TOY MARKETERS STILL LOOK TO HOLLYWOOD FOR '98 LINES: HASBRO, MATTEL, OTHERS ALSO PUSH OLDER FRANCHISES FOR GROWTH; CARS AND TECH ARE HOT

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Brands new and old will compete for retailers' attention at this week's American International Toy Fair, with marketers betting on new Hollywood-hatched franchises.

In the bank will be their classics, backed with promotions and product innovation.

At Hasbro, the toy giant's biggest launch this year will be a vast line inspired by DreamWorks SKG's "Small Soldiers," perhaps the most promising movie property in a year that lacks sequels to proven franchises. But Hasbro also is focusing on core brands.

The bulk of its "Small Soldiers" ad spending will be during the fourth-quarter holiday sales season, since that's when the home video will be released.

Hasbro's "Small Soldiers" line is generating the most retailer buzz thanks to its premise: Two groups of intelligent toys, the monstrous Gorgonites and the war-loving Commando Elite, do battle in suburbia.

BATMAN PROMO

As for existing products, its Batman action-figure line will benefit from an unprecedented $1 million sweepstakes promotion, plus point-of-purchase and promo support from Subway Sandwiches & Salads.

McDonald's Corp. is crafting multimillion-dollar Happy Meal promotions for Hasbro's Transformers and the relaunch of My Little Pony, a key initiative.

The company's Nerf toys will get a new image via a TV campaign from Grey Advertising, New York.

Hasbro's "Star Wars" brand is expected to stay hot in '98, propelled by last year's re-release of the trilogy and anticipation of a new film next year. The marketer is introducing 100 new "Star Wars" toys, and new packaging schemes and continuous, yearlong media support are planned.

"Our focus is on our brands," said James Block, Hasbro's general manager-sales and marketing for U.S. boys and girls. "We'll capitalize on a strong library of licenses, but with new products and new ways to have fun."

Other toy marketers are aligning with new movie and TV properties. Trendmasters has Sony Corp.'s "Godzilla" and New Line Cinema's "Lost in Space"; McFarlane Toys has Twentieth Century Fox's "The X-Files." Mattel has Nickelodeon's "Rugrats" and Walt Disney Co.'s "A Bug's Life." Disney's summertime animated property, "Mulan," also is with Mattel.

`MONSTER MIDNIGHT'

Toy marketers are confident the studios can generate demand for these potential brands. Mirroring Sony's crafty movie marketing for "Godzilla," Trendmasters is releasing its product at 12:01 a.m. on May 20 -- the day the movie opens -- with a retail event called "Monster Midnight."

Tie-in promotional support also helps toy marketers. "Godzilla" and "Lost in Space" boast strong programs, and "Small Soldiers" is getting special notice for luring Coca-Cola Co. back to the world of movie promotions.

Coca-Cola will use the film to target influential teens in the launch of its new Coke Card (AA, Nov. 17).

Among other products generating buzz in the marketplace is Tyco Preschool's new Sesame Street-inspired products, including Toss-and-Tickle-Me Elmo and the first line of Sesame Street bean-bag figures.

Also, Mattel's Barbie business has snared licenses to the National Basketball Association and Fox's "X-Files.'

In the cool toy niche for '98 are die-cast cars, now surging in popularity as adult collectibles as well as being always hot with kids.

Racing Champions launches its first TV campaign the weekend of Feb. 14; Sports Partners, Chicago, handles.

Tyco's Matchbox will bolster its kids marketing with a Taco Bell co-promotion, and Mattel's Hot Wheels celebrates its 30th anniversary with a special product line.

A license to watch is Scholastic's Animorphs, the hot publishing property about animal-morphing teen-agers.

A Nickelodeon TV series will begin this fall, while Tricon Global Restaurants' KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have inked a two-year promotional alliance.

A master toy licensee has yet to be announced.

Still, the $22 billion toy industry will be hard-pressed to match 1997's growth, said Ed Roth, toy analyst at researcher NPD Group.

The action-figure category grew 25% to 30% last year, thanks to "Batman & Robin," "The Lost World" and "Star Wars." A new strain of tech-enhanced toy, the virtual pet, also drove industry growth.

Beyond bean bags and motorized plush, high-tech flourishes hope to drive product innovation in this year.

Microsoft Corp.'s ActiMates Interactive, whose convergence toys blending computer and doll play were introduced last year with Barney the Dinosaur, is adding dolls based on the PBS cartoon series "Arthur."

Similarly, Tyco has a convergence toy of its own: Sesame Street Play & Teach Big Bird.

INTERACTIVE CHARACTERS

Playmates has blended virtual pets with talking baby dolls to create Amazing Amy. Play by Play, armed with its new Looney Tunes license, has mixed infrared and motion detector technologies with plush dolls to create Bugs & Daffy Talkin' Tunes and Talkin' Tweety in a Birdcage.

Lego is combining various high-tech elements to create a new sub-brand, Lego Mindstorms, aimed at ages 11 and older. Tweens can build Lego robots and program them using a PC.

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