The Tail That Wags The Dog, And Other Tales From the 1997 American International Toy Fair

William Moritz gives a quick and dazzling historical overview attempts to create visual music using "color organs."

Vanpires.

The 1997 American International Toy Fair is where an estimated 20,000 toy manufacturers, licensers and buyers came to wheel, deal, and play with toys. Exhibitors set up showrooms in the New York Toy District (23rd Street and Fifth Avenue) and the Jacob Javits Convention Center. After seeing so many men in business suits, I had to keep reminding myself that we were here to see toys! But if there was any question that the toy industry is big business, figures from the Toy Manufacturers of America estimate $20 billion in retail sales in 1996 alone.

So what happens at Toy Fair anyway? Buyers come to check out what toys they want to buy, licensers come to find licensing partners for their properties, toy manufacturers come to attract both potential licensers and buyers. Fortunately, there were things to remind us that Toy Fair was indeed about the business of play. And play is a serious business. On the scene, scoping out the latest in animation-related toys for AWM, I saw The Mask keychains, plush Scooby and Scrappy dolls, and even a board game you play while watching cartoons . . . all while speaking to some of the biggest names in animation-related merchandising.

The Tail Wagging the Ghost

Harvey Entertainment Company and Trendmasters co-hosted an industry reception to celebrate the launch of Harvey's new toy line and pre-view the up-coming Casper direct-to-video release. (Trendmasters is the master toy licensor for Harvey character franchises including Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Baby Huey, Hot Stuff, Little Audrey and Wendy the Good Little Witch.) At a reception to celebrate the partnership, I decided to talk to the most approachable-looking guy in the room wearing a Harvey name tag. This approachable-looking guy turned out to be Harvey President and CEO Jeffrey Montgomery.

Montgomery (now 32) took over the then-dormant Harvey at the ripe age of 24. His goal for the company is to re-introduce the Harvey stable of classic characters to a new generation of fans, Casper being the first. Following on the heels of the successful Casper feature and # 1 rated Fox animated series (co-produced by Universal Cartoon Studio), Harvey will release Casper, The Beginning, in September '97. A co-production of Harvey and Saban, Casper's non-theatrical release will allow delivery of product to the fans within a year's time, instead of two. Casper was first produced by Famous Studios as theatrical shorts. Harvey Entertainment bought the rights in 1958.

Montgomery believes that a high-quality, animated show is humor based, not merchandise based and must operate on two different levels; "If it doesn't make me and my friends laugh; then it's not going to make children laugh either. Casper is not designed to be a half-hour commercial." With Casper scheduled for a fall 1997 release, Harvey Consumer Products Division is now gathering new licensees and preparing for heavy promotions with both major fast-food and beverage companies. Look for Casper on the most recent Cap'N Crunch Boxes featuring an offer for a Casper Squiggle Giggle Pen (a motorized pen that makes wiggly lines--one of which I am now proud owner.)

Sky Dancers Family Fun's "Toy of the Year"

Providing one of the season's major animation/licensing success stories is Abrams/Gentile Entertainment. The creators of Sky Dancers and Dragon Flyz were on hand at Toyfair to offer me the inside scoop about these successful properties. According to Jenny Gentile, Sky Dancers was actually a toy for one full year before it became an animated series. "We always look to develop a property as a complete package. An animated series was taken into account at the development stage with the backstory for the characters being developed at this time." The animated series (which debuted in the US this fall) is co-produced by Gaumont Multimedia, who has just completed production on 15 new episodes. New this season from master toy licensee Galoob are Pretty Scent Sky Dancers (bubble gum, strawberry and watermelon), Rainbow Ribbon Sky Dancers that have iridescent ribbons that shimmer as the doll takes "flight," Sparkle Dome Sky Dancers (personal fave) that has a little globe filled with glitter that swirls around when you launch the doll, and Sky Dancers that are characters from the show.

I would really like to see how kids play with these toys; like dolls, or like the semi-sporting goods that they are? Gentile feels the success of the show and its related toys is based on children's fantasies about flying. "When I was a little girl I always wanted to know what it was like to fly. I think these toys allow children to pretend that they too can fly."

Also in the works at AGE is a new part live-action, part computer animation series, Vanpires, about derelict cars that come to life after a giant meteor crashes into earth and tries to drain the planet of all the gasoline. Toyfair provided an initial forum for licensers to become familiar with this new property . The licensing show in June is where most of the licensing deals will be made for Vanpires. Already in the works is a Vanpire car from Galoob that drives and flys. Now this I gotta see!

Chuckie doll from Nickelodeon's Rugrats.

Get Ready for the Next Baby Boom

So say the signs on New York buses and subway platforms, and they're not referring to a new movie starring Diane Keaton. Nickelodeon unveiled it's new Rugrats merchandising program at Toyfair, kicking it all off with a sort of inaugural ball. The party was a festive celebration (and ironically the only event all week where I saw any kids!) complete with larger-than-life Angelica and Tommy walkarounds, Rugrats-shaped Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Klasky-Csupo animators on hand to draw guests their favorite Rugrat.

Nick's comprehensive new Rugrats merchandising program, with Mattel as master licensee, is the cable network's largest line of consumer products behind a single property to date. Although the show has been airing in 1991 and is Nick's # 1 rated show, they have proceeded with caution in developing licensing connected to the show. Says Maureen Taxter, Vice President and General Manager of Licensing for Nickelodeon Consumer Products, "We have carefully managed to build this merchandising program with a long-term view--not a flash-in-the-pan effort often associated with licensing. It is our intent to see Rugrats grow into a classic licensed property." And it is a great looking line that really retains the style of the animation featuring: Rugrats animation cels, bubblebath, backpacks, pencil toppers, talking Tommy, Angelica and Chuckie dolls (a must have item), and fruit snacks.

The party also helped to draw attention to it's #1 rated Nick Jr. preschool program, Blues Clues, an interactive play-along show for preschoolers combining a live-action host and computer-generated animated characters. A licensing deal for the one-year-old Clues is in the preliminary stages of development. I caught up with Traci Johnson, a Blues Clues producer and co-creator at the Nick party to get a creator's perspective on licensing.

"Ideally" says Johnson, "kids would be able to play along with the toys like they would the show. I want to produce real toys that preschool teachers would love to have in their classroom." Already, parents have expressed a demand for the merchandise connected to the show by downloading the image of Blue (the show's main character) from the Nickelodeon Web site and printing their own T-shirts.

Also in Nick Toyfair news . . . Nick President Herb Scannell announced an expanded partnership between Nickelodeon and Mattel giving the toy manufacturer exclusive licensing rights to the network's major properties, including its live-action and animated series. This greatly expands on the current Nickelodeon -branded activity toy line produced by Mattel which includes Gak, Floam, and Smud.

Aardman collectibles.

Wallace and Gromit Take Manhattan

Irwin Toys debuted their new line of Wallace and Gromit merchandise based on the characters from the Academy Award-winning shorts from Aardman Animations. Paul Waxman, product manager for the Toronto-based toy company, says "The Wallace and Gromit series have had five years of longevity in England and it's success is only speeding up." The video series did very well in the US this past Christmas, ranking fourth in Children's video sales and tenth overall. Waxman feels the series is able to cover this multiple demographic "due to it's tongue-in-cheek British humor and wonderful claymation style."

Irwin's Wallace and Gromit line features vinyl figurines and plush geared towards children, and cold-cast resin figures aimed at adults. The vinyl figures come four to a pack and will retail for around $3.99. Look for them at both specialty shops and larger retail outlets. The more substantial resins will sell for around $10.99 and can be found mainly at specialty shops. Collectors will enjoy this line, as both vinyl and cold-casts figures retain the same feel and texture as the animated clay characters.

Spumco's Latest Idiot

Well if you think Ren &Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi has been resting on his laurels (or on The Log), think again. He has been hard at work developing and merchandising his latest character, err . . . shall I say characters: Jimmy of the Future and Jimmy the Idiot Boy. I persuaded Spumco Vice President Kevin Kolde to try to set the record straight. Who is Jimmy anyway? "The closest thing I've ever heard to the origin of Jimmy is actually from another show called The Ripping Friends who are these really manly superheroes. There is a genetic engineer named Dr. Jean Poole who decides to create the perfect human, the result is Jimmy the Idiot Boy. In Jimmy of the Future he's a "freelance space idiot" who works for the smartest man in the world, Professor Longbrain, testing all of his inventions. Jimmy of the Future is about to become an animated children's series produced by Media Lab, a division of Canal+. "This is the toned-down Saturday morning Jimmy", says Kolde. Look for Jimmy of the Future, the computer animated series in about 12 months.

Also in development is an original interactive Web comic on the Microsoft Network featuring Idiot Jimmy, George Liquor, Cigarettes the Cat, and Dirty Dog. The webzine will be online in about three months and can be found within the MSN site called Spoken Word.

Whoever Jimmy is, he is available for purchase. The Jimmy of the Future and Jimmy the Idiot dolls retail for about $40 and can be found at Spencer gifts, through Spumco's Web site and at Musicland. "John is a huge toy fan and a collector." This is apparent in his new Three Stooges doll line, where careful attention to detail has been paid. Says Kolde, "John spent weeks just getting the fabric on the dresses right (the dolls are in drag). He tortured the sculptors until every detail was exact, down to the scar on Curly."

Cyber Barney

If you ever suspected Barney was like the Wizard controlling your children's thoughts and ideas, you weren't far off from what Microsoft had in mind. With the new Actimates Early Learning System, featuring the Microsoft Realmation Animation Technology, Microsoft combines children's love for the purple dino with the absolute latest in software technology. (Oh ,and just to say I warned you, production of a Barney movie will begin this summer, with a spring '98 release from Polygram Filmed Entertainment.) But first, imagine this: a stuffed animal that interacts with you as you play a game at your computer. It tells you when you get something wrong. It can even take a turn too. Here's how it works (to the best of my IQ): There is a transmitter that plugs into the gameport on a PC that transmits a wireless RF signal to a receiver in Barney's head. This allows the plush to interact with the software. The transmitter sends digitally encoded signals to tell the doll when and how to react to what is going on onscreen. Barney has a 14,000 word vocabulary. Be afraid, be very afraid and look for this at Toys R' Us this fall. The elements are all sold separately with the Interactive Barney retailing for $109.95, the PC transmitter for $64.95 and the software titles for around $34.95.

The Interactive Barney also works as a stand alone toy--touch various parts of his body and he'll sing one of his14 classic hits, play peek-a-boo, or give you his signature chuckle. At the showroom they said that in tests Interactive Barney survived repeatedly being dropped on his head from 7 feet and tumbling for 14 hours in the dryer. Now there's something I'd like to see!

The Mask action figures.

Mr. Men Makes US Debut

Leisure Concepts, Inc. (LCI), a division of 4Kids Entertainment, is currently developing licensing programs for two animated children's series: Oscar's Orchestra and Mr. Men, based upon the award-winning book series by illustrator Roger Hargraves. I spoke with Al Kahn, LCI's Chairman and CEO, about the challenges of predicting what properties will be lucrative licenses. He noted that a successful property may not be a successful license. "There are certain things," Kahn says, "that kids will watch that they don't necessarily want to live. The key to make a license really work is when the kids want to become one with the characters and have their existence peppered with them. Kids need to be immersable into the character group."

Mr. Men is a classic property that has been in France for 25 years. Kahn plans on using toys to introduce a new generation to the Mr. Men characters. A comprehensive back-to-school program and the rerelease of the books by Price, Stern and Sloan will coincide with the show's fall debut in the US. "Any exposure of these characters (television or merchandising) will help the character get seated." Kahn feels that both the series and the licenses have a strong chance of doing well.

"The storyline is very important to kids getting involved with the characters," Kahn points out. "In this property, the characters are the storyline. When I say Mr. Happy you know exactly what I'm talking about. These characters are basically the personifications of those emotions. Kids see them and know who they are. That will drive recognition and kids to get involved with the characters and collect them (there's about 80 of them).

Annie, a new show in development by AGE, currently looking for licensing opportunities

Kahn spoke about the risks involved in bringing a European property into the US market (Mr. Men is a long-established series in France). There is the perception, he senses, that European properties are "softer." In the United States, "soft properties" aren't as successful. Kahn says that, "You have to be either very male-skewed (action/adventure) or very female-skewed; if it's neuter, it's too young and no one watches it. Mr. Men, although it's soft, both boys and girls can relate to a character."

LCI's other animated series, Oscar's Orchestra, teaches children about music. Starring Dudley Moore as the voice of the show's hero, Oscar the Grand Piano, who along with his musical friends battle the evil dictator Thadius Vent, who is on a mission to rid the world of music. Oscar's debuted to in the US last fall, but with stronger promotion and 13 new episodes this season, the award-winning British series is looking for a stronger season. Toyfair presented an opportunity to meet with potential licensees. "What's good about Oscar's is if you look at everybody's toy lines, there's always musical instruments in those lines--generic instruments. With Oscar's, we give them an opportunity to put a real handle on a generic category.

So the big question is, How do you predict the next Tickle Me Elmo? I mean, who knew that a convulsing, hysterical red monster would cause such an uproar? Maybe I'm not a kid anymore, maybe it was all those men in suits, but the toys I liked the best were the well-made ones that looked like they might last. Give or take the occasional Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kid, most of the animation-related toys I saw were well designed and well crafted. The fact that there is a well-thought out story behind the merchandise makes it no wonder that toy manufacturers flock to these properties. I admit I want the Johnny Quest action figures by Galoob, just because they are so well made, maybe even a Sky Dancer or two. There is something very interesting about this period in animation, merchandising and marketing, and the fact that they cannot be divorced from each other. Will this trend continue? Despite the naysayers, the licensers that make their fortune from the next big property are willing to bet it will.

Well, even God was rewarded on the seventh day . . . At the end of my week of investigative reporting, I finally got to go to the showroom floor and saw all the toys. Row after delicious row of babies, frisbees, stickers, stampers, squiggly, glow-in-the dark, scare the pants off you TOYS! And I didn't even have to share.

Marcy Gardner currently works in the Children's Programming Department at WGBH, Boston where she answers Arthur's fanmail and is compiling a library of kid's ideas, art, films/videos, and projects for the new Zoom show. Previously, she worked on Sesame Street. Marcy would love to hear from anyone interested in Zoom and can be reached at: cruelladeville@msn.com.

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