Anyone who lived through the ’90s will remember the Beanie Babies craze, but what – and who – exactly caused it?
The plush toys Ty Warner created inspired a collecting frenzy for the latter part of the decade, with the company grossing an astronomical $ 1.4 billion in 1998. But for die-hard fans, the beanies were more than just a collector’s item: they were a financial investment. . While the retail cost of toys was relatively low, rare Beanies often achieved exponentially higher resale values ââin a bustling black market, which the documentary reveals was largely fueled by a small group of “soccer moms.” From the Midwest. And despite the rapid passage of fashion in the early 2000s, rare Beanie Babies continue to sell for thousands of dollars to this day.
Now the toys and the hysteria they sparked are the subjects of HBO Max’s eye-opening, nostalgic and entertaining documentary. Cap Mania. Featuring insightful interviews with the collectors, influencers and company insiders behind it all, the film offers a layered and fascinating look at how a children’s toy spawned an unprecedented investment bubble at dawn. of the Internet age.
Ahead of Beanie ManiaOn Thursday’s debut, EW caught up with director Yemisi Brookes to talk about all things Beanie-related, the surprising twists the story has taken, and the possibility that we may see another craze in the next few years.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What sparked your interest in a Beanie Babies documentary? Were you a collector?
YEMISI BROOKS: No. [Laughs] In fact, as you can probably tell from the accent, I’m not from around here, so I didn’t know much about Beanies. When I heard about this project and knew more about it, I thought to myself, wow, this was really a huge phenomenon. I didn’t think I realized before how great it was here. Every time I told people this was what I was doing, everyone reacted. Each person was like, “Oh my God, Beanie Babies! I remember that.” When I did some initial research I was really taken with everything they took care of, keeping in mind that it was just those ottoman shaped toys, which don’t were never supposed to sell for more than $ 5. I just thought it was a really interesting way to look at that period in time, and look at the whole economic bubble that it created.
Tell me about the women you discovered were at the heart of the craze?
Everyone is always talking about the Beanie Babies phenomenon, but in reality, what created and drives this phenomenon are just a few women from this Chicago suburb. I found it really interesting because I didn’t think this part of the story had really been told before. They were basically a bunch of soccer moms – what they used to be called – who lived mostly in Naperville, a Chicago suburb. And they just started collecting Beanie Babies, and then they were very methodical about recording when they got them and making lists. If you look at the phenomenon in detail, without these women it is unlikely that the phenomenon would ever have reached its scale.
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How did you manage to track them down?
When I got on the project there had already been a bit of development so we knew a few key players, a few key soccer moms. And then beyond that, there are still so many Facebook groups of people still collecting, and [we used that] to get to the bottom of who the big players are. But what was interesting that we found was that among collectors there are sort of different levels. And when you talk to people, people will say to you, “Oh, no, but this the woman was definitely the big collector, you have to talk to this woman. And like I said, when we traced it all out, it really came out of that dead end in and around Naperville. So yeah, that part was fascinating to us, and those women back then were almost like celebrities. They traveled the world, they spoke at events, they sold, they bought, they wrote price guides. So yes, they were really big. Beanies was like a whole subculture.
Some of them made a lot of money and some got into debt to the extreme. Did you find any hesitation on the part of some of them to talk about this stuff?
You know, the funny thing, again, is coming back to my British side, I lived in New York for seven years. And I’m pretty used to straight talking New Yorkers, aren’t I? But what we found out was that much of the filming took place in Chicago, [we were] dealing with the Midwesterners, who are very modest. A lot of the women who appeared on the show really didn’t want to appropriate all of this amazing work to create the phenomenon.
One person who certainly didn’t want to talk was H. Ty Warner, the creator of Beanie Babies and CEO of Ty Inc., who was later charged with tax evasion. The film emphasizes that he only ever did one interview, even at the height of the craze. Did you ever find out why this was or got some sort of response from him about the documentary?
I think that’s always been his way; I don’t think this is anything new. He just never particularly created any publicity. He doesn’t like to be in the public eye. Of course, we wrote him a letter and told him that we were making this documentary and that we would like him to be a part of it. And he returned a very polite email and said, “That’s a pass from me.”
Was there something you learned while making this documentary that really surprised you?
Looking at the archive footage and seeing how mental and crazy it really was. There were people stomping around to get Beanie Babies, and you think it sounds crazy, but there’s that kind of collective madness. Certainly, because I didn’t experience it here, I didn’t realize it. It surprised me.
Then I think the other thing was figuring out how much work these women had put into that. It was beyond a hobby. It was beyond a full-time job, and I think we capture a bit of that towards the end of the movie when [collector] Mary Beth is quite upset. And she said, “I wonder if that hasn’t gone too far. And, you know, I had young children then, and I hope I gave my children enough.” Because she was so in this kind of bubble. So I think it was interesting to see how much these women who created this aftermarket really gave into it because there weren’t any lists of all the Beanie Babies, and they just created them themselves. . And they’d call across the country trying to find out where they were, and traveling across the country, and cataloging. And, you know, the internet was in its infancy, but they all kind of had that AOL connection and answered hundreds of queries every day. It was really like a moment for them too.
Tim Leedy / Getty Beanie Babies were sold at the Leesport Farmers Market stand in 2004.
Besides all the interviews, another fun part of the film is the slow-motion scenes and glamorous shots of the Beanie Babies themselves. Was it fun to collect some for it and then be able to throw it away for a bit?
Yeah! I worked on this documentary for 10 months, so by the time we got to filming all these little slow-motion parts, you just become a bit of a beanie nerd. We had this kind of art department that was hired just to try and buy a bunch of beanies so that we could use them as props. And it was really funny and nostalgic for them. We found this guy on Craigslist. He was on Staten Island. I don’t remember the exact number, but he said, “I have 400 Beanie Babies, please come and get them.” So the art department went and got all these hats. It was a really fun day of filming, just throwing in hats. Then me and the crew took our favorites home. So yeah, it was a good day’s work.
In the movie, you ask a subject what their favorite Beanie Baby is, or the one that best represents them. So let me ask you the same question. Do you have a favorite?
I mean, I can’t believe how deepâ¦ I can go so granular with this. This could be my special topic now, Beanie Babies. And I’m just looking at them now because they’re actually in my living room. But there is one called Peace Bear, which has a tie-dye fabric. It’s like a traditional bear shape and there is a little peace sign. And I mean, look, the trend is back, hasn’t it, for ’90s stuff and tie-dyeing? So this one looks very 2021, but it was kind of my favorite.
And then I was so excited because, in that transport we got from Staten Island, there was a ladybug, which had no spots on it. And I’ve never seen this one before. The thing about these Beanie Babies is that the few were often the ones that went wrong in the factory. For example, there is a kind of duck that was accidentally made in China without its wings, and this one made its way all the way to the United States. He had no wings, and people would go crazy for that one because it was such a rarity.
The film ends on a forward-looking note. Do you think we could be heading for another Beanie craze? Is this doc the start?
[Laughs] I am not sure. So Peggy, who’s one of my favorite characters in the movie, is an authenticator, and she’s been doing that for years and years and years. You send your beanie to her, and she will smell it and touch it and look at it and see if it’s wrong. And then if it doesn’t, she’ll send it back to you with an authentication certificate, if that’s the right word. But she told me that the amount she authenticated was increasing massively. So that makes me think that maybe it will come back up. Like I said, all things from the 90s are pretty trendy and cool right now. But I’m not sure, because I also feel like everyone you talk to is like, âOh, my mom has a Tupperware box at home. We are just waiting for the right time to sell. So I think the market might be inundated, but we’ll see.