As E.T. was following a Reese’s Pieces trail into the record books back in 1982, the folks over at Mars were simmering. Hershey Foods, the maker of Reese’s, had stepped in after the Mars candy company decided it didn’t want some alien popping its prized M&M’s; to this day, Reese’s Pieces reap the benefits of that product placement.
Fourteen years later, an underdog has won another round. As Independence Day opens, Mattel, Hasbro, Tyco, and Kenner are idling on the sidelines, without a piece of what may be the year’s hottest merchandising deal. Instead, Twentieth Century Fox and cowriter-producer Dean Devlin opted for the comparatively small Trendmasters, Inc., to produce its line of movie tie-in toys. The David-versus-Goliath story began in February 1995, when Devlin arrived at New York’s Toy Fair determined not to relive his disappointment with Hasbro over StarGate‘s toys. ”The Jaye Davidson doll looked like Schwarzenegger,” he recalls. ”Let’s just say the attention to detail wasn’t there.” So for three days, Devlin sat in Fox’s booth, pitching the project to any and all comers. But ID wasn’t seen as a ”franchise” property — it wasn’t a Disney cartoon, it had no name recognition, and it wasn’t from George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. Even Dragonheart was predicted to be hotter.
The toy companies ”either didn’t get it,” says Devlin, ”or their level of commitment wasn’t where we thought it should be. Either they passed on us or we passed on them.” By the time the St. Louis-based Trendmasters, best known for its Gumby and Tarzan toys, stepped in, he says, ”we were ready to scrap the whole idea of a toy line.” Instead, Fox and Trendmasters forged a deal for 11 items, including two battle play sets (a New York version and a larger L.A. version, with collapsing buildings), shiny 8-inch-tall aliens (each with eight ”poseable” tentacles), and a 14-inch-tall Alien Supreme Commander with a motion sensor that, surprisingly, reveals a major plot point by splitting open to reveal an alien inside. After some initial concern, all the players finally agreed that giving away the secret wouldn’t necessarily hurt (the toys started showing up over Memorial Day weekend). Says Fox’s VP of licensing and merchandising, Michael Malone, ”We thought it would only up the want-to-see.”
”We saw the project as not just a niche science-fiction movie, which would’ve been a problematic sell, but as a big crowd-pleasing adventure movie,” says J. Russell Hornsby, Trendmasters’ co-CEO. ”Kind of like Star Wars meets Top Gun with a little Alien thrown in.”
Devlin, Fox, and Trendmasters are so sure of the movie’s success that a second wave of toys is already scheduled for the end of the year: There’ll be more aliens, a bio-containment chamber, and Russell (Randy Quaid) and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) action figures.
”As a kid I remember loving a movie and then being so disappointed because the toy was nothing like what I saw on the screen. I wanted this to be different,” says Devlin, who’s already considering the merchandising opportunities for his and Emmerich’s next movie. Although it won’t be a sequel to Independence Day, the toy possibilities are still plentiful: 1997 is likely to bring a remake of either Fantastic Voyage or Godzilla.