Karen Raugust reports from Toy Fair 2007 where classics and franchises, many from the world of animation, dominated the show floor. She also finds that electronic toys continue to drive growth in the industry.
At Toy Fair 2007 -- the first held primarily at New Yorks Javits Center instead of the now-closed Toy Buildings in Manhattan -- classics, franchises and brands dominated most exhibitors strategies. That included the many toys tied to animated films and TV shows.
This reliance on the tried-and-true is the result of continued challenges facing the toy industry, including less shelf space available for toys; more consolidation of toy sales, with a greater proportion sold through just a few retail chains; and kids increasingly early migration away from toys and toward electronics and videogames. Toy sales were flat overall in 2006, according to data from the NPD Group released during the show, with U.S. retail sales hitting $22.3 billion, up just .34% from 2005.
The strongest category by far was youth electronics, which saw a 22% increase during the year. (Vehicles, arts and crafts and infant/preschool were the other categories that proved strong, each driving increases of between 2% and 5%.) A focus on electronics was evident across the show floor, with many toys and games incorporating technology of some sort. For example, a number of products allowed kids to create, mix and share content, including animation, electronically.
One first-time exhibitor focusing on this niche was Planetwide Media, a provider of online self-publishing software applications and videogame solutions for game developers, publishers and niche markets. Its lead product is Comic Book Creator, which allows users to create comicbooks, integrating personal digital photos, animated GIFs and licensed content, among other elements, and then publish it in multiple formats. Several add-on digital content packs are available, including Speed Racer and National Geographic Kids versions. The company also has a license with TokyoPop for the TokyoPop Manga Creator.
Users can post their finished creations -- which can be saved as animated Flash flip files, enabling readers to electronically page through the entire digital book -- to the companys new Hypercomics.com site, an online social network for artists, comicbook and story creators and their fans. They also can be posted to third-party websites, blogs and social networking sites. Mark Politi, vp of Planetwide Media, says some animators are using the software for storyboarding games and other productions, but he adds, Its for the public, really.
Hash Inc. was selling its AnimationMaster software, which lets users create everything from anime-style to 3D animation, at Toy Fair for the first time. The software has been marketed mainly as a professional tool but, as home computers have improved in speed and memory, the company has been expanding into electronics retail. Since so many toy stores sell electronics, it decided to try Toy Fair and see what happens, according to Marshall Hash, president.
Its more of an art tool than a CAD program, Hash explains, noting that the focus is on art and story rather than the technical aspects of animation. The package contains thousands of models, so users can start creating animation immediately. Because anyone can do this, its more at a consumer level now. Hash adds that the age level for the product is coming down as well, with the company selling more units to middle schools than high schools, thus increasing its potential in the toy channel.
While most animation studios are represented at the show primarily by licensees showing toys based on their properties, one animation company has a full-fledged toy company and is a long-time Toy Fair exhibitor. Curious Toys was founded in 1998 as a division of Curious Pictures, which produces Little Einsteins and Codename: Kids Next Door; DVDs, such as My Scene Goes Hollywood, for Mattel; and many commercials. The toy division is known for its Bonz line, which includes 15 construction toy sets, including this years introduction, DragonBonz.
Susan Holden, one of the founding partners of New York-based Curious Pictures and head of the toy division, says Curious launched the toy company in part to create properties it could own and then develop into television programming. Although that hasnt happened, the division has become a success story. Our clients like the idea that were diversified, Holden explains.
She notes that Curious has four divisions, and when one is in a down cycle, the others can pick up the slack. In 2001, for example, a deal between Curious Toys and Toys R Us for an exclusive Bonz package saved the company during the advertising and New York business downturns that followed September 11th. Weve been able to survive in this business for 14 years, and diversification is the reason why, says Holden.
Focus on Franchises
Toymakers looking to attract retail buyers to their product lines are staying away from anything new and risky, a trend that has been ongoing for several years but seemed to intensify at this Toy Fair. It was evident in the entertainment-based toys seen on the show floor. For example, three properties with among the widest presence were the third films in their respective franchises: Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End and Shrek the Third, all due for release this summer. Spider-Man film merchandise was complemented by a wide selection of other Marvel licensed products for all ages.
Other film properties with relatively wide exposure were based on existing franchises in other media. These included New Line and Scholastics book-based Golden Compass, with Corgi as lead toy licensee; Hasbros Transformers, based on its classic toy line, with Hasbro doing additional toys and 200 licensees signed for the property globally; and Foxs The Simpsons, a summer release based on the still-strong TV series, with toys from McFarlane and others.
A number of multi-character classic franchises also had broad distribution at the show, including Disney Princess, Sesame Street, the Nickelodeon family, the Cartoon Network family and DC Comics (including a new line for preschoolers at Mattel). A couple of companies showed toys based on nostalgic animation properties, including McFarlane, with classic Hanna-Barbera scenes, and Sideshow Collectibles, with Chilly Willy, Mr. Magoo, Underdog, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye and Rocky & Bullwinkle figures.
In general, original, non-franchise-based properties were few and far between. Commonwealth Toys and others showed merchandise based on DreamWorks upcoming Bee Movie; Mattel was among those exhibiting merchandise based on Disney/Pixars Ratatouille; and Jakks Pacific and other licensees were touting Sonys Surfs Up.
On the television side, Bandai was showing products based on Ben 10 and Team Galaxy, both airing on Cartoon Network, at its off-site suite, while Foxs Family Guy had an expanded presence at the booths of licensees including Basic Fun, Gemmy, Mezco Toys and NJ Croce. Pinky Dinky Doo, a co-production of Sesame Workshop and Cartoon Pizza that airs on Noggin, had a wall of product on display at plush maker Gund. And Yottoy, a maker of book-based plush, showed three new toys based on animator/author Mo Willems book titles, including Dont Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
The tween girl market has been a growing target in recent years, and that was true this year as well. Thinkway Toys highlighted its license with DIC Ent. for the website-inspired animated series Horseland. DIC also announced during the show that Mattel would be its master toy licensee for SPG: The Slumber Party Girls, a new live-action tween brand. Following the High School Musical template, DIC and Geffen are developing a TV movie musical for fall 2007, as well as a concert tour, Broadway musical, television sitcom and free quarterly publication. Currently, the characters act as hosts for DICs KOLs Secret Slumber Party on CBS programming block and serve as the house band on DICs Dance Revolution!, a dance competition show.
Most of the highest-profile tween-targeted properties are live-action rather than animated; in addition to High School Musical, they included Cheetah Girls and Hannah Montana. JAKKS Pacific debuted toy lines based on the last two at the show.
Several licensors use Toy Fair to officially announce new properties available for licensing and meet with potential licensees in the toy industry and other product categories. Scholastic Media, for example, launched its licensing effort for Dragon, which airs on the qubo block on NBC, Telemundo and ION Television and is based on a book by Dav Pilkey. Scholastic is seeking licensees in all preschool categories.
Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide and its agent Dimensional Branding Group debuted the U.S. licensing effort for The Secret Show, which launched in Britain in October 2006 as part of a live-action morning show and in the U.S. in January on Nicktoons (after a premiere on Nickelodeon). With ratings building each week, strong traffic to the website, and TV sales in 19 countries, BBC and Dimensional are now looking for licensees in earnest. Penguin is already on board for a series of books to debut in fall 2008; the lead category will be toys and games, especially those incorporating a bit of espionage.
While its difficult to break into the toy industry these days, and into the licensing business in general, with a brand-new property, Dimensional Brandings CEO Larry Seidman believes The Secret Show, which is about secret people doing secret things and contains elements reminiscent of Maxwell Smart and Monty Python, is distinct enough to attract interest from licensees. Its a water cooler property, he says, noting that kids will watch and then spread the word at school the next day.
This age group [boys and girls 6 to 11] is a challenge, admits Anna Hewitt, head of international licensing for BBC Worldwide. You have to invest heavily in marketing, especially in non-traditional channels. The Secret Show is being promoted in places like MySpace, YouTube and blogs, as well as traditional marketing venues. Its about word of mouth, she explains. They have to discover it for themselves.
With electronics driving the toy market these days, its no surprise that DVD games are a growing segment. Most incorporate some sort of animation, from simple to sophisticated. A few examples of the many introduced at this years Toy Fair are the Thomas & Friends DVD Bingo Game from Screenlife and iToys Khufu the Mummy, based on Flying Bark Prods. board game, Atmosfear -- The Gatekeeper.
Similarly, toys continue to include in-pack entertainment DVDs, often animated stories that give personality and backstory to the toys. In the Princess Zara line, for example, dolls come packaged with a 40-minute DVD that includes three animated episodes telling the story of Princess Zara through three generations.
Another continuing trend in toys is designer-driven, limited-edition collectible toys, created by independent artists and often based on independent comicbook, animation or manga/anime properties, or at least with a style reminiscent of these properties. Companies specializing in these figures are gathered into the Urban Bazaar area at Toy Fair. (Larger companies such as Diamond Distribution and Sideshow Collectibles have products that would fit under this banner as well.)
One of the companies, Shocker Toys, touted its Indie Spotlight line of six- to seven-inch action figures based on independent comicbook properties including ShadowHawk, Kabuki, Scud the Disposable Assassin and Katchoo. Shocker also is releasing an Indie Spotlight version of its signature Shockinis block figures, which include the same properties as the core line, as well as Classic Medias Dick Tracy and Solar Man of the Atom.
Although Toy Fair was quiet in terms of innovation, most exhibitors reported strong traffic, orders being taken and lots of business being done. The first two days of the four-day fair were particularly busy; by the afternoon of the third day attendees began to leave in anticipation of a winter storm that struck that night, the third year in the past four that Toy Fair has had to deal with adverse weather conditions that impacted the show. All told, however, most exhibitors and attendees said they were pleased this year. While the Javits had been considered a satellite location rather than a must-see by some attendees in the past, the closing of the Toy Buildings drove more traffic to the Javits, which benefited all the companies showing there.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).