Harry and Rings Vie for Toy Kingdoms, While Robo-Pets and Dolls Dominate – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings

David Finnigan

If Stars Wars and Pokemon dazzled the Toy Fair masses in years past, this should be the year of Harry Potter. But the annual pilgrimage of manufacturers and retail buyers to New York came and went last week with no apparent, earth-shaking must-haves to boost retail numbers in an expected slowing economy.

“There’s no Furby out there this year,” said Wham-O product marketing manager Kelly Churchwell, making an observation shared by many attendees. “It seems that everybody is copying everybody else,” said Israeli toy buyer Allan Teller. “There’s a lot of scooter product, a lot of robotic pets.”

But nothing that truly grabbed retailers, including toys and games tied to Harry Potter books and Warner Bros.’ film, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, set to bow in theaters Nov.16.

“People are talking brand rather than film.” said Anthony Fanara, marketing director at Equity Marketing’s consumer products unit. His comments echoed a back-to the classics refrain writ large this year across a lackluster toy market that saw overall sales drop 1.4% to $16.4 billion in 2000, per the Toy Manufacturers Association, with financially challenged giants Mattel and Hasbro eager to break out of their collective slump.

With the Potter movie still in production, much of the product on display was book-based. Warner Bros. Consumer Products executives, perhaps chastened by past would-be blockbusters that overpromised and underdelivered, said they did not want to flood Toy Fair as part of their plan to manage Potter product with scrutiny–and secrecy.

Mattel’s Potter line had six items including games, magic and playsets, but attendees noted the master toy licensee appeared to lack an iconic, must-have moviethemed toy. Has bro’s Wizards of the Coast game unit has Potter role-playing card games, while its Tiger Electronics division is offering up a game and a Potter-ized personal electronic encyclopedia, playsets, magic wands and Quidditch broom with electronic sensors, among its line. Plush toymaker Gund has about seven upscale Potter plush characters.

Lego’s construction toy license for Potter has generated 11 items from $5.99 to $89.99, but under orders from Warner Bros., sources said, it had no Potter product in its showroom and just a vague one-page mention of the line in its catalogue.

By comparison, New Line Cinema’s Lord of the Rings and licensee Toy Biz showed up with all three films completed, as well as a brand new promotional partner. Sources said Burger King–which could not ink a Potter promotion because author J.K. Rowling has vetoed fast-food promotions-will be promoting the Dec. 19 release of Rings.

“They’ve been early with the art. They’ve shared a complete vision of the film,” said John Sinclair, svp-licensing and business development at Playmates, which has Rings-based Intelli-Blox construction items. “For some people, Lord of the Rings is why we’re in the toy business.”

Potter and Rings will not compete for the exact same movie patrons–Potter for children under 10, with Rings driven by pre-teen, teen and adult fans. “I don’t think it’s an either/or opportunity. We can certainly share shelf space. We think Rings will attract a broader boys demographic,” Sinclair said.

Another major entertainment tie-in property was 20th Century Fox’s Planet of the Apes. Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Tim Rothman said Tim Burton’s “reimagining” of the science fiction classic, opening July 27, represents, “the most aggressive and largest marketing campaign in the history of the studio.”

To support, Fox’s “Rule The Planet” campaign begins next week with a Web site launch and the first trailer hitting theaters, with a second trailer to follow in April and a third in June. Despite all the hype, Apes lead licensee Hasbro produced a modest line aimed at collectors with a handful of 12-inch action figures among others.

By contrast, Hasbro’s line for Universal Pictures’ Jurassic Park III–the latest film in a proven franchise that has logged $280 million in combined toy sales to date–includes 12 dinosaurs with at least 27 characters. JP3 is on tap for national promotions, TV, print and Web support.

Hasbro and Mattel both being in back-to-classics mode means more focused marketing and event piggybacking in the year ahead. Hasbro’s rebooted G.I. Joe line, for example, gets numerous World War II characters including six new figure collections marking the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, plus its first ads in six years. The toys arrive on store shelves in March, June and July during the buildup and release of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures’ action/romance film, Pearl Harbor, set for a May25 release.

Also on tap for summer, Dream Works SKG’s animated May 18 film, Shrek, will see a line of 3-inch to 12-inch figures from master toy licensee McFarlane Toys, which put aside its usual dark imagery to make the film’s bright fairy tale characters.

Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures video-driven Tomb Raider, due in theaters June 15, will spawn a line of action figures of star Angelina Jolie as bodacious heroine Lara Croft. One kink in the promotional plans for the likes of Pepsi and others: the tempestuous Jolie, sources said, has not approved of using her likeness in promotions.

Disney’s Monsters Inc., a license that in previous years would have gone to Mattel, was firmly ensconced at Hasbro’s showroom with a full line of action figures, playsets, plush, Play-Doh, Lite-Brite items, interactive vehicles and walkie-talkies from its Tiger and WowWie units, keychains, boardgames and puzzles. McDonald’s, Pepsi, Frito-Lay and Kellogg are aboard for promotions, Should the line be fruitful at retail, the balance of power could shift at Hollywood’s most toy-friendly entertainment giant.

Rather than trying for scattershot reach in Sunday newspaper ads for its Matchbox line, Mattel is targeting collectors through the Internet and conventions. “We used to do Sundays and we’re really starting to cut that back said Darrin Greene, senior product manager at Matchbox.

Mattel, which is assembling retail buyers, partners and others at its own product gathering in Tucson, Ariz., over the next two weeks, displayed a mere three rooms last week with boys, girls and Fisher-Price fare. While some buyers want to give Mattel a chance at setting its own pace, others were clearly annoyed at the notion of a second buying trip. “Who has three days [to spare] after Toy Fair?” said a buyer for a major retailer.

While Lego was hampered in its Potter showroom presentation, the Danish toymaker will spend $15 million to promote its new Bionicle action figures hitting U.S. stores in August. McDonald’s is planning a Happy Meal promotion with six Bionicle premium characters, plus expected in-store support and ads.

“This is the first time we’ve used McDonald’s for a line launch” versus a premium, said Lego assistant brand manager Colin Gillespie.

Separately, Lego plans word-of-mouth marketing with a pre-launch Bionicle tour of 1,000 skateboard parks, beaches and other youth-rich gathering spots. The story-based, 18-piece line has been endorsed by skate-boarder Andy Macdonald, with the California Amateur Skateboard League aboard as the tour’s lead sponsor. The launch includes a Game Boy title, a Bionicle trilogy from DC Comics plus a tie-in song from Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart. The Lego Club magazine will include the DC Comics trilogy’s third installment, being published at Christmas, while the toymaker also plans a search-for-the-Bionicle golden-mask contest.

Hasbro’s Tiger unit prides itself on being an electronics expert in the toy space. Actually, it is more akin to a packaged goods marketer with core brand themes and extensions. How else to explain the maker of Poo-Chi’s move into robotic pets, reptiles, mice, flowers and babies? Its newest robo-dog, I-Cybie, however, weighs in at $200 and could be too much of a risk for retailers bracing for a soft economy “There’s no retailer that’s going to be able to take them all,” said Reyne Rice, toy services director at consultancy NPD Group.

Finally the Comedy Central hit, BattleBots has spun off Tiger’s BattleBots “battlers” that bring the live mechanical gladiator-like fest to retailers. “Everyone wants to do events in the stores,” said Tiger senior vp Marc Rosenberg. “We’ve got Kay-Bee set to do live product demos in every store.”

The Green Ghost. Rock ’em, Sock em Robots. The Marcia Bradyesque Dawn Doll. Everything old is new again at Toy Fair, where vintage is not just for collectors and the end of the trend, which began with low-tech Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys a few years back, seems nowhere in sight. The explosion is fueled by a backlash against techno toys as well as nostalgia among parents like Distributoys.com CEO Ronnie Gold finger. “I buy toys that I want, and make my kids play with them” he said.

Marx, a toy leader in the ’60s, is bringing back its Fort Apache and other vintage sets after being acquired by Stereoscape.com in December and working out fulfillment issues. This time around, ads will target boomer destinations such as Turner Classic Movies and Nick-at-Nite to reach the toy buyers: mom and dad. Additionally, the brand will get an unexpected boost from Universal’s American Pie 2, whose plotline revolves around vintage character Johnny West from Marx’s Best of the West playset.

“People buy these toys because they sense they have a lot of play value,” explained Sally Lee, editor-in-chief of Parents magazine. “We played with them, so we figure our children will want to, too Also, she said, parents’ familiarity with toys from their own childhood might be more apt to play with their kids, which aids development.

Hasbro’s retro-fave Mystery Date has made the transition into the ’00s. Once, players passively answered the door to reveal whether their date was “a dream or a dud.” In the new version they call the guys via cell phone to get clues on the dude they’re dating. Sadly the grungy “dud”–who all girls secretly crushed on in the ’60s original–is no more: The dates are strictly pretty-boy boyband material.

Odds ‘n Ends: One of the most adorable little characters debuting at Toy Fair this year? Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who burst into the Mattel showroom unannounced. No, the sex therapist wasn’t there to give Barbie love tips, but rather to get a jump on her holiday shopping: The exuberant Dr. Ruth was busy manhandling the plush prototypes in search of the latest, greatest tchotchkes for her grandchildren … Mattel’s smartassed, smart-chip-enhanced Diva Starz will soon be the owners of Diva Petz, who respond to their names and basic questions. “Peanut butter!” one kitty cries when asked if he’s hungry … Let me go put on my face, literally: The press of a button on Hasbro’s Talk ‘n Pop Mr. Potato Head causes the spud to violently reject ears, eyes and sundry other facial organs as if stricken with leprosy Mattel, meanwhile, will launch What’s Her Face, a smooth, blank-faced doll that allow girls to try out various features by stamping them on and washing them off (No relation to the Timeless Treasures Cher across t he aisle) …For those with footwear fetishes, Hasbro’s collectible Shoezies–teensy sandals, sneaks, platforms and boots–get a leg up via heavy sampling outside MTV’s Total Request Live and Backstreet Boys concerts, but how will they reach what will surely become a secondary market: lonely 45-year-old males?

COPYRIGHT 2001 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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