Karen Raugust was game for the New York International Toy Fair and reports back on all the wonderful toys and opportunities for animators.
Although the NPD Group announced that retail sales of toys fell close to 4%, to $21.3 billion, in 2005, animators can take comfort from several trends highlighted at the 2006 New York International Toy Fair, held Feb. 11-15 at the Javits Center and Toy Center showrooms in New York City. The toy industry is showing an increasing need for original animation, not only for promotional purposes, but for the toys and games themselves.
Numerous companies at the show, both large and small, exhibited interactive DVD games featuring 3D and 2D animation. Brighter Child Interactive offered games based on the BrainQuest, Jurassic Park and Marvel brands, with My Little Pony up next. Three-year-old interactive game marketer SnapTV showed 16 titles up from five last year including three tied to Scholastics I Spy and Clifford. It also introduced a Wallace & Gromit title in November 2005; the game features 500 newly created 3D animation clips overseen by Aardmans director of animation.
The big-two toy companies, Mattel and Hasbro, each highlighted several DVD games as well; Mattel offered examples based on Disney Princesses and Barbie Fairytopia, while Hasbro had versions tied to its classic games, such as Candyland, Twister and Clue.
Plug-and-play games, which connect to the television without need for a console or other gaming device, represent another important and growing category, with many toymakers offering these products. They feature animation ranging from rudimentary black-and-white images to more sophisticated styles. Publications International, a publisher of interactive storybooks, introduced its Story Reader Video Plus, a new video version of its Story Reader interactive book line that plugs into the TV. Consumers not only get an animated learn-to-read storybook, but also five educational plug-and-play games. Licenses include Scooby-Doo, Thomas the Tank Engine, Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer.
Over the last few years, many toy companies have included DVDs in their packaging for dolls, vehicles, action figures and other toys. Sometimes featuring TV episodes or clips and sometimes offering original animation, the DVDs add play value to the toys by allowing children to act out and expand on the stories.
That trend continued this year. Some of the items in Hasbros new action figure line based on the Toon Disney anime series Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go! include a DVD. Diamond Distributions Marvel Minimates line features several DVD Movie Mates items, which include a 9 to 10-minute animation clip starring the Minimates, along with four figures. The packs are sold at Target and in comicbook shops. Some of Playmates new Disney Fairies playsets include a DVD containing the first animation associated with this book-based property; a direct-to-video film is in the works.
Toy companies are using original animation to promote their properties online as well. Bandai includes a stop-motion clip on its website that shows a battle featuring some of its action figures; it plans to launch a contest where consumers can finish the story by submitting their own stills, text or video.
Media Creation for the Masses
Electronics products for kids including simplified MP3 players and cell phones, as well as toys that emulate these items appeared throughout Toy Fair. As part of this trend, several companies offered media-creation tools that allow consumers to create their own animation or mixed-media clips.
We had a sixth sense that todays tech-savvy, media-loving consumers wanted to create their own media, says Jeff LeBarton, ceo of Xow!, a marketer of such media-creation tools. He notes that the average person owns an increasing number of digital assets, such as music and photos, but needs a way to combine them. We thought, lets give people open-ended creativity tools, LeBarton explains, adding that the products arent intended for professionals. If animation fanatics are the top of the pyramid, we wanted to go for the base.
Xow!s products include Xipster FullStop, a stop-motion animation software; FreeStyle, a moviemaking software that lets users combine provided assets with their own photos, music and cartoons to create JibJab-style short films; and XipClips, an online version of FreeStyle.
Other toy companies exhibiting tools for media organization, viewing and creation included Mattel with its Vidster, a digital camera that comes with editing software this years version is iPod-compatible and Hasbros VideoNow Media Wizard, introduced last year under the Tiger brand. Media Wizard users can work with still and moving pictures, which can be viewed on TV or computer; this years model allows content to be transferred to personal video disks (PVDs) compatible with the VideoNow.
Licensing: Comics Lead the Way
Licensing had a relatively low profile at this years Toy Fair, although new TV and film properties were sprinkled throughout the showrooms and booths. Mattel/Fisher-Price introduced a line tied to Nickelodeons Holly Hobbie & Friends, which will be featured in a direct-to-DVD film launching prior to the debut of the toys, and added products tied to Nick Jr.s Go Diego Go! and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Brighter Child/Brighter Minds introduced interactive PC games and novelty books based on Marathons Totally Spies, which is about to start its fourth season on Cartoon Network. Bandai offered several new lines based on television properties, including Cartoon Networks original series Ben 10, Warner Bros. Firehouse Tales (also on Cartoon Network), and Magical DoReMi, a Toei Animation property airing on 4Kids TV in U.S. Playmates showed preschool TV properties including Little Robots and The Land Before Time, both on Cartoon Network, with the latter, based on the long-running direct-to-video film series, to debut in 2007.
Several film-based toys were on display. Mattel had a vehicle-based line featuring characters from Pixars Cars, as well as action figures and role-play toys tied to Warner Bros. live-action Superman. Playmates showed its next-generation Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, based on this years TV incarnation, Turtles Fast Forward, and previewed the 2007 3D-animated Turtles film from the Weinstein Co., Imagi Animation and Warner Bros., for which it will also make toys. Other animated movie properties scattered across the show included Warner Bros. The Ant Bully and Happy Feet, DreamWorks Over the Hedge and Foxs Ice Age: The Meltdown.
The biggest licensing presence at Toy Fair was for comicbook properties, including manga/anime as well as superheroes from Marvel and DC Comics. Instead of focusing primarily on specific properties (with the exception of the Superman film), both of the latter had numerous licensees at Toy Fair showing products featuring multiple characters from their respective universes. Mattel exhibited figures based on DCs Justice League. Playmates Battle Dice brand added the Marvel Heroes and DC Comics licenses; the Marvel game has 60 figures available now and will have 120 by the end of the year, while the DC version will see a similar rollout. Bandai added items to its Teen Titans line, based on a show that debuted in 2004 on Cartoon Network starring various DC Comics characters. Diamond Distribution added numerous items to its extensive Marvel line, targeted mainly at collectors.
Anime/manga properties continue to be popular in the toy industry, both from mass market toy companies, which focus on TV properties (especially those on Cartoon Networks Toonami block), and from smaller marketers, which concentrate mostly on niche properties known to intense aficionados.
On one end of this spectrum, Mattel displayed a number of mainstream anime licenses, including Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, Zatch Bell, One Piece and Naruto. On the other end, a new section of Toy Fair, the Urban Bazaar featuring designer toys, sometimes known as urban vinyl or urban art, a hot new collectible areahighlighted many niche anime/manga properties or anime/manga-style designs. Twenty companies exhibited in the Urban Bazaar, including Shocker Toys, Toyolink, Toy Tokyo, Kuma Central, TMZ and Southern Island.
Importance of Collecting
The companies in the Urban Bazaar area, along with other many other exhibitors, primarily target collectors. But even mainstream, mass market toy companies increasingly do a strong business with these avid fans. Comicbook and anime properties in particular are hot with collectors; Mattels Justice League range and Bandais 1-1/2-inch Teen Titans figures are examples of this trend. Sci-fi properties also have appeal to collectors. Hasbro has a line of replicas of the original Kenner Star Wars figures; consumers who purchase all five can send in for a not-available-at-retail figure of George Lucas.
Collector interest and increased technological capabilities have both driven more realism in toy lines. For example, action figures that depict characters in live-action films as in the case of Mattels Superman or Diamonds Star Trek productsare ever more realistic, sometimes even using scans of the actors to create verisimilitude. Realism also extends into mass market toys based on animated movies; several of Mattels Cars vehicles, for example, include sounds and voice clips recorded by the actors. The lead item in the Cars range, Fast Talking Lightning McQueen, has facial features that move when the character speaks, another trend seen throughout the Fair.
The February Toy Fair is in a transition mode. While the Toy Industry Association has said it will keep the show in New York for the foreseeable future, the Toy Center buildings where many companies kept showrooms has been sold and will be turned into condos soon. What will happen to the Fair in the coming years is anyones guess, as companies decide whether they still want showrooms outside of Javits and, if so, where they will be.
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).