The Beanie Bubble: film of true story behind fallen toy empire

If you clung on to your childhood collection of Beanie Babies in the vague hope that, some day, they might be worth a fortune, then your story is about to hit the big screen. 

The details of the 1990s stuffed-toy phenomenon were so “mind-boggling”, said the Los Angeles Times, that they inspired directors Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash to make “The Beanie Bubble” film, which debuted on Apple TV+ last week. 

The film is based on the 2015 book, “The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute”, by Zac Bissonnette. Starring “The Hangover”’s Zach Galifianakis as the “real-life toy titan” behind the limited-edition toys, H. Ty Warner, the film “shifts its perspective away from him to three pivotal women” who worked with him, played by Sarah Snook of “Succession”, Elizabeth Banks and Geraldine Viswanathan.

“It’s an incredibly wild and absurd story about this insane speculative craze,” said Gore.

What happened?

In 1986, Chicago-based toy salesman Ty Warner came up with an idea for bean-filled plushy toys with former girlfriend Patricia Roche (Banks’s character in the film, Robbie, is partly based on Roche).

In 1986, Warner began to sell toys whose “most innovative feature was being under-stuffed”, according to Digital Spy, “making them poseable and easier to hug”. The product evolved into “pocket-sized versions” shaped like animals, called Beanie Babies.

His company Ty Inc. released the first character, Legs the Frog, in 1993 with “limited success”, said CNN. Warner was “undeterred”, and released 20 new designs the following year.

Around 1995, young Ty Inc. employee Lina Trivedi came up with the idea of giving each toy a tag including a name, birthdate and original poem. This made each character unique, and desirable to collectors.

Trivedi also directed development of a devoted website: “the world’s first business-to-consumer” site in 1995 according to Time, “anchoring Ty Inc., and Beanie Babies as a historic toy phenomenon”. (Trivedi inspired the character of Maya Kumar in the film, played by Viswanathan.)

What does it have to do with eBay?

With the advent of eBay, demand for the toys increased to the point where it essentially became a “clearing house for Beanie Babies”, Gore told LA Times.

“Beanie Babies were absolutely pivotal to the ability of eBay to grow and gain scale,” said Bissonnette. “You really could not have invented a better product to drive mass adoption of e-commerce.”

The business model “was built on the illusion of scarcity”, said Vanity Fair, with Warner limiting the number of toys any seller was allowed to buy and retiring models “at his whim”. Because of “the perception that demand exceeded supply”, Beanies, sold for $5 in shops, could fetch “on average six times that on eBay, where collectors hoarding the product could command a pretty penny”.

The strategy “fuelled a demand for rare or scarce Beanie Babies”, said CNN, as people “clamoured to buy soon-to-be extinct toys”. 

The intensity of the so-called “Beanie Bubble” reached fever pitch, with a thriving black market and McDonald’s commissioning 100 million Teenie versions for a Happy Meal promotion. People were arrested for theft, divorced couples fought over collections, and drivers stopped their cars to grab stock spilled from a truck.

The Beanie craze “had driven a large swathe of America into a state of greed-fuelled delusion”, wrote Bissonnette. “More than any other consumer good in history, Beanie Babies were carried to the height of success by a collective dream that their value would always rise.”

Within five years, Beanie Babies comprised 10% of all purchases on eBay. Ty Inc. became one of the most profitable toy companies in the world, at its height reaching more than $1 billion in sales. 

How did the bubble burst?

In 1999, Warner “incited a frenzy”, said Vanity Fair, when he announced that he was planning to retire the Beanie Baby brand at the end of the year. Although he reversed the decision, sales fell by more than 90%.

“1999 was kind of the end of the dream,” Bissonnette said. “Character ‘retirement’ announcements stopped creating a huge spike in demand. But the nature of bubbles is to burst. Beanie Baby mania was always a speculative fervour that didn’t make sense.”

In 2019, the Financial Times described the investment movement “perhaps, in terms of its sheer level of mass insanity, the greatest market bubble of all time”. The plushies were “the dotcom stock of the soccer mom world in the second half of the 1990s”.

In 2014, Warner was convicted of tax evasion, hiding more than $100 million in an offshore bank account. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, and a fine of $53 million, according to Chicago Mag.

He lives out of the public eye, but maintains investments in hotels and is still worth about $1.7 billion. Beanies are still being produced today.

They live on “as a punchline, as a product”, said Vanity Fair, “and as a pipe dream for those stockpiling stuffed animals in hopes of a payout that, for most, was never delivered”.