There was a familiar feeling at this year’s Toy Fair, the industry event showing off the shiny new toys that takes place at the intersection of Merchandising and Nostalgia (actually, it’s held in Manhattan).
As usual, the favorites of Geek Nation – the toys based on comic book/film/TV characters -- represented well. No surprise, considering licensed toys accounted for 25% of the $21 billion in toy sales in 2009. Along with the batch of new products there were also lots of toys that had you wondering if you had fallen asleep in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and gone time hopping.
Mattel is re-launching a nearly four-decade old line of action dolls. Star Wars is bringing back a line of toys it sold back in 1980. There is even a variation of a 45-year old board game based on a popular superhero. What’s old is new again, baby.
Besides the retro craze, the other star of this year’s Fanboy toy offerings was Iron Man. Shellhead is hands-down this year’s hot potato.
Hasbro unveiled a boatload of Iron-toys tied in to “Iron Man 2”, which blasts into theaters in less than three months, including Tony Starch.
That’s right; Marvel’s playboy genius is the latest Mr. Potato Head spin-off. How’s that for confirmation of one’s pop culture superstar status?
A Hasbro spokesperson said the incredible reaction to the first “Iron Man” film motivated the company to come up with more inventive ways to expand the toy line.
So now there are 6-inch figures of War Machine and one of the main villains, Whiplash, as well as Walking Talking Iron Man, a radio-controlled toy that talks and shoots plastic repulsor, err, sticks. That board game mentioned earlier? How does Iron Man Operation sound?
Over at DC, Batman took a backseat to Green Lantern. Hal Jordan’s alter-ego has always played second fiddle to DC’s Holy Trinity of the Dark Knight, Superman and Wonder Woman. Just like Iron Man, he was considered a B-list hero and barely registered outside the comic book world.
GL’s popularity is soaring these days, thanks to a hot storyline in the comics -- writer Geoff Johns’ ultra-popular ‘Blackest Night’ saga -- and movie buzz. Just like Iron Man.
According to Georg Brewer, Vice President of Design & Retail Product Development for DC Direct, the company is giving GL “a big push” to try and capitalize on the building excitement for the upcoming “Green Lantern” film, starring Ryan Reynolds, which is due out in 2011.
Besides a slew of action figures tied in to ‘Blackest Night,’ (four series of characters will be released in various stages this year), there are a number of high-end Green Lantern collectibles hitting the market, including massive 1:2 Scale display bust.
DC is celebrating its past with its DC 75 line, marking the company’s 75th anniversary. It includes limited edition statues of Superman, Batman, Flash, et al, in vintage form. As Brewer put it, the DC Chronicles series of collectible statues is all about “old-school look sculpted in modern style.”
There is even a swingin’ mini-bust designed by Amanda Conner of Batgirl doing the Batusi.
Yes, there are plenty of interesting new action figure lines for DC fans, like the Asian-inspired Blammoids and Ame-Comi figures.
But like many other firms at Toy Fair, the company continues finding new ways to mine the past to fund the future. Mattel teamed up with DC for a line of dolls based on the fondly remembered Mego 8” super hero dolls of the 1970s. The Retro-Action DC Super Heroes line is near exact replicas of the vintage dolls, right down to the old-school packaging.
Diamond Select is also getting in on the Mego action with a set of based on the classic Universal monsters, the Mummy, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Todd McFarlane knows how fine a line it is to walk between nostalgia and new products. The comics superstar and toy designer’s company, McFarlane Toys, specializes in action figures based on the top stars, past and present, of the major pro leagues.
The challenge, McFarlane said, is to determine “how far back can we go, and still have a retired player that does pretty well for us?”
“We’ve done both [current and retired player figures]. As weird as it is,” McFarlane noted, “even someone who is only sort of pretty good as a player that just recently retired has way more panache with the kids, because he’s younger than the older guys who I think are better ballplayers historically.
McFarlane spent much of Toy Fair talking up his company’s other toy lines, for the video game series “Halo” and the upcoming Disney action epic (also based on a video game), “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” He also pointed out another fact of life in the toy biz: when it comes to Hollywood merchandise, it’s a big boy’s game.
He can’t compete with the deeper-pocketed Hasbros and Mattels of the world for coveted licenses such as “Iron Man,” so he’s grateful to have the chance to work on a high-profile Disney summer release such as “Prince of Persia.”
“What we’re hoping for,” he said, “is [that] we catch a little bit of lightning in a bottle, like what happened with “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where no one knew what it was going to be, and then everybody chased it.”
Toy Fair underscores the industry’s reliance on film and television.
Neca Toys is working on a line of action figures tied in to Spring’s “Clash of the Titans,” starring “Avatar’s” Sam Worthington, and this summer’s “Jonah Hex” film starring Josh Brolin and Megan Fox. Mezco Toys debuted its toy line based on the much-hyped comic book adaptation “Kick-Ass,” as well as prototypes based on Seth Rogen’s upcoming “Green Hornet” film.
As for Transformers and G.I. Joe, which were toys before they were movies or cartoons, they’re basically in toy limbo until “Transformers 3” and the “Joe” sequel make it to theaters. Fans of those properties will have to make do with a few redesigned action figures, a Cobra H.I.S.S. Tank and a greatest hits series for the ‘robots in disguise’ called Transformers: Generations.
Meanwhile, George Lucas remains a Force to be reckoned with.
After 33 years of taking up shelf space and draining parents’ wallets, Star Wars remains the top-selling toy license (and the most ubiquitous. You couldn’t walk 10 feet in any direction at Toy Fair without seeing a Star Wars-related product). The combination of industry consolidation, a faltering economy and a proven track record has made the Star Wars galaxy more valuable than ever.
“We’re driven to keep Star Wars relevant and engaging through great new entertainment like “The Clone Wars” and great products, like the fantastic toys that Hasbro and LEGO produce year after year,” according to Howard Roffman, the President of Lucas Licensing. “We recognize that we exist in a crowded landscape with lots of things vying for kids’ attention.”
The new, younger fans that have been brought into the fold by the hit animated series “The Clone Wars” will probably go all Sith Lord crazy for the new General Grievous spinning Lightsaber, or the radio control Hailfire Droid, the first RC Star Wars vehicle of this size.
Lucasfilm also is throwing a few (and expensive) bones to its aging core fans, such as the flying Millennium Falcon, or the modernized update of the classic AT-AT Walker, complete with dangling Luke Skywalker figure at the bottom.
The company is also marking the 30th anniversary of “The Empire Strikes Back” by re-releasing that line of action figures. Fans even have the chance at the same mail-in offer from 1980 (with five proofs of purchase) for a free Boba Fett action figure, complete with rocket-firing backpack.
“We try to stay in touch with our consumers, and we closely watch the trends,” said Roffman. “We know there are a lot of collectors out there for whom events like the 30th Anniversary of ‘ESB’ really resonate. And we know there are even more kids who are actively engaged with the brand based on watching Clone Wars and seeing the movies on DVD. They’re not motivated by nostalgia; they want what’s current. The beauty of the brand is that ultimately it all integrates.”