Some 1,600 exhibitors have their showrooms primed and ready with the latest toys as they wait for the more than 20,000 buyers who are expected to come to New York City for the 1997 American International Toy Fair. Increasingly, toy manufacturers and film and television studios are teaming up to develop products based on licensed properties, which now make up as much as 50 percent of all toys. Our special report on Toy Fair looks at how the studios and toy companies are working their way through these collaborations.
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When dealing with a long-running franchise like Star Trek, Playmates Toys must constantly push the envelope to develop toys that explore new frontiers and stretch the imagination.
Playmates has been Star Trek’s master toy licensee since 1992 and has recently renewed its license for the property with Viacom Consumer Products to extend into the next millennium.
At Toy Fair, Playmates will unveil the latest in its Star Trek toy line, with action figures and vehicles culled from all four Star Trek TV series and from the recent movie Star Trek: First Contact. It will also debut new collectible items.
‘The Star Trek lines will have action features that have not been seen before,’ says Jim Garber, senior product manager at Playmates. ‘We are developing mechanisms that we think are in the forefront of action figure development.’
With four TV series and eight movies from which to derive resource material for toy development, Playmates examines several factors prior to submitting its ideas to Viacom.
Playmates meets with Paramount Television, the series’ producer, to determine where the studio wants to place its marketing emphasis. Going into 1997, that focus is on Deep Space Nine. Later in the year, it will shift to Voyager as that show matures, and to The Next Generation, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
Playmates tries to keep abreast of the popularity of characters by polling fans through its Web site, and by gauging which characters are getting more attention at conventions and in collector publications.
The toy manufacturer also looks for popular recurring characters on the series, such as Q, who could be exploited as action figures.
Viacom Consumer Products strives to involve Playmates as early as possible in the production process, but sometimes that proves difficult. For example, product from Star Trek: First Contact was undershipped, partially because some of the visual references needed to make the toys were embarg’ed to protect the story until a certain point in the production process. When this happens, Viacom helps Playmates find other windows of opportunity, such as the home video release, to time sales.
One of the problems Playmates continually grapples with is determining the best time frame for introducing products related to new Star Trek entities. Garber admits that Playmates made a mistake with Deep Space Nine by coming out with action figures too soon. The figures eventually sold through, but inventory didn’t move as quickly as expected.
For Voyager, the company waited until the second season before releasing action figures. ‘We wanted to make sure that fans took a liking to Voyager, and then we wanted to see what characters would be most popular,’ says Garber. ‘You don’t really know that until you’ve gone through a season of the show.’
In both cases, Playmates was still creating new product for the older and more established entities, so fresh product was always on the market.
Because Star Trek is a live-action show and has such a rich history, Playmates is for the most part restricted to developing toys exactly as they appear on the screen. ‘It’s hard to do new things with Star Trek,’ says Garber. ‘The licensor wants to make sure that the products put out there don’t detract from the whole image that they’ve established.’
Any suggestion for a change to a ship, character or uniform that would make a product more ‘toyetic’ must fit the dynamic of the show. ‘Merchandising efforts follow the show,’ says Neil Newman, vice president of strategic property development for Viacom Consumer Products. ‘We are in the business of making great entertainment first. That sets the stage for great toys.’
Additionally, new products must receive approval from the actors, producers and set designers involved in the production process.
Playmates and Viacom have a third partner who plays a vital role in Star Trek toy development the show’s fans.
Star Trek fans are among the most loyal and demanding of any franchise. ‘They keep us honest,’ says Newman. ‘If they see something that they don’t think is accurate, or they know to be wrong, do we hear about it!’
Playmates believes the key to meeting this challenge is to create toys with exceptional play value that capture the imagination, technical sophistication and authenticity of the property. ‘We want a child to see the toy in the store and say, ‘Wow, that’s different; that’s cool,’ ‘ says Garber.
Newman extends that challenge to all other aspects of the manufacturing process. He pushes licensees to incorporate new technology, such as new types of packaging or different inks, even if the consumer won’t be aware of it. ‘The hallmark and equity of the Star Trek brand is technology and newness,’ says Newman.