An unprecedented number of new toys tied to films making their debuts later in the year were unveiled at last week's American International Toy Fair, heightening risks in the extremely volatile industry.
The only solid hits last year were based on TV programs and movies that kids fell in love with-like "Barney," the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and "Jurassic Park." But hopes of a repeat are being tempered by the obvious danger of an overabundance of movie and TV tie-ins. Although that formula worked last year, industry sales grew just 1.6% to $17.5 billion, after a 12% surge in 1992.
"There are a lot of movie tie-ins, it's true, but we have very high hopes, and we'll just wait and see," said Wayne Charness, VP-communications at Hasbro, which is vying with Mattel for the industry's No. 1 spot this year.
Mattel is trying to play it safe with toy tie-ins to down-to-earth films including Walt Disney Co.'s "The Lion King" and Universal Pictures' "The Flintstones," while Hasbro is gambling on action figures tied to a massive, unknown epic film this fall called "Stargate" that has yet to find a distributor.
Some toy industry executives said the film, starring Kurt Russell and James Spader, combines the themes of "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" and "Spartacus." It boasts the largest set ever made and 10,000 extras, Hasbro marketing executives said, but the studio and date of its release are still up in the air.
Going for something that has worked before, Tyco Toys is hoping for a hit with a tie-in to "The Swan Princess," an animated film due in November from New Line Cinema that seems reminiscent of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty & the Beast."
Kenner Products, a winner in 1993 with toys tied to "Jurassic Park," this year has invented a new story line for the film approved by director Steven Spielberg that includes additional characters, dinosaurs and vehicles.
Kenner also plans a line of action figures and accessories tied to Universal's July release of "The Shadow."
Bandai America wants to continue its reign as leading action figure marketer with products tied to "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," including a line of dolls designed to lure more girls into the fad.
To hedge their bets against the heavy entertainment focus, toy marketers are also rolling out many tried and true versions of products popular in the 1960s, continuing another trend that began last year.
Examples of resurrected old hits include ToyMax's reintroduction of 1967's Incredible Edibles, the self-molded foods in various shapes, updated to taste like candy bears. ToyMax hopes Incredible Edibles will be as much of a retro success as its Creepy Crawlers and Cap Toys' Stretch Armstrong, both being expanded this fall.
Brought back in 1992, the Creepy Crawlers line now includes "deep dish" moldable insects four times their usual size, and will be backed by the first "Creepy Crawlers" animated TV series this fall. An estimated $8 million TV campaign from Flaxman Weltman & Partners, New York, will support.
Old dolls are hot, too. Mattel is giving Barbie a 35th birthday party with a retro version offered in its original packaging and 1959 hair and makeup for less than $25. She can party with Hasbro's 30-year-old classic G.I. Joe, also bringing back original packaging.
High-tech features and sports toys are driving other new productions of traditional toys. Playtime has a "video" telephone; Tiger Electronics has a full line of video-interactive toys for boys and girls; and Tyco has a $40 voice-activated robot called Corzak who can "memorize" up to 20 different voice commands.
Sports remain a strong trend, with Kenner hoping to bring down the house this spring with its long-awaited Shaquille O'Neal line of sports toys, topped by Big Shaq, a $19.99 7-foot-11 life-size cardboard version of the pro basketball player for kids' rooms.
And, as usual, Mattel has a new crowd of Barbie dolls including its first-ever soft-body version called Bedtime Barbie and a new flat-foot version called Gymnast Barbie who can stand on her own and do the splits, due to fully flexible joints.