Playdate for H'wood toys

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Toys based on Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer" and "The Dark Knight," Lucasfilm's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and Marvel's "Hulk" are expected to be the biggest licensed entertainment hits at this year's Toy Fair, but the hottest toys of all might be those that unlock virtual worlds on the Web.

Other film properties expected to make a solid showing at Toy Fair, opening Sunday in Manhattan, are DreamWorks' "Kung Fu Panda," Marvel's "Iron Man," Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and Disney/Pixar's "Wall-E."

With "Hannah Montana" hotter than ever and a live-action movie slated for 2009, Disney licensees will showcase product lines that also incorporate the trend toward music-themed toys, sparked not only by "Hannah" and Disney's other tween phenomenon "High School Musical" but also by such music-based video games as "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Star." There also will be toys for "HSM" ahead of the October theatrical release of "High School Musical 3: Senior Year."

This week's announcement that Lucasfilm will be releasing an animated "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" feature Aug. 15, ahead of the anticipated TV series that will air on Cartoon Network and TNT, also sparked excitement about toy lines based on the animated "Star Wars" look. There also will be toy lines based on Paramount's upcoming "Star Trek" movie as well as "Ugly Betty" dolls based on the hit ABC series.

Although the spate of toy recalls that rocked the industry occurred just a few months ago, toy company executives insist that the recalls are having no impact on the excitement level over Toy Fair or on their business with entertainment licensors and retailers.

"We're looking forward, not back, and we're committed to making sure everything we do is safe," said Doug Wadleigh, vp marketing entertainment brands at Mattel, which probably was hardest hit by the recalls.

Toy industry experts said the most buzz of all going into Toy Fair is around Warners' live-action movie "Speed Racer," which is based on the 1960s Japanese anime TV series and will be turned into an animated TV show on NickToons in May, just before the film's summer release.

"It seems like more toy companies have jumped on 'Speed Racer' than any other property out there," said Jonathan Samet, publisher of Toy Book and Toy Insider. "It's No. 1 from a toy standpoint just because it has the most product out there and because it's new and fresh, especially compared to 'Hulk,' 'Batman' and 'Indiana Jones.' "

Mattel, the master toy licensee for the film, said all its Speed Racer toys will be co-branded with its Hot Wheels brand.

"Speed Racer" could present some competition for Disney's "Cars," which, despite no new film or TV content, generated $2 billion in retail sales in 2007 and has become a major priority for Disney that it plans to support with additional content in the future.

The biggest trend industrywide at Toy Fair — where toy manufacturers display their 2008 lines to the media, Wall Street investors and retailers — is the increasing number of toys being sold that connect to Internet play and, with the inputting of special codes found on the toys, unlock virtual worlds.

"Clearly, every single toy that is coming out now seems to have a Web site linked to it," Samet said. "WebKindz was the first one."

Disney on Monday will unveil its first line of Internet-connected toys, called Clickables. Developed in collaboration with its licensee Techno Source, the toys will be based on Disney Fairies and unlock an immersive virtual world that will be launched in the fall. Robert Marick, vp and GM at Disney Toys North America, said the technology goes beyond what's already out in the marketplace and takes Internet-based toys to the next level. He said the technology will be applied to other Disney properties in the future.

Other toy lines that hook up to Internet worlds on display at Toy Fair include Mattel's Barbie Girls, launched in 2007; Hot Wheels, launching this year; U.B. Funkeys collectible vinyl figures; and Hasbro's Littlest Pet Shop. Warners said Mattel would be launching Funkeys to connect with a Speed Racer virtual world. DreamWorks Animation said it is working on developing an Internet-connected toy line for "Madagascar," and Jakks Pacific has launched a Neopets line of toys that connect to the Internet.

While Toy Fair has little to do with dealmaking, some discussions still take place among studio execs, licensees and retailers. Some studio execs said the writers strike would have a slight impact on those talks, with release dates uncertain for some 2009 or 2010 tentpole films because of strike-induced scripts delays.

Other events expected to take place at Toy Fair include DreamWorks presenting licensees, promotional partners and retailers with updates and clips of "Kung Fu Panda" and "Madagascar: The Crate Escape," as well as previewing 2009 properties "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "How to Train Your Dragon." Mattel will be unveiling a custom-jeweled 18-karat white gold 1:64-scale Hot Wheels car, presented by Nick Lachey, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Hot Wheels and the 4 billionth Hot Wheels car made. The jeweled car will be auctioned off this year, with the proceeds donated to charity.
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