NEW YORK -- Toy makers have a new marketing strategy: turning toys like Bratz funky fashion dolls and Hot Wheels into movie stars.
The trend, a hot topic at this week's American International Toy Fair, traces to Mattel Inc.'s "Barbie in the Nutcracker" home video in the fall of 2001. "Barbie as Rapunzel" followed a year later, and "Barbie of Swan Lake" is due out this fall.
But Barbie was just the start.
Mattel, the No. 1 U.S. toy manufacturer, is also turning its attention to its 35-year-old Hot Wheels, developing a video series and teaming with Columbia Pictures on a live-action film, to be release sometime in 2005.
"For boys, there is a convergence between car culture and music, and we are capitalizing on that," said Jim Wagner, Mattel's senior vice president of Hot Wheels. "We're making Hot Wheels come to life."
Mattel isn't alone. The industry is in overdrive.
Lego Systems Inc. has paired up with Miramax Films to create a video, to be in stores this fall, and a movie, based on its popular Bionicles figures, starring such creatures as Lerahk, who turns landscape into mush.
Hasbro Inc. has produced a video series called "Doh-Doh Land," based on its Play-Doh property and is developing an animated DVD movie based on GI Joes, to be in stores this fall. The DVD will be packaged with two 12-inch action figures for $19.99.
A home video for MGA Entertainment's popular Bratz fashion dolls is due in stories in early 2004, and the the company is in talks with several studios to create a movie - part action, part animated - to be in theaters in 2005.
Studios believe it makes sense to capitalize on a toy's popularity.
"You already have a built-in brand. You have one leg up," said Jeffrey Tahler, vice president of acquisitions for Miramax, which is in talks with other toy makers to make movies and videos.
It's old news that entertainment properties - from Spiderman to SpongeBob SquarePants - spin off products from toys to apparel. But now, with the $20.3 billion traditional toy industry struggling with sluggish sales, the movement is in reverse. The toys lead to movies or videos, which lead back to toys.
Isaac Larian, president and CEO of MGA Entertainment, estimates that worldwide retail sales of the Bratz brand, including accessories, could well surpass $3 billion in 2005, up from last year's $650 million.
Lego is hoping a movie and videos will give Bionicles - now a $150 million-plus business - as much marketing power as Star Wars.
But has commercialism gone too far?
"Parents are facing an uphill battle in teaching kids values and protecting their children," said Daphne White, executive director of The Lion & Lamb Project, a child advocacy organization based in Bethesda, Md. "Toy companies are spending huge amounts of money on making them irresistible and addictive. Children's play used to be directed and produced by children."
White also is concerned about the violent content in some of these movies and videos.
Toy executives argue that the movies and videos have important messages. Wagner of Hot Wheels said the Hot Wheels movie and videos will "teach the power of strong values, such as courage and teamwork." Larian said the Bratz videos will teach the value of friendship, along, of course, with offering some style direction.
But some parents are wary.
"It's all totally money-driven. They're trying to cash in on the popularity of the toys, but if they sneak in some good messages, it's a little better," said Lynne Halladay, a 41-year-old mother from Herndon, Va.
Still, she doesn't like that toy companies are seducing her 9-year-old daughter, Julia, to want more toys, and she's worried that these toys "stifle creativity."
Julia saw both "Barbie in the Nutcracker" and "Barbie as Rapunzel," and wanted the toys that relate to each one.
"I liked the stories," Julia said. She got a Nutcracker Barbie, but not toys related to "Barbie as Rapunzel."
"There's a limit," her mother said.
Translating a toy's popularity to the screen isn't a sure thing.
"There has to be a strong story related to it, and it has to relate to the way the child plays," said Chris Byrne, a New York-based independent toy consultant. The story also has to make the child want the toy.
Byrne said Mattel's strategy of defining Barbie in fairy tale stories have worked magic, "avoiding the risk of having the video rob the child from playing the fantasy role."
In fact, the videos start off with Barbie, who then assumes the starring roles.
Sales of "Barbie in the Nutcracker," along with related merchandise, exceeded $150 million in wholesale volume in 2001, while "Barbie as Rapunzel," along with related products, exceeded $200 million last year, according to Adrienne Fontanella, president of Mattel's girls' division.
Based on the past successes, Mattel is now adding more plush toys, dolls and accessories to be in stores with the "Swan Lake" video.
As for Hot Wheels, Mattel is coming out with a series of four home videos, which brings to life the stories of the World Race drivers. The video packs, which are being released throughout the year, come with two miniature World Race cars.
"With boys, they want to watch the video and immediately act out the stunts," Wagner said.
LITTLE CHEFS: After last year's hits such as Spin Master's Ice Maker and Mattel's Harry Potter Polyjuice Potion maker, toy makers are rolling out more food-making toys. Just a few: Spinmaster's McDonald's McFlurry Maker ($24.99), which lets kids make ice cream desserts; Mattel's Pumpkin Juice Maker, tied to the "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" movie ($16.99); and Hasbro's new spin on Easy Bake - Easy Bake Real Meal Oven, ($34.99), a new light bulb-free oven that allows kids to make such meals as macaroni and cheese.
RETRO: The retro craze continues, but these toys from the past are enhanced with new technology. They include Play Along Inc.'s Sing Along Care Bears, which are interactive and sing classic children's tunes ($19.99); Spinmaster's E Slinky ($25), which plays music and three electronic games; and Hasbro's Twister Moves ($19.99), which comes with three CDs and 60 minutes of dance style music.
PRE-TEEN GADGETS: Toy makers are hoping to keep the 8-to-10 age group in toy stores longer with nifty gizmos. From Hasbro Inc., there is Video Now ($50), a portable personal video player that lets viewers watch past episodes of such cartoons as Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants; and Thintronics, a new line of ultra-thin, over-sized, fully functional poster phones ($24.99) and poster battery-operated radios ($24.99). Jakks Pacific Inc.'s Toy Max division updated its Singing Starz karaoke machine with animation. Pop singer wannabes can sing to tunes and record themselves dancing with animated characters. (Singing Starz Sing 'N Groove, $129.99)
ON THE CHEAP: Catering to budget-conscious consumers in these difficult economic times, toy makers are coming out with plenty of trendy products under $10. They include Spinmaster's Astrojax, a three-ball juggling game ($7.99-$9.99); Jakks Pacific's Tongue Tapes, flavored strips that melt in your mouth ($1.99); and Lego Systems Inc.'s Clikits, an arts and crafts kit that lets children make accessories like jewelry and handbags by snapping plastic pieces together(starts at $3.99).
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