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Toy Makers Are Looking For Legs

13 Feb, 2002 By: Anne Sherber

It was apparent at last week's American International Toy Fair, held in New York City, that Hollywood's grip on the toy business has loosened considerably in the past few years.

Burned by one too many major motion pictures that didn't deliver droves of consumers hungry for related merchandise, licensees and retailers have become more conservative in their willingness to attach themselves to properties that don't have daily exposure on PBS or Nickelodeon.

Hollywood is responding by building franchise properties of its own and by demonstrating its commitment to those properties over the long haul.

Although the success of the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was never seriously in doubt, Warner Bros. made it known that there would be sequels, at the rate of one per year, for as long as the book series permitted, along with the associated annual video release. Licensees who stepped up could be confident that their products would have a shelf life comparable in length to merchandise associated with a long-running children's television show.

Conversely, Shrek and Monsters, Inc., which promised no sequels, were, by the standards of, for example, “Blues Clues,” under-represented in many consumer goods categories.

To allay jitters and better appeal to consumer products manufacturers and retailers a recessionary market, studios are adding value to their stand-alone properties by extending the life of film franchises and, by extension, of the related consumer goods. And video is playing a large part in that extension.

Peter Byrne, EVP of licensing and merchandising for Fox Consumer Products, said to create long term enthusiasm for the studio's animated feature Ice Age, due in theaters later this month, Blockbuster Video will sell plush toys from the movie during the film's theatrical run. Byrne says the company will most likely release Ice Age on video in the fourth quarter.

Although Disney was not hard pressed to find companies willing to become master toy, plush and interactive licensees for its June animated theatrical release Lilo and Stitch, the company let its consumer merchandise partners know that in addition to the film's theatrical run, there would be a high profile video release in October or November, as well as a direct-to-video Lilo and Stitch sequel in fall 2003. A spokesperson for Hasbro, holder of the film's master toy license, said this is the first time Disney has promised a direct-to-video sequel to its licensing partners before a film's theatrical debut.

Licensors are looking at other ways to tempt manufacturers and retailers as well. Nelvana Communications Inc., which holds the license to a number of current and successful properties including “Franklin” and Maurice Sendak's “Little Bear,” is relaunching “Care Bears,” a 1980s property that began life as a toy and morphed into a successful animated television and video series.

Sidney Kaufman, EVP of worldwide merchandising for Nelvana Communications, said the cost of launching a new property can be enormous. So it's not surprising that the company is in talks with what Kaufman says is a major Hollywood studio about distributing repackaged “Care Bears” videos.

In the meantime, Play Along, the holder of the “Care Bears” master toy license, will produce a tape and toy boxed set that will include both a “Care Bear” plush and the tape that features that specific bear.

Another toy-turned-personality, Barbie, will star in her sophomore effort this year. On the heels of the success of the direct-to-video Barbie in The Nutcracker, produced by Mattel and released through Artisan Home Entertainment, Mattel plans an October release for Barbie as Rapunzel. Mattel has not yet announced which video company will release the product.

HIT Entertainment, the company that owns “Barney” and “Bob the Builder,” two of the most successful children's licenses today, is set to launch a merchandising and video program around “Angelina,” a popular publishing property. A weekly animated series will debut on PBS May 4 and the first video comes out May 21. Each video will feature four short episodes and the company plans a number of promotions to launch the property, including a sweepstakes in which consumers can win “Angelina” merchandise and an author tour. As an added bonus, Dame Judi Dench -- nominated for another Oscar Tuesday - will give voice to one of the property's characters.

A noticeable trend at this year's Toy Fair was video product aimed at the smallest consumers. Given the success of the Baby Einstein line of videos and CDs and Disney's subsequent acquisition of that company, it's not surprising that videos geared toward children 2 and under were all over. Warner Home Video recently acquired distribution rights to Child Smart, a line of infant and toddler educational videos that uses puppets to keep the attention of children between 3 months and 3 years.

Small Fry Productions produces a number of infant and toddler lines, including “Brainy Baby,” “Bilingual Baby” and “First Impressions.” The tapes are available in single store outlets as well as specialty chains including Zany Brainy. A new, lower-priced line has been developed to appeal to mass merchants.

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