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Maestro Media’s Javon Frazier discusses bringing brands like The Binding of Isaac and Sally Face into board games.
Javon, a huge thanks for making time for this. Before we look at what you’re doing with Maestro Media, a quick look through your Linkedin brings up roles with incredible companies like Marvel and Motown… What drew you to these kinds of firms?
I’ve always been interested in entertainment. I’m a big fan of people that build creative worlds and big businesses – it’s why I love The Toys That Made Us. I love hearing the stories behind brands like He-Man and Hello Kitty.
I was a huge fan of comic books, board games and toys as a kid. I would collect enough of those GI Joe ‘Proof of Purchases’ and send those in to get the Sgt. Slaughter figure. I was that kid! When I was young, my number one goal in life was to get an annual subscription to Spider-Man. It was $12 and I felt that getting that meant I’d made it!
You went one better and worked at Marvel!
You were with Marvel from 2006 to 2014. Iron Man kicked off the MCU in 2008, so it must’ve been a very interesting time for the company?
Yeah, it was pre-Disney acquisition. I was in a part of the business called Custom Publishing which helped me take my creative aspirations and put a lot of business chops around it. Our division did brand partnerships, so instead of using his web to get around, we’d create a special comic where Spider-Man would take an Amtrak train. We’d sell a million of those comic books to Amtrak.
We also did one where Doctor Doom defeated an enemy using the OfficeMax rubber band ball. I would interface with our partners and it was all about telling authentic and fun stories that are aligned with brands. It was really fun.
I worked in consumer products, on the Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk consumer products programmes. I also worked in theatrical campaigns, working with titans of the industry like Tom Sherak and Geoff Ammer. I remember launching Iron Man at a time when people didn’t believe in it. “Iron Man? Call us back when you have Spider-Man!” At the time, people thought Hulk would be the bigger movie because it had brand awareness from the Bill Bixby TV show. We were seen as the B-team studio as Sony had Spider-Man and Fox had X-Men. Obviously, Iron Man became a big success, and that taught me to stick to my guns because Marvel had a vision for the character, and for the road to Avengers, and they stuck to it.
I then moved into television, and saw how powerful that could be in propelling consumer products, before ending up in the video games division. I’m a huge gamer, and the experience was transformative. Getting to work with companies that I was a big fan of as a kid, like Capcom and SEGA, was amazing. We launched around 40 games, like Avengers Alliance, Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes.
Amazing. Let’s talk about what you’re doing now as the CEO of Maestro Media. The company has published games like Binding of Isaac: Four Souls, Tapeworm and Sugar Heist, as well as merch and collectibles. How would you describe the firm’s focus?
We’re 100% creator focused. There’s a lot of publishers that make a certain type of game, but we’re focused on the creators and the talent. Our job is to help articulate their vision. I look at Edmund McMillen – creator of The Binding of Isaac – as a close friend. The moment we crossed $6.7m on Kickstarter, our families were together. That’s the nature of the business. It’s not about us; it’s about the creator’s vision.
The same is true of Sally Face creator Steve Gabry. We’re launching the Kickstarter for Sally Face: Strange Nightmares early next year and it’s his vision. We know it’ll be great for the fans because he knows the fans better than anyone. We went from one SKU with The Binding of Isaac to 150 SKUs. It’s about giving the fans what they want.
On The Binding of Isaac, what was it about that video game that convinced you it could work in the tabletop space? Why is it a special IP?
It comes down to the creator and the fans. The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls Requiem is the seventh largest Kickstarter campaign of all time, and because of that, we get pitches for partnerships constantly. What it all comes down to is the creator. Edmund was so committed and so passionate throughout the campaign, and he has an awesome fanbase. The Binding of Isaac fans are the best fans in the world, so it was a no brainer to bring it into board games.
You mentioned the game’s huge success on Kickstarter. Are there any big misconceptions out there about finding success through crowdfunding?
The platform is not the marketing. The same misconceptions are happening now with TikTok… “If I get on TikTok, I’ll become a millionaire.” Being on TikTok isn’t the key; the key is the content and how you engage with fans. It’s the same with crowdfunding platforms. You’ve got to bring a fanbase to Kickstarter in order for the platform to amplify it. Focus on the crowd, not the funding.
‘Focus on the crowd, not the funding.’ Nice line! As we spoke about earlier, you have a game based on the cult indie video game Sally Face launching next year. What gave you the confidence that this brand could thrive in board games?
Well, my daughter told me her friend dressed as the titular character from Sally Face for Halloween, and we did a panel at Comic-Con and fans were getting emotional meeting the creator. That’s what we look for in a brand; that level of fan engagement. Lots of people fight to sign the ‘big IP’ but what you really need is a genius creator and a rabid, passionate fanbase. That’s what made The Binding of Isaac and Sally Face so fantastic and, to be honest, we were amazed that there hadn’t already been tabletop games based on these kinds of brands.
Talk us through the design process when you’re translating a video game into a tabletop experience.
We build them from the ground up. It’s not a label slap where we take an existing engine and put the artwork over it. We have to stay true to what got us to this point, and that may be a challenge as we start working with ‘bigger’ brands. Style guides are useful, but we’ve had fans drawing cards for our games in the past! Fans tell you what they want from these games and you have to listen. Working with fans is important to us.
A great example is that when we did the first Kickstarter campaign for The Binding of Isaac, we had around 400 cards and we knew we couldn’t edit the 400 cards ourselves, so we put them up on a site and asked the fans to help us out. The fans edited the cards for us and that’s how we were able to deliver the game for the holidays in 2018. That’s how we’re fan-first. We co-develop products with fans and that’s how we’ve been successful.
For any game inventors reading, are you also interested in collaborating with inventors and licensing external concepts down the line?
You get the vision Billy! Absolutely! We’re working with Daryl Andrews now, who’s an industry veteran and we’re delighted to be working with him because we’re creator-first, – and that doesn’t just mean the creators of IP, but board game creators too. We want to work with the best of the best. Our company is growing, and we’ve put in place the infrastructure to work with more game designers moving forward. It’s all in the pipeline.
Looking ahead, is Maestro interested in launches outside of board games and merch?
Yes, that’s actually why we’re called Maestro Media. We’re already getting approached for other lines of business that’s aligned to what we do. In the future, we want to be a fully-fledged media company that’s focused on creators and fans.
Great stuff. I have one last question Javon – how do you fuel your creativity?
Walks and drives. During The Binding of Isaac campaign, there was a big hill I would drive to everyday with a beach chair and sit at the side of this mountain taking my calls. It would help clear my head. Where I live now in the Palisades, there’s an area where you see out to the Pacific Ocean and I try to get there as often as I can.
I’m also a fan, so I get inspired by shows, music, comic books and video games. Other people’s work and creativity inspires me and fuels the creativity of the business.
Javon, thanks again for taking the time. Let’s tie in again soon.
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