Toy Fair '07 winds up with feature buzz

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NEW YORK -- In a year marked by transition and questions about the future of Toy Fair, entertainment-themed toys once again brought excitement to the show amid expectations that three proven film franchises -- "Spider-Man 3," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Shrek the Third" -- will generate blockbuster toy sales this year.

"Transformers," the first live-action movie based on the popular 23-year-old toy line from Hasbro, also had Toy Fair abuzz this week, as did Disney Channel's runaway hits "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana."

"There's a lot more buzz this year at Toy Fair, and the biggest reason why is the entertainment properties," said Scott Goldberg, promotions manager at toy company Zizzle, Disney's master toy licensee for "Pirates." "It's a summer of threes -- 'Spider-Man,' 'Pirates' and 'Shrek' are the most anticipated."

While not expected to be in quite the same league as "Spider-Man 3" from Marvel/Sony Pictures or Disney's "Pirates," other film-based toy lines at Toy Fair this year with strong sales potential included "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," "Ghost Rider," "Ratatouille," "The Golden Compass," "The Simpsons Movie," "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Bratz: The Movie." Still other movies with product showcased at Toy Fair this week included Disney's "Enchanted," New Line Cinema's "Hairspray," Sony's "Surf's Up," DreamWorks Animation's "Bee Movie," 20th Century Fox's "Care Bears: Oopsy Does It!" and "Beowulf" from Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures.

There also are new toy lines for "Star Wars" commemorating the 30th anniversary of the most successful film franchise of all time and for Disney's "Cars," which according to the studio sold $900 million worth of merchandise in fiscal 2006 and is expected to sell close to $1.5 billion in its fiscal 2007 year. "Cars" won property of the year at the Toy Industry Assn.'s Toy of the Year awards ceremony Saturday night. "Star Wars" guru George Lucas was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame at the event.

A survey of the exhibition floor made it clear that toys in all categories continue to trend toward more electronics, interactivity, technology, content and customization. And extending the trend toward technology even further this year were a number of toy lines that can be played with on their own or hooked up to the Internet, including Fisher Price's Funkeys figures for kids as young as 2-4.

"New generation video games have had a pretty big impact on the toy industry, making all types of toys and games much more interactive," said Lorri Freifeld, executive editor of License! Global.

With the recent sale of the historic Toy Building at 200 Fifth Avenue/1107 Broadway, most toy manufacturers relocated to the Jacob Javits Center this year but many others were scattered at offices and showrooms around midtown Manhattan.

The loss of the Toy Building, where most major toy manufacturers housed their showrooms for years heightened questions about the future of Toy Fair -- a trade show that over the last decade or so has become much more about publicity than the actual buying and selling of toys between
manufacturers and retailers.

With retailers wanting to plan their toy offerings much further in advance, the Toy Industry Association's New York pre-show in October and the Hong Kong Toy Fair have become much more critical to the industry in terms of selling to retailers. Many deals are now also struck in private showings at major toy manufacturers' or retailers' headquarters throughout the year.

"Just 10 or 15 years ago, Toy Fair was the make or break of your annual sales," said Rick Rekedal, head of the U.S. Licensing Group at DreamWorks Animation. "Now it seems all the toy companies are having those meetings the previous fall. It's been an evolving trend but with the closure of the Toy Building it seems to be expediting the transition and raising questions about the future of Toy Fair."

Many studio and toy company executives said Toy Fair still serves a vital publicity role ahead of the holiday toy season even though it was no longer truly needed as a pure trade show. "From our perspective it's still a great planning, meeting and collaboration opportunity," added Elie Dekel, executive vp at 20th Century Fox Licensing and Merchandising.

A spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, which hosts Toy Fair as well as the October pre-show in New York, said the association is committed to the Javits Center for February Toy Fair until 2010 and currently has no plans to make any major changes to the event.

In the TV space, mega-hit "American Idol" continued to inspire new product lines, such as "American Idol" Monopoly, in which players can turn any of the top 12 idols from the last five seasons into Monopoly properties. The "American Idol" Talent Challenge from Kiddesigns comes with a DVD that allows kids to sing along with their favorite idols and rate the performances of their friends, triggering corresponding comments from judges Randy, Paula and Simon. For Fox's hit show "24," there is a new line of Jack Bauer action figures, for ABC's "Desperate Housewives" a new line of high-end fashion dolls and for Disney's "Cheetah Girls" an assortment of electronics, fashion dolls and role play toys. There were also expanded toy lines for Fox's "Family Guy," Nickelodeon's hit series "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Dora the Explorer," "Go, Diego Go!" and "Avatar" and Cartoon Network's "Ben 10." Warner Bros.' "Scooby-Doo" was launched as a preschool property for the first time.

Among some of the most exciting toy lines for "Spider-Man 3" are the Deluxe Spinning Web Blaster; the Ultimate Web Blaster, which shoots five different items including fake webs, water and Nerf darts; and the Spider Spud, a Mr. Potato Head that can be dressed up as either Peter Parker or Spider-Man.

"Spider-Man 3," with its array of villains Sandman, Venom and the Green Goblin and Spider-Man's new all-black garb are expected to fly off the shelves this summer, industry experts said.

"The combination of the Spider-Man black costume along with the regular red and blue costume that's been out there is going to take Spider-Man to the next level," said Jonathan Samet, publisher of Toy Book and Toy Insider.

"In my opinion, 'Spider-Man 3' will be the hottest movie of the summer."

To drum up excitement for DreamWorks' and Paramount Pictures' "Transformers," Hasbro hosted an event Tuesday night with director Michael Bay, screening four scenes and a total of 22 minutes of footage for a packed theater of Toy Fair attendees.

"I thought if I could make this totally real, it could be a really fun movie," Bay said of turning the top-selling action toy line into a film. The Transformers and its back story of the Autobots and the Decepticons have already been turned into a comic book, nine different animated series and an animated movie in 1986.

"It is the first time ever that you will see the Transformers characters as real," said Hasbro COO Brian Goldner, who is an executive producer on the film. "We believe this movie will take the Transformers brand to the next level. 'Transformers' is the first of its kind in a summer where there are many movie sequels."

Highlights of a very broad product line from Hasbro include the Optimus Prime voice changer helmet and the Ultimate BumbleBee 14-inch action figure with light, music and sound effects that transforms into the Chevrolet Camaro concept car. Hasbro, which holds the licensing rights to Transformers, has signed up 190 licensees of its own for movie-related merchandise.

The "Pirates" line from Zizzle features action figures, play sets and role play toys, including a motion-activated sword that senses whether you are wearing Jack Sparrow's magic ring and the Rocking RC (remote-controlled) Black Pearl, which simulates rolling ocean motion.

The "Shrek" line features interactive talking plush toys from MGA Entertainment including a Yap and Nap Donkey that keeps on talking, a line of princess fashion dolls featuring kung-fu kicking legs and a wide variety of new games including a Swamp Party DVD game from FunBrandz.

For "High School Musical 2," there is a line of fashion dolls, a "High School Musical 2" DVD board game, the 'High School Musical" Mystery Date game, the Twister Moves: "High School Musical" Edition and a wide assortment of electronic musical toys, dance mats, role play toys and accessories. And for Disney's other huge breakout hit, "Hannah Montana," there is an in-concert playset, Hannah Montana fashion dolls, electronic guitars, dance mats, a Scene It? DVD game and a wide assortment of other games and role play toys including a Hannah Montana blonde wig.

"We are scrambling to meet all the demand for toys and product for these shows," said Jessi Dunne, Disney's executive vp global toys.

The MGA toy line for "Bratz: The Movie" includes the traditional Bratz dolls dressed in Hollywood-style evening gowns, a movie tour bus and a movie studio playset that comes with a digital stop motion camera, allowing kids to make a mini-movie of their Bratz dolls.

For "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," new master toy licensee Neca has created a line geared to older kids for more of the specialty rather than the mass market. A new Scene it? DVD game with images and questions from "Phoenix" will be on store shelves in June, a month ahead of the film's July 13 opening date.
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