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Lord of the toy tie-ins

By Published on .

New Line Cinema's $270 million larger-than-life "The Lord of the Rings" film trilogy will introduce its toy line tie-ins at this week's 98th annual American International Toy Fair in New York. But the merchandising strategy is to keep expectations down to earth.

Toy Biz, a division of Marvel Enterprises, holds the master toy license for "The Lord of the Rings," while Sideshow Toy owns the license for collectible figures designed with Weta Workshop of New Zealand, the films' special-effects team. Other confirmed licensees include Electronic Arts (interactive toys) and Playmates (construction toys), while Houghton Mifflin and Harper Collins hold the publishing rights. The trilogy's first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," is due out in December.

"This is a long-term brand for us. We're tailoring product to the passionate fan who has been out there all these years, as well as to new fans we are newly introducing to [author J.R.R.] Tolkien's Middle Earth," said David Imhoff, executive VP-worldwide licensing and merchandising for New Line Cinema.

Mr. Imhoff said the brand will have a modest product launch with the first film, primarily targeting children age 7 and older; other scheduled rollouts will follow to target teens and adults. New Line hopes the video release in summer 2002 will also appeal to the 4-to-7-year-old demographic.

Will "The Lord of the Rings" live up to expectations and transcend the disappointing performance of toy licenses related to Lucasfilm's "Star Wars: Episode One-The Phantom Menace" in 1999?

"There were expectations that were beyond reality in terms of what could be generated with [`The Phantom Menace'] toy line," Mr. Imhoff said. "We've got three films one year apart-all of which were simultaneously filmed-and the gradual build makes business sense. You will not have a front-loaded program, and all of our partners have separate guarantees for each individual film."

Chris Byrne, editor of the Toy Report, agreed expectations are more realistic for "Lord of the Rings." "[New Line] is taking a 40-year-old property and really concentrating on the strategy. They've got three movies already in the can and an opportunity to keep the events coming and to build the brand over time," he said.

Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series has sold 100 million copies worldwide in 40 languages. When New Line offered a sneak peek of the movie's trailer on the Web last spring, it was downloaded 1.7 million times in the first 24 hours.

The first installment will compete with Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone," also out Christmas 2001.

Ad plans aren't yet set for "Lord of the Rings" toys or the film. New Line is currently in a media-agency review.

Contributing: Wayne Friedman

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