Ever get that strong sense of déjà vu when you stroll down a toy aisle? Been there, played that. That the toy industry is creatively bankrupt-atrophied by its obsession with focus group testing and market research-is not a new charge. Whenever the semblance of something new manages to squeak through, it’s quickly copied ad nauseam (case in point: last year’s litter of robotic dogs). It’s probably no coincidence, either, that this rise in conformity has corresponded with the slumping stock of the independent toy inventor.
Once the creative life-blood of the business, outside inventors have watched as toycos have OK’d fewer and fewer of their ideas. Based on her surveys of major toy manufacturers, Carol Rehtmeyer, managing director at the Chicago-based Toy & Game Inventor’s Foundation, estimates that toycos currently approve only 2% of inventor submissions, down from 20% a decade ago. Getting an idea from your head to the store shelf, in other words, is almost akin to winning the lottery. Not surprisingly, as veteran inventor Richard C. Levy-whose past toy credits include co-creating the concept for Furby and the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus game-tells it, marketing your idea has become as important as the idea itself.
Q. Historically, what part has the outside inventor played in the toy industry?
A. They’ve brought to companies what I call the wild card. If you look back at all the big-impact [nonlicensed] toys, they typically came from left field. For example, Super Soaker, Trivial Pursuit, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Monopoly, Furby, Scrabble and Tickle Me Elmo-which was eventually tied to an entertainment license-all came from the outside.
Q. How has the inventor’s role changed over the last five to 15 years?
A. It’s much harder to get your ideas placed. The industry has gone Hollywood. It’s much more dependent on licensed entertainment properties versus innovation. They have stopped for the most part inventing. The R&D staffs at the big toy companies spend most of their time executing products that come out of movies.
Q. So, are you saying that a toy based on a licensed entertainment property can’t be innovative too?
A. Here’s the story: Say I come up with a new technology that has a toy application. These days, the first thing toy companies ask after looking at it is, `Will it work with any of our licenses?’ They are faced with a couple of problems. First, there’s such a royalty load to deal with from the licensor that they often can’t fit an indepedent inventor in, at least not for anything meaningful. Secondly, they have to ask themselves what the invention will bring to the party? If you used a new invention for Episode 1, would it have sold one more toy if the movie hadn’t done well? Conversely, if the movie had done really well, would you have sold more toys? Probably not. So, the question becomes, why deal with the inventor when it won’t make a difference to our sales.
In ’93, I was awarded a patent for a technology called simulated x-ray. Essentially, it’s a piece of ferrofludic film that you can manipulate using magnets to x-ray a toy. So you can lay it over an action figure’s stomach, and look in and see his organs, or over the trunk of a car that may be concealing weapons. Fifteen years ago, it would have invited a major commitment from toy companies. Hasbro would be doing a cartoon series based on it. Now it has to find an application within a license. I pitched the idea for seven years. Finally last year, Mattel agreed to use it in their  Max Steel toy line.
Q. So, is that the only way inventors can interest toycos, by placing their inventions with a license?
A. For the most part, yes. I couldn’t keep going to the toy companies with my inventions without a licensing hook. For instance, I could have done a generic game on gender relations, but that wouldn’t have flown with the toy companies. So in ’96, I went out and got the Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus license and did a game, which Mattel licensed from me and released in `98.
Q. You’ve had success with Furby (nonlicensed). Why don’t toycos do more original product if the upside is potentially greater?
A. They see it as being extremely expensive and time-consuming to establish new brands. Today, everybody looks for brand equity. The big toy companies, for the most part, don’t produce new proprietary brands anymore because that’s not what retailers want. They want known entities. And retailers drive the business. Most new games have an average life span of three years at retail. If sales drop below a certain level, they move them out. It’s a pump-and-dump mentality. You can’t have evergreens anymore because they cut down the forest every year. How would you get a Barbie going today? Or a Monopoly?
Q. Beyond being more licensing-minded, in what other significant ways has the inventor’s job changed?
A. You really have to be there to support the companies you’re working with through every step of the process. Because many toycos have slashed their R&D and marketing staff, you often have to become a de facto product manager. When I first got into this business 20 years ago, you’d drop off your invention and then the next time you’d see it would be at Toy Fair. Now you do extra stuff-whether its patent searches or sourcing, or writing copy for the instructions-and often you don’t get paid for doing it. Some people might see it as burdensome. I don’t. If I’m given the opportunity to contribute to my products and get them to market, I’ll do it. Ultimately, it’s all in the hands of the Toy Gods, anyway. Great toys are bought, they’re not sold.
Richard C. Levy, president of Richard C. Levy & Associates, has licensed 125 of his inventions to toy companies and is the author of 12 books, including The Inventor’s Desktop Companion: A Guide to Successfully Marketing and Protecting Your Ideas (1995) from Visible Ink Press.