Remember Beanie Babies? Those cute plush toys with adorable names like Legs the Frog, Squealer the Pig and Patti the Platypus that people went crazy over in the 1990s?
They sold for only $5. But for a while you could resell a plush toy on eBay for much, much more. Patti the Platypus in mint condition once sold for $6,000. A Brownie the Bear in pristine condition sold for $20,000.
Topping the charts: Princess the Bear, the Beanie Baby created to memorialize Princess Diana after her untimely death in 1997, once sold for $500,000.
The Beanie bubble burst in 2000. Before it popped, though, it was possible to make a killing by buying and selling Beanie Babies on the secondary market.
Things got weird around Beanie Babies: a truck carrying the toys that crashed and was mobbed by drivers who stopped to scoop up the Beanie Babies that had spilled all over the highway, the frenzy at McDonald’s restaurants when Teenie Beanie Babies were offered in 1997 with Happy Meals. (One McDonald’s reported someone ordered 100 Happy Meals with Teenie Beanie Babies but asked the counter person to leave out the food.)
Beanie Babies and the chaos that surrounded them are the subject of the new movie “The Beanie Bubble,” arriving July 28 in theaters and on Apple TV+.
Directed by Kristin Gore (“Accidental Love”) and her husband Damian Kulash Jr. (co-founder of the Chicago rock group OK Go), it’s an account of the craze and the people behind it: Ty Warner, founder of the toy company Ty Inc., who came up with Beanie Babies (played by Zach Galifianakis), and three co-workers, each who played a major role in the Beanie Baby boom: Robbie (Elizabeth Banks), Sheila (Sarah Snook) and Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan).
Maya introduced Warner to the internet and eBay. She also created and maintained the Beanie Baby website. (Ty Inc. was one of the first companies to use a website to promote sales.)
Robbie, Sheila and Maya are fictional characters, based in part on three women in Ty Warner’s life: Patricia Roche and Faith McGowan (former Warner girlfriends involved in his Beanie Baby business) and Lina Triveti, described by Zac Bissonnette in his book “The Great Beanie Baby Bubble” as “the $12-per-hour sociology major who made Ty Warner a billionaire.”
The movie is adapted from Bissonnette’s book, but “The Beanie Bubble” is not a documentary. It is fiction that adheres closely to the truth. Here is how Gore and Kulash put it in a title card that appears at the beginning of “The Beanie Bubble”: “There are parts of the truth you just cannot make up. The rest, we did.”
Beanie Babies were born in Chicago in 1993, the brainchild of Warner, dubbed “the Steve Jobs of plush.” It was Warner who came up with the innovation of understuffing his stuffed animals, packing them with just enough plastic beads that they flopped around in your hand when you held them but also made them very pose-able. Which kids liked. Before Beanie Babies, plush toys were regularly packed so full of stuffing that they looked like furry Thanksgiving turkeys.
The movie depicts Warner as very much the narcissistic manipulator many have described. Galifianakis’ Warner would do anything to give his Babies a mystique and make them stand out in the crowded world of plush toys.
Warner created an artificial shortage by limiting the number of Beanie Babies any store was allowed to buy and by “retiring” some Beanie Babies after a time. This created a demand for retired Babies that exceeded supply, increased the toy’s value and prompted people to buy Beanie Babies and then resell them at a substantial markup.
One of the secondary markets was eBay, the e-commerce site that started in 1995. Beanie Babies mania and eBay were made for each other. In 1998, Beanie Babies accounted for 10% of all sales on eBay. The average price of the eBay Beanies was $30 — six times their original price.
There was a “sense of community that was created around these toys,” Banks said in an interview before the actors strike halted stars’ promotional activities.
“No one in my family that I know of was collecting them for money,” said the actor, whose younger brother was a Beanie fan. “It was about the FOMO, the emotional, psychological connection to the object that people have decided has value. So this is a ritual that humans go through all the time.”
Beanie Babies mania would make for an interesting movie. But Gore’s script also makes “The Beanie Bubble” a story of how Robbie, Sheila and Maya are changed by their relationship with Warner.
As someone who grew up in a working-class family, Banks said she was attracted by how Gore’s script captured Robbie’s resilience.
“She had to overcome this very male-dominated world that she was in, be innovative and manipulative and smart and tactful,” Banks said. “And she had to emotionally support this partner of hers, who did not do the same for her.”
Robbie, like the real-life Patricia Roche, helps found Ty Inc. with Warner and later makes her fortune running the company’s UK branch.
“That was a story that inspired me,” Banks said, “and that I thought could inspire the audience.”
Similarly, Viswanathan said: “I thought the script was really brilliant, that it was this kind of fun, bubbly packaging with this dark truth within it. I also related to [Maya’s] character a lot, just as someone trying to make it in the world and fighting for her value or fighting to be seen for her value. Yeah. And just being sort of the underdog in the situation.”
Robbie, Sheila and May each is essential to Warner’s success, but Warner doesn’t see it that way. He takes the lion’s share of the credit for the success of Beanie Babies.
Warner’s dependence on and exploitation of the women fascinated Banks.
“I went down a real rabbit hole about this,” she said. “I read a lot about this, how Robbie was being schooled by Ty in the story and about the psychological part of a woman playing a supporting role in a man’s world.
“I’ve played a lot of supporting roles to men. As a woman, you’re constantly trying to negotiate people’s egos and also have your own ambition. But that’s not attractive for women to have. So you’re negotiating that. And I really felt like all of those things were also things that this character Robbie was negotiating. And I think Kristin Gore, who adapted this, did a masterful job of imbuing this with all of those ideas.”
Former collector Andi Van Guilder once described Beanie Babies as “something really cute that just brought out the worst in people.”
But “The Beanie Bubble” shows the opposite also was true, that the era brought out the best in the three women at the center of the film. Each finds in herself the skills to flourish after the Beanie bubble.
Viswanathan’s takeaway from the movie is: “Just know your worth, and don’t give over your power to someone who doesn’t see you or value you in the way that you should be valued. Ty was brilliant in many ways. And their partnership did lead to some amazing things. What does [Maya] learn from Ty? I think she gets a lot of experience and business insight and being a part of something from the ground up, I think that probably equipped her with a lot of skills that she used later.”
Banks said: “The most inspirational thing to me about Robbie is that, when everything is taken away from her, everything she thought she built is not what it was at all. But she doesn’t lie down and take it. She gets back up. And she figures out how to stand on her own two feet.”