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Industry Interview

Inkworks CEO sounds off on hobby issues

Oct. 25, 2002

New visitors to this site may not be familiar with Allan Caplan.  Most collectors of contemporary non-sport material certainly are.  

Caplan formed Inkworks (known initially as Graffiti) in 1995.  Its first release, GoldenEye, based on the newest James Bond film, debuted later that year.  Subsequently, the Raleigh, N.C.-based trading card firm has been named Best Manufacturer four consecutive years by Non-Sport Update's readership.  

As a Skybox executive in the early 1990s, Caplan's influence was manifest in card products such as The Lion King that garnered acclaim from collectors and retailers.  Prior to his Skybox stint, he owned a Midwest chain of home video stores that Blockbuster Video eventually purchased.

Caplan shared his opinions and provocative insights with the Hobbyist at the Autumn 2002 Philly Non-Sport Show.


Q: If you were starting Inkworks today, would the challenges be greater than they were for you seven years ago when the hobby was in the midst of a market turndown?

Caplan:  I think it's actually on a par.  To get into any business, especially one where you deal with licenses, you have to have credibility.  A new company coming in that doesn't have credibility or the track record -- and a licensor has a show or character (to market) -- they need to know they won't be embarrassed.  That's where we had a benefit.  I had a great track record then, as well as the people who came to work with me.

Q: How difficult is it to negotiate property licenses given the fact that there are more card companies in competition?

Caplan:  No, there's not really a lot of competition, or good competition.  Some companies will take pot shots, but there's nobody with consistency.  Some try and take an interest in older or retired (properties).  We try to get new products that help fuel the business, although we've done Lost In Space Archives (1997) and Planet of the Apes Archives (1999).  After GoldenEye, it was the James Bond Connoisseur's Collection.  Then we had The Phantom (movie cards) and Pinocchio.  The last two were good mistakes to learn from.

Q:  What makes a strong property?

Caplan:  You don't want a show that's going to last only one or two years.  You don't have the following or the loyalty factor.  That's why Dark Angel failed.  We don't go after licenses until we know that it's going to be renewed.  With Alias, we didn't get it until after the first season.  Buffy was into a year and a half when we produced.  Then, the fans were ready.

Q:  Some shows and movies gather tremendous mainstream publicity.  It seems card companies tend to piggyback onto that popularity while hoping to interest more consumers.  Do you see a significant problem in our hobby that fails to promote collecting in general?

Caplan:  Unfortunately, very few of our competitors are trying to promote the hobby at different trade shows.  Some of the bigger companies that have been around and have histories of 50 years don't go to shows.  They disrespect the consumer who pays for them to stay in business.  I have a problem with bigger companies that depend on smaller companies like ours to carry the load.  

Q:  Is there a way to prod other firms to promote more?

Caplan:  By talking with you (the media).  And I embarrass them in front of the Hollywood community.  They just don't promote.  And my smaller competitors don't know how to promote.

Q:  Why?  A lack of staffing?

Caplan:  Lack of passion.  Staffing isn't an issue.  We're a small company.  We use lots of freelancers.  When we go to San Diego (for the International Comics and Entertainment convention), we leave one person back at the office to handle the mail and answer the phones.  I was at the Canadian National show, which is cards and comic books.  No other trading card company was there.  Also, at Wizard World in Chicago, there were 42,000 people, but no other trading card company was there.

Without being rude, some of my competitors are absolutely dead.  I learned a long time ago -- it's somewhat trite now -- a terrible thing happens when you don't promote.  We worked like hell for three months to get San Diego set.  Everybody who came to our booth had a great time.  There was nothing that stopped my competitors from doing the same thing except the dedication to make it happen.

Q:  Internet auctions have affected all hobbies and pastimes that host both major conventions and minor shows.  What factors should our trading card promoters consider when putting together live expositions in today's cyberspace market?

Caplan:  Just like in retail, location is still everything.  You want to get the crowds out.  You want to make card collecting fun for the general populace.  The die-hard fans will follow you everywhere, but there aren't enough of them.

You've got to be where the general populace can get to you easily and feel safe.  (Certainly) not where there is a deplorable shopping center directly across the street of a topless bar on the corner.

Q:  Perhaps a promoter's budget or scheduling conflicts prohibit usage of more impressive venues.  Should manufacturers take a more active approach in locating a safer site, as you say?

Caplan:  We don't want to do it ourselves.  We'd like to have somebody like (Non-Sport Update publisher) Roxanne Toser be the ringleader and have each manufacturer pony up a few extra dollars to make it feasible to have a show in a place that respects the product you're selling and makes it easier for people to visit.

Q:  What is your vision of an ideal venue?

Caplan:  There's a reason airport hotels have big conference centers.  People can fly into the airport and use their shuttle bus (services).  It's easy and less time consuming.  (For the Philly Show), to take a cab from the airport to here was fifty-five dollars.  That's rude.  It's easier for people to access an airport facility. 

Q:  What were your impressions of the Midwest non-sport card show held in September?

Caplan:  In Chicago, Paul (Maiellaro) tried valiantly to get it off the ground, but had minimal attendance because it was too far from O'Hare airport.  My own relatives would drive from (west suburban) Clarendon Hills to the show in Tinley Park.  If they didn't come, who would come from the far north suburbs like Buffalo Grove or Winnetka?

One of the dealers said, "Well, this is great.  I just got off the Interstate and the hotel was right there."  I told that dealer, "Would you like 200 people to come to this show or 800?"  It's not made to be easier for the dealer.  It's supposed to be easy for the consumer.

I'd like 800 people to show up for the weekend, with 600 of them being young kids.  I want youngsters to enjoy card collecting and not just adults saying, "Give me a card so I can run and sell it on eBay."

Q:  For Chicago's 2003 show, Maiellaro is considering an animation theme for autograph guests.  If the convention site is not as strong as it could be, do you think such a theme would serve as an attendance booster?

Not broad enough.  He didn't get very many people the other way.  How are you going to say I'm going to do Japanimation as a theme and make it work?  It just makes it more narrowcast.

We're in the trading card business -- let's get everyone in the business to come.  To do that, we consider Chicago as a cheap flight.  Philadelphia isn't much worse, especially if you are on the East Coast.  Maybe make a series of shows, one in the East, one in the Midwest, another in the West.  Do them over a six-week period:  Show, break, show, break.  That could be one approach.

Q:  The sports card industry releases baffling numbers of sets, jersey cards, autographs and other inserts.  The non-sport market doesn't have concerns of that level, but could overproduction manifest itself in our hobby?

Caplan:  The big problem is some companies neither understand, nor care what their product is worth after the fact.  Our autographed cards don't go downhill; others do because they have to get people to create a theme.  We had a competitor who used a hair stylist (as an autograph contributor); another competitor used a make-up artist.  What's her reputation?  Who wants her cards?

Another company uses fabric that went into the making of costumes on a show.  It's confusing and not smart.  We've never used anything but authentic costumes worn on shows for our Pieceworks cards.

Q:  Then, do you think the non-sport industry is in a better position to handle overproduction?

Caplan:  Nobody can afford to produce too much today because you don't want to dump product.  But in the mid-1990s, some people thought they were geniuses.  They were printing so much and loading up sets with tons of different chase card levels.  For example, some of the Marvel products had more chase cards than base cards.  None of them are worth anything today.  It almost put us all out of business.  We've been fighting since the mid-90s to give the business stability.

Q:  It would seem you equate value with intrinsic interest in certain products.

Caplan:  You can see it on eBay.  You're able to buy (base card) products for $1.99 a set.  It costs manufacturers more than that to print them.  But people are grabbing autographed cards, grabbing some chase cards, but very few chase cards have been worth what our similar chases because they were done by the artists who actually do the show.

I think the consumer will get a little tired of it.  We did a Buffy Evolution set with only one level of chase and no autographs.  We sold it out.  The Evolution print run was lower, but on purpose.  The price was higher, but the dollar amount was comparable.

Q:  You don't want to max out dealer expenditures on too many products that hobbyists may display lukewarm reactions?

Caplan:  I think if you want autographs to be a real chase card, to have the consumer enjoy chasing them, the collector needs to have a good autograph in every other box.  And a Pieceworks card in every other box.  In a (shipping) case, there is something unique in each box.  Besides regular chase cards -- we usually have three levels -- we have box loaders and binders for collectors who want one.

Q:  How much importance do you place on advance printing technologies to attract younger collectors today?

Caplan:  I'm not sure the younger audience members care much about the technologies as their parents do about price points.  If we can get back to putting price points down to a buck-and-a-quarter to a dollar-fifty, even 99 cents for the kids, that would make it easier for the parents.  Kids can be passionate card collectors, too.  They don't care all that much about autographs or Pieceworks cards -- they want cards of their favorite show, their favorite character.

As for the technology, it just gets prettier and slicker.  With our (2002) Alias set, we used mirrorboard (card stock).  The chromium looks great, but if everybody used it, it would get old really fast.



Allan Caplan at Spring 2002 Philly show

photo:Non-Sport Update




GoldenEye promo Inkworks (a.k.a Graffiti, 1995)



































The Phantom  promo (1996)


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