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Hot movie merchandise

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May we interest you in a Battlefield Earth Terl Alien Figure featuring John Travolta’s voice screaming ”Exterminate all man-animals at will”? Wolverine on a motorcycle? Dinosaur DinoAlive! Interactive Egg, offering a different ”hatching experience” each time?

New York City’s American International Toy Fair is the industry’s annual play date, and there’s no shortage of movie-toy tie-ins for 2000. Yet the mood is decidedly less chipper this year, thanks to one big time-out called Phantom Menace — a toy deal that dominated 1999, then famously fell short of some retailers’ expectations. London-based kids’ book company Dorling Kindersley, in fact, expects to report a $41 million pre-tax loss for the last half of 1999 after overestimating demand for Menace pop-ups and picture books. (”DK’s sales for Star Wars were phenomenal,” says Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing. ”They made an internal mistake and overprinted beyond what any publisher in their right mind would do.”) Who’s to blame for Phantom‘s ghostly sales? ”It was the Lucas Licensing machine and the retailers’ desire for a magic bullet,” says Brian Weinstock, VP of creative development for the toy company Trendmasters. ”What they expected was so out of kilter with reality, there was really no way the line could have been anything but a disappointment.”

This year’s theme: moderation. ”The gold rush mentality that Star Wars had doesn’t exist this year,” says toy analyst Chris Byrne. Gone are the proclamations that tie-ins will fly off the shelves — retailers wouldn’t believe it anyway. So the opportunity for surprise hits is rife.

And not-so-surprise hits: ”It’s X-Men for summer,” says analyst Jim Silver, publisher of Toy Book. ”If I was taking money out of my wallet, that’s what I’d be betting on.”

Indeed, X-Men action figures — and their X-modes of transportation — have built-in selling points. There’s the ravenous collectors’ base of comics fans, a big July release with nary another superhero franchise in sight — and a $12 million ad budget.

Other summer toy tie-ins are iffier. Walt Disney’s Dinosaur goods could get confused with other dino toys, say experts. DreamWorks’ clay-animated Chicken Run — from the team behind the Wallace and Gromit series — stars, well, poultry. ”Who wants Mel Gibson rendered as a chicken?” asks Byrne. And Universal’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle? ”Could be cute,” says Silver of the plush toy line. ”But it’s not one of the programs we consider a major hit.”

Such opining leaves these lines largely dependent on the success of the films. ”The performance of a toy line is related to the performance of the movie,” says Trendmasters’ Weinstock, whose company made $15 million from a single alien action figure tied to the $306 million-grossing Independence Day in 1996. ”If the movie does fabulous, they see it on the toy shelves — they keep buying, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.”

But for every ka-ching, there’s at least one ka-thunk! — the sound Weinstock hopes not to hear when Battlefield Earth hits theaters in May. Trendmasters’ big bet this year is its commitment to a toy line for John Travolta’s space epic — based on L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi novel. The line features action figures of Travolta’s evil alien Terl and cages for Barry Pepper’s ”man-animal” (man-animal not included). Odd perhaps, but Weinstock has faith. ”You say Battlefield Earth in science-fiction circles, it’s like saying Picasso in an art circle,” he says. ”And it’s a John Travolta movie — this guy is going to get behind this in a big way. He’s out there, just jamming. It’s great to work with somebody like that.”

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