Anime newcomers vie to replicate Pokémania

A year after the first Pokémon licensed products hit U.S. store shelves, Pokémania shows no signs of dwindling. The pocket monster phenom continues to pique kids' interest in anime, collecting and monsters....
November 1, 1999

A year after the first Pokémon licensed products hit U.S. store shelves, Pokémania shows no signs of dwindling. The pocket monster phenom continues to pique kids’ interest in anime, collecting and monsters.

Aiming to tap into that interest while it’s high, licensors with new anime series introducing their own kid and creature stars are wasting no time in getting licensing programs off the ground. Fox Kids’ fall entry Digimon: Digital Monsters and BKN’s newly launched Monster Ranchers are unveiling products at retail this month, and Nelvana’s recent pick-up, Cardcaptor, is opening its doors to broadcasters and licensees.

But catching up with Pokémon is no small challenge. Between June and October 1999, Pokémon’s licensee list swelled from about 50 licensees to more than 100. According to Beth Llewelyn, public relations manager for Nintendo of America, the property’s licensor (for all territories except Asia, for which Nintendo shares rights), Pokémon has generated close to US$1 billion to date in TV, video game and merchandise sales in North America and more than US$5 billion worldwide (including Japan and North America).

Market research firm The NPD Group projects that the total U.S. dollar volume for Pokémon sales from January to June 1999 was US$42 million for toys, in excess of US$100 million for trading cards and US$69 million for video games. This compares with US$20 million for toys, US$20 million to US$30 million for trading cards and US$35 million for video games in 1998.

Wizards of the Coast, which was acquired by Hasbro in September, reports that its Pokémon Trading Card Game two-person starter sets, currently available at a suggested retail price (SRP) of US$9.99, have sold more than two million copies in North America since their release in January 1999. Hasbro itself, master toy licensee for all territories except Asia, reports a 2000% manufacturing capacity increase for Pokémon products from its boys toys division beginning in January 1999, and those products are starting to hit shelves.

Looking to make heads spin, Fox expects Digimon home video, toys, trading cards and apparel to roll out before the holidays. By the November 2 Saban summit, Saban Consumer Products, which is handling the licensing program, plans to announce about a dozen licensees-including Bandai America (master toy licensee), JEM Sportswear (T-shirts), 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment/Fox Kids Home Video (home video) and licensees in the categories of trading cards (for the specialty market; Bandai will produce trading cards for the mass market), backpacks, sleepwear, headwear, sportswear, toothbrushes, school supplies and color and activity books. This ‘aggressive introduction,’ says Elie Dekel, executive VP of consumer products and promotions at Fox Family Worldwide, will be followed by a fuller range of product in the first and second quarters.

Fox has picked up 52 half-hour episodes of the 2-D cel-animated series, produced by Toei Animation and adapted for the U.S. by Saban Entertainment, and began airing the show with little fanfare on August 14. While Fox had planned to air Digimon as a weekday afternoon strip after a brief Saturday morning run, the kids net was so pleased with the show’s performance that it decided to free a continuing Saturday morning slot by delaying the launch of The Avengers. The series takes its name from the Tamagotchi spin-off released by Bandai in spring 1998 in the U.S., and the toys gave Bandai the first insight that kids enjoy the digital monster concept, says Brian Goldner, executive VP and COO of Bandai America.

The series hooks that Fox and Bandai believe will create a buzz for the licensed products include its seven kid and digital monster leads in heroic situations; the evolution and transformation of the seven digimon companions through up to five stages, each time increasing in strength and changing in appearance; the digital world setting and digital technology, including a device that each of the seven kids receives; and the more than 250 ‘bad guy’ digimon that the group encounters.

The initial Bandai rollout features one-and-a-half-inch collectible figure sets representing the seven friendly digimon in their different power levels, two-and-a-half-inch action figures, five-and-a-half-inch transforming figures, trading cards and collectible figures, and trading cards as part of a video starter pack. Figures are available for US$5 to US$10 SRP. Two or three handheld electronics, including the digivice, will launch in January or February, and a Sony PlayStation game closer to Easter.

Also on the fast track is BKN with Monster Rancher products from master toy licensee Playmates Toys at retail this month. Licensees Artbox (trading cards), Disguise (Halloween costumes and masks), Great Eastern Entertainment (posters, wall scrolls and playing cards), Ringside (housewares for kids), X-Concepts (mini-skateboards and mini-snowboards) and Toy Island (outdoor toys, inflatable furniture, 3-D stationery items) are generally eyeing the first quarter for releases, although some may have product out for the holidays. Carol McGovney, BKN’s senior VP of U.S. licensing and merchandising, expects to have a broad licensing program in place by spring.

In late September, BKN acquired another 22 half-hour episodes, bringing the total to 48, with plans to air Monster Rancher through 2000. BKN’s Bulldog TV programming service launched the show in the 7 a.m. Monday to Friday slot on August 30 (see KidScreen’s September 1999 issue, ‘BKN launch,’ page 68). The series is getting added exposure on Sci Fi Channel, which began airing the show in September in the 8 a.m. slot Monday to Thursday, and Fox Family Channel, which kicked off Monster Rancher in the 7:30 a.m. Sunday slot early last month. This is good news for BKN, which holds distribution, home video and merchandising rights for the TV series in all English-, Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking territories. Fox Kids Network, which at press time planned to air the series in the 8:30 a.m. Saturday slot for two weeks in late October, had not confirmed if the series would stay on its schedule. Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids have picked up 20 episodes.

Playmates is drawing heavily on the series’ monster and collectibility elements. While the licensing program is based primarily on the series, Playmates is incorporating the more than 400 monsters from Tecmo’s two video games, upon which the show is based. Mystery monster one-and-a-half-inch assortments in four-packs (US$5 SRP), eight-packs (US$10 SRP) and 18-packs (US$15 SRP) feature hidden monsters, along with trading cards that will be compatible with the Artbox cards. The toy maker is offering articulated, two- to two-and-a-half-inch action figures (US$3 SRP), which are among the Sega Toys products developed for Japan that Playmates is distributing. The initial wave also includes bean-filled plush (US$8 SRP).

This line marks one of the shortest turn-around times for Playmates, which signed on after this year’s Licensing Show, says Jeff Trojan, Playmates’ VP of marketing for boys toys (the shortest was six weeks from the start of sculpture to shipping products for the feature film Antz). Playmates will reveal new products with extra features and technology at Toy Fair.

As it pursues a broadcast deal for Cardcaptor, Nelvana is confident that the property can afford a longer timeline in releasing licensing products since it not only combines anime, but is targeted squarely at a girl audience, while Pokémon, Digimon and Monster Rancher all skew more boy. A girl lead and a host of mythical creatures are released when she inadvertently sets them free after unlocking a book that holds magical cards.

The market is ripe for another girls Japanese animation entry, says Sid Kaufman, Nelvana’s executive VP of worldwide merchandising, pointing to the success of Sailor Moon on TV and video and Hello Kitty in promotions. So confident is Nelvana that it acquired the North American distribution, home video and merchandising rights for 70 half hours late this summer. The 2-D, cel-animated series (produced by Kodansha, with the concept from artist team Clamp) traces its origins to a Japanese comic first published by Kodansha in 1996.

Kaufman envisions the licensing program as fashion-driven, launching with fashion dolls, publishing, apparel, accessories, backpacks, school supplies, stationery, home video and multimedia. The 10-year-old girl’s sidekick, a teddy bear-like creature, will translate well to plush. Collectibility will be a smaller aspect. Kaufman is considering items such as subtitled video or DVD versions of the original Japanese series to appeal to the property’s secondary target audience of hard-core anime fans. ‘This [property] takes us into an area that we’re not in-a bit more of an older girls, fashion-driven program,’ says Kaufman. He believes licensees in the first major categories will be on by the end of the year.

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