for a bit beyond 2004 into international territories.
LOTR had a huge audience in places like Germany and product still sold beyond the theatrical releases (unlike in the US).
Donnie: We have previously interviewed Gentle Giant artist Michael Norman, who sculpted a ton of the prototypes for Play Along.
Who are some of the other key companies/artists and designers that worked with you on the Lord of the Rings toys?
Jesse: I corresponded a lot with George Gaspar and Justice Joseph (the later of whom went on to sculpt for my toy projects including Knights of the Slice).
When I was on the New Line side of the fence, I got to know a lot of the Toy Biz people.
Also Rick Watkins deserves a shout out from Play Along, a lot of how I approach toy design was because of his influence.
Donnie: You mentioned to me that you were the overseer of figure prototypes.
Do you remember anything that was prototyped and never released, that you could share info about?
Jesse: Overseer sounds too important, I was just a gopher haha.
There were quite a few things planned that didn't take off. I think we had a Treebeard? My memory is fuzzy.
One interesting tidbit is that we did a Mouth of Sauron figure, only for him to be cut from the theatrical release.
There was much more unreleased stuff during my time at New Line....
Donnie: Most collectors “dream” of seeing an image of a prototype or to one day own one.
Can you give us a brief snapshot into the back end process, or chain of custody of a prototype?
Jesse: For a line like AOME, where there is a proper budget in place, managing prototypes is a complex process.
When a company can afford to do it right, you'll sometimes have 2-3 paintmasters of each item.
Part of my job was sending sample A to a toy show in Germany, getting it back and doing any repairs before it went off to it's next destination.
Inevitably, they always got banged up or chipped...or sometimes smashed.
Donnie: Do you have a favorite item that Play Along made?
Jesse: It's hard to beat the Helms Deep playset, which I still have on display. It's an incredible piece of work.
Some of the rarer, later releases (such as Mouth of Sauron) were fantastic.
Donnie: New Line: As Director of International Licensing and Merchandising for New Line, what was a normal day like?
Because my focus was overseas territories, I would make a lot of calls the second I got into the office as those markets were still awake.
When I came on board, PJ had just been announced as exiting the Hobbit project and Del Toro was in, so there were a lot of early conversations about how that might be executed in a licensing program.
The day was filled with a lot of unglamorous paperwork. Lots of reviewing contracts, making redline changes (boring stuff).
Also got to do a lot of copy-writing, so a magazine publisher would send pages that I would go through and make sure were correct.
My LOTR trivia came in handy during those times.
Donnie: Your office produced a LOTR licensee style guide , what was its purpose, and can you explain how such a guide was used?
Jesse: It was essentially a bible that partners would have to adhere to keep things "on-brand" and guide them through the process of which fonts to use, etc.
Donnie: Who would have had access to this?
Jesse: Only signed partners, but some pages might've been watermarked and sent to potential licensees if it was crucial to getting a deal done.
Donnie: Was a style guide produced for each movie?
Jesse: I believe so, either that or there was a core Fellowship one that got updated with each film.
But because the budgets were so huge on these movies it was likely three separate ones.
Donnie: Were there any companies that ALMOST won a license to produce LOTR merchandise, that was notable?
Jesse: I was a big proponent of Hot Toys, keep in mind this was 2006, no one stateside knew of them.
I came across them as I had traveled extensively for Jazwares and was based out of Hong Kong (where Hot Toys HQ was).
So I was very dedicated to getting them on some New Line properties. At the time they had just started doing Rocky and Rambo.
Ultimately there was not much room with Sideshow producing competing products.
Donnie: What was the CRAZIEST merch idea pitched for Lord of the Rings?
Jesse: I still think all the time about the Toy Biz Balrog.
Even though we eventually got a NECA one, which was fantastic, I still dream about the TB version.
Donnie: Do you have any fond memories or funny stories about your time working during the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit days?
Jesse: During San Diego Comic Con 2006 I had hair that made me look not unlike a hobbit.
We went to a swanky club one night and my friend slipped the doorman a LOTR trading card he had found on the floor and told him I was Elijah Wood.
They then brought us to this VIP section that some cast members and Dominic Monohan were in. Dom was incredibly nice and chatted with us all night. The real Elijah eventually showed up and the doorman kicked us out.
That year a lot of the stars came by the booth, including Sean Astin and Andy Sirkis. Everyone was super cool and gracious, took toys for their kids.
Donnie: We have seen an explosion of merchandise, especially action figures, that are based on Peter Jackson’s movies pop up this year.
Can you explain the process for this to happen so many years later?
Jesse: At New Line, we always positioned LOTR as an evergreen brand, that was the dream.
The team worked hard to have deals in place for the years where there were no movies.
I think in some respects the reception to the Hobbit trilogy put that on ice, but it seems to be coming back around again.
It's also important to not think of the USA as the entire world market.
LOTR has always been a top brand in the UK and Europe.
Donnie: Is New Line involved in the contracts, or just the Tolkien estate?
Jesse: As best as I can recollect, New Line worked in unison with Tolkien estate as well as Saul Zaentz estate.
Saul is an interesting part of the LOTR story that's worth looking up.
Donnie: What are your thoughts on the forthcoming Amazon Lord of the Rings show?
Jesse: I'm a bit torn. I'm trying to use Amazon services as little as possible. But it would be hard for me to miss out on new LOTR stories, especially with a proper budget.
Donnie: What are you up to currently?
Jesse: Grinding away on my Knights of the Slice figures, trying to make weird and interesting odd-ball toys.
I also run the Action Figure of the Month club, which sends out cool toys every month.
I think this year I'll be able to introduce a new fantasy character that hopefully captures a lot of what I love about LOTR.
Donnie: How can the fans keep up with you now?
Jesse: My patreon is the best way, I do 1-2 podcasts every week about making toys, action figure production, and the occasional look back at things like my time with LOTR.
I have posted some prototype pics before, maybe I'll have to do a new dedicated post to LOTR.
If you want to own some of the toys I make, www.toypizza.com is the place to do it.