Anime tsunami hits Toy Fair

Anime-inspired toys just may be the most crowded category at Toy Fair. First there was a Pokémon video game-now there's half a dozen properties and more SKUs than you can shake a stick at. And it all happened so fast. Who...
February 1, 2000

Anime-inspired toys just may be the most crowded category at Toy Fair. First there was a Pokémon video game-now there’s half a dozen properties and more SKUs than you can shake a stick at. And it all happened so fast. Who had heard of Digimon at last year’s Toy Fair? Now there are PlayStation titles, action figures, play sets-the works. From the U.S. debut of Gundam Wing to resurrection plans for Sailor Moon, here’s what’s coming out in the anime arena for Toy Fair and beyond.

Pokémon master toy licensee Hasbro is creating 16 brand-new products for its boys toys division, compared with 11 in 1999, and 11 new items for existing lines for 2000. One of the highlights is the Pokémon Tournament Stadium, a 16- x 11.5-inch tabletop game that will pit two- and three-inch figures against each other in a 3-D battle. These action figures will be the smartest ever, says Holly Ingram, spokesperson for the boys toys division, because they will store information, such as character point levels, that can be read by the electronic board and transferred with the figure from board to board. The strategy game, hitting stores around August with a suggested retail price (SRP) of US$40, will include two figures. Additional figures will be sold for US$8 each.

Electronic Stadium Pokédex, a handheld device kids can use to download stats about their Stadium figures, will be offered as an accessory (US$15 SRP). Also in the line are 4.5-inch Action Combat Figures, each possessing an action attack feature specific to the character (streeting July with a US$5.99 SRP) and a Pokémon Evolution Assortment consisting of six-inch figures capable of three transformations per figure (streeting August with a US$14.99 SRP).

Hasbro-owned Tiger Electronics is also raising the bar for 2000 with plans for 130 new items in 39 Pokémon SKUs, compared with 22 items in 17 SKUs last year, says Jim Bousman, VP of marketing. Notables include a Pikachu RC car slated to street in the spring (US$29.99 SRP), along with an animated bank featuring two characters in Pokéballs that face off accompanied by music and lights when money is deposited (US$20 to US$25 SRP). A memory game called I Choose You Challenge will come out for the fall (US$15 to US$18 SRP).

Tiger’s biggest products for fourth quarter will be an interactive Pikachu and an interactive Meowth, likely larger and carrying a higher SRP than Furby due to new features. Like Furby, the toy will interact with its owner, and the addition of speech-recognition technology will enable the toy to learn its owner’s voice and be trained to follow voice commands over time. When Pikachu and his nemesis are brought together, the two will be able to challenge each other.

Digimon: Digital Monsters master toy licensee Bandai America is playing catch-up at full steam with new products emphasizing the property’s ‘digital positioning as our difference,’ says Brian Goldner, executive VP and COO. Digimon World for Sony PlayStation will come out in March (US$42.99 SRP), and two additional PlayStation titles-including a version of Bandai’s Digi Battle card game released last month-will launch in the fall. The Digivice, used by kids in the TV series to make their digital monster companions evolve, will be available in April (US$12.99 SRP). In the same month, Bandai will release talking figures (US$5.99 SRP). Six-inch plush will hit in May (US$5.99 SRP), and 12-inch deluxe plush in the fall (US$14.99 SRP). Finally, six-inch Deluxe Micro Playsets will launch in June (US$9.99 SRP). Additions to the 1.5-inch collectible, 2.5-inch action and 5.5-inch transforming figures will coincide with the introduction of new characters in the TV series. At press time, a second season featuring the addition of new characters and settings was expected to be announced by Fox Kids around Toy Fair. Other property-enhancing extras include the release in Japan of a Digimon movie, which may be brought to the U.S. by Fox Kids, although the kidnet could not confirm at press time.

Bandai is also showcasing a second line of toys based on action/adventure TV series Gundam Wing, which kicks off next month as part of Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. In Japan, the 20-year-old franchise includes seven TV series, eight movies, four direct-to-video series and many comic books, and has generated about US$4.5 billion to date, says Goldner. The anchor for the U.S. merchandising program is a line of snap-together model action-figure kits, articulated in up to 30 places. The kits range from five to 7.5 inches and from roughly 100 to several hundred pieces (US$7.99 to US$24.99 SRP). About 30 Toys `R’ Us stores in Los Angeles began selling the kits last fall, and the kits go national next month. Gundam-Rise from the Ashes will debut for Sega’s Dreamcast in April. Most of the merchandise will be aimed at boys ages eight and up, but the model kits could appeal to teens and young adults, says Goldner. Bandai is also developing traditional Gundam Wing action figures (skewed to ages five to eight) for a fall release.

The anime-based toys keep on coming with Monster Rancher debuts from master toy Playmates. The company is planning to add to the 100 monster figures already available with year-round additions to the Mystery Monster 1.5-inch assortments in packs of four, eight and 18, and bean-filled plush based on the five main monster characters slated to street mid-spring (US$5 SRP). Jeff Trojan, VP of marketing for boys toys, says Toy Fair highlights also include 12-inch talking Mocchi plush (US$20 SRP), collectible clip-ons featuring a holographic coin that opens a container containing a 1.5-inch PVC figure (US$5 SRP) and talking, articulated seven-inch figures (US$8 SRP). All will street mid-year.

Other toy licensees hitched to the 400-character franchise include Manley Toy Quest (role-play sets), MGA Entertainment (sculpted walkie-talkies, polystone tile game), X-Concepts (mini-skateboards and mini-snowboards), Disguise (Halloween costumes and masks) and Great Eastern Entertainment (wall scrolls, posters, playing cards). Tecmo, which produced the video game inspiration for the TV series, is creating the first Game Boy title for the property, says Carol McGovney, senior VP of U.S. licensing and merchandising at BKN (where the series airs).

Dragon Ball Z is far from a newcomer in the U.S., but the show is riding the anime wave and expanding its toy and licensing push this year. The TV series has been getting more exposure since its fall 1998 debut on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, and that has helped to build interest in the property, says Cindy Fukunaga, VP of FUNimation Productions, which handles licensing of the series (except in some publishing categories) in North America, New Zealand and Australia.

Irwin Toy signed on as Dragon Ball Z’s North American master toy licensee in late 1998. The toy maker plans to roll out 30 to 40 SKUs in 2000, a startling increase from five in 1999. Additional figures will be added year-round to the two-inch collectible figures in packs of six (US$9.99 SRP), five-inch action figures (US$5.99 SRP), five-inch Deluxe Energy Blasters (US$7.99 to US$8.99 SRP) and 16-inch supersize figures (US$24.99 SRP). Key chains with two-inch figures (US$2.99 SRP) and 3.5- to four-inch bendables (US$2.99 SRP) shipped mid-January, and one-inch mini-figures, 12 per card, are following early this month (US$9.99 SRP). Diecast vehicles (US$5 to US$7 SRP) and play sets (US$20 to US$50 SRP) will ship around July. The target market is boys ages four and up, and teens and young adults are also collecting the product, says Bret Dilabbio, marketing manager at Irwin. The company may offer exclusives or introduce characters for the specialty market before tackling mass, says Dilabbio.

Anime property Sailor Moon is venturing back into licensing for the mass market this year. M.J. Chisholm, VP of licensing and merchandising at DIC Entertainment, which holds licensing and merchandising rights (excluding publishing rights) in English-speaking territories, doesn’t hesitate to concede that the property’s initial U.S. licensing program in 1995 proved a ‘miserable failure,’ mostly due to problems with syndication clearances. The property has been gaining exposure on Cartoon Network’s Toonami since June 1998, and the market in general has few strong girl properties, paving the way for a relaunch, says Chisholm. Licensed products will target girls ages six to 12.

At press time, Irwin was in final negotiations with DIC to become master toy licensee, and MGA Entertainment was negotiating for electronic and other toy rights. Irwin, which has been the Canadian Sailor Moon master toy since 1995 (and produced toys for the U.S. specialty market last year), will become master toy for all of North America, says Ingrid Boehm, marketing manager at Irwin. A new lineup geared to the mass market will include two-inch collectible dolls (US$2.99 SRP), six-inch dolls (US$9.99 SRP), 11.5-inch fashion dolls (US$14.99 SRP) and 17-inch collectible dolls (US$24.99 SRP). The dolls will start coming out in the spring with the full line available by June. Irwin is also launching four- to six-inch plush (US$12.99 SRP) for mass-market release in April or May, along with accessories such as medallions, a magic wand and a jewelry box, all streeting in the fall (US$4.99 to US$24.99 SRP).

Victoria O’Connor, a licensing manager at MGA, says her company’s Toy Fair debuts include 9.5-inch sculpted walkie-talkies with articulated arms (US$19.99 SRP), clear electronic bounce balls with a figure inside (US$5 SRP), role-play sets (US$19.99 SRP) and a proprietary polystone tile product called Kashii Bazzii (US$19.99 SRP for starter packs, US$6.99 SRP for extra tile packs). MGA’s products will be available in most mass-market retailers by September.

Also vying for the girls demo, Nelvana’s Cardcaptor is pursuing broadcast and video deals, with plans to launch a fashion-driven and collectible licensing program. The line would include such toy items as fashion dolls and accessories, key chains, plush and collectible cards, says Sid Kaufman, executive VP of worldwide merchandising.

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