Licensors look to give bots long licensing legs

In the kids entertainment biz, trends are often cyclical. To keep our readers in the loop, KidScreen trendspotted a resurgence of robot-oriented programming ripe with merch possibilities on the horizon and a market onslaught of direct-to-retail deals ('My retailer, my vendor,'...
June 1, 2001

In the kids entertainment biz, trends are often cyclical. To keep our readers in the loop, KidScreen trendspotted a resurgence of robot-oriented programming ripe with merch possibilities on the horizon and a market onslaught of direct-to-retail deals (‘My retailer, my vendor,’ page 74). We also took a temperature read on a roster of newbie properties looking to make the Licensing Show

grade (‘Pre-market reality check,’ page 82).

It’s tough to find a property that translates to a must-have merch frenzy à la Pokémon, but the recent proliferation of robot television properties being developed by entertainment powerhouses with far-reaching licensing arms suggests strong licensing potential for the genre.

TV-oriented robot properties such as Transformers and Gundam have met with success in the past, but it’s only recently that the industry has witnessed such an influx, and all of the newbies are jostling for market position. New York-based 4Kids Entertainment and Nickelodeon, Canada’s Nelvana and Mainframe Entertainment, France’s Alphanim and U.K.-based LEGO Media all brought robot properties to the MIP-TV table this year, with many inviting or preparing to invite licensees to the party.

While there are a lot of bot properties out there (or about to be out there), Trey Roski, CEO of Novato, California-based BattleBots, says that’s always been the case. The difference now is that they’re garnering more publicity. Roski’s company is the creator of a live-action reality series called BattleBots that’s airing on Comedy Central in the U.S., The Comedy Network in Canada, BBC2 in the U.K. and Prime in New Zealand. While most new robot properties hitting the market are animated and will rely on collectible patterns for merchandising, Roski’s rests on competition instead, honing in on the show’s sport hook and kids’ natural affinity for building.

To date, BattleBots has mainly featured adult players, but Roski is close to signing a deal with a North American terrestrial net that will air a show for kids-high school teens specifically, supervised by qualified adults. ‘BattleBots is about schools and education,’ Roski maintains. ‘A third of our direct sponsorship cash goes directly to our schools and educational BattleBots kids programs. A third goes to the contestants, and when a particular BattleBot is chosen to become a toy, that contestant gets 15% of whatever it makes.’ At the end of the day, it seems Roski’s property has legs because of its play value. ‘Merchandising is something we know. I say this with all due caution, but BattleBots will be around forever because it’s a sport-we’re not a Harry Potter or Pokémon,’ he stresses, that will blow out retail with merchandise.

The ultimate success of any property lies partly in the hands of its chosen partners, since the play value and pattern of the property can only extend as far as the toys can take them. In the case of BattleBots, durability, innovation and attention to detail are high on the list of qualifications for any toy partner. So far, Jakks Pacific and Tiger Electronics/Hasbro have made the grade, signing on as BattleBots licensees.

Marc Rosenberg, Tiger/Hasbro’s senior VP of marketing, feels that this type of property and play pattern is the next evolution in toys, at least in terms of what Tiger does. ‘Kids want things to become more real and more powerful, and we really think the innovation has to be there in order to keep up with kids’ imaginations.’ And that’s what Rosenberg feels Tiger brings to the party, along with expertise in dealing with a roster of first-class marketing partners. ‘We’re doing something [on BattleBots] with Pepsi and Frito-Lay later in the year, and we’re looking at doing events with all of our retailers to get that community excited.’

Nelvana’s new property Medabot launched at MIP-TV in April, and has already attracted the interest of a major toyco-an announcement is expected this month-and is slated to air on Fox Kids in the fall. After evaluating the stories, characters and an existing Japanese merchandising and promotional program, Nelvana picked up the property from Tokyo-based Kodansha, from which the toonco also acquired Cardcaptors.

Born in Japan in 1997 as a comic series called Medarot, the property quickly rolled out Game Boy formats (in ’97 and ’98), a card game (’98), a watch-type game (’98), a TV series (July 1999 on the Tokyo Broadcasting Network), a Game Boy Color title (’99), a PlayStation game (’99) and a PocketStation format (’00). Boasting 387 unique robot characters, the concept has Poké-like collectiblity potential. There are accessories and items called medals that are won and lost during battle. Each medal gives the bearer certain skills and powers-transferable when the medal moves on.

Nelvana has the rights to 100 eps, and with a proven play pattern evidenced by the successful Asian model, executive VP of worldwide merchandising Sid Kaufman feels that this property can be very competitive in the current market, provided the company can effect a fast turnaround (for North American consumption) on the existing library. ‘We can adapt them quickly, get into the market and take advantage of the trend right now.’ And yet spotting what’s popular or starting the trend yourself isn’t remotely as important as being able to support the product you’ve created. ‘You can always respond to a trend,’ says Kaufman, ‘but if you’re ahead of the trend or ahead of your licensing program and product program, it’s very hard to recover.’

Again, the antidote to quick-burn syndrome lies in timing and having a good property and good partners-’not necessarily in that order,’ says Kaufman. When asked what qualities he’s looking for in Medabot licensees, Kaufman responds with tongue firmly in cheek, with an echo of wishful thinking. ‘An excellent partner knows their product category,’ he stresses. ‘They’re leaders in their field, and committed to supporting that product with marketing and advertising-not only today, but 18 months from today. You can launch a good line, but if you don’t have a follow-up program, it will be over. They have to have resources, they have to have the ability to work with inventors and get the best, latest and reliable technology, and be able to build and deliver, and be financially sound. I guess those qualifications pretty well eliminate anyone these days,’ he laughs.

And while Medabot does have some history to support its licensing potential, the true test will be the show itself. Prevailing opinion-not surprisingly, from companies that develop properties for TV initially-suggests that toys will sell as a result of the show’s popularity, regardless of how good the toys are. Jan Van Rijsselberge, creative director for France’s Alphanim, agrees. A self-proclaimed toy freak, the designer works with various graphic and narrative styles, most recently coming up with an anime-type concept called Robotboy that is in early development.

The toys will only sell if the show is popular, says Van Rijsselberge, though he admits that there is often a perpetuating relationship between toys and TV-especially with Asian properties. Interestingly enough, one of Alphanim’s latest offerings, Gardener, started as a toy before it became a series.

‘I think robots empower children,’ says Al Kahn, chairman and CEO of 4Kids Entertainment. ‘Kids can pretend that they are the masters of these robots, and he or she can pretend that they have powers that the robot has. It’s really a controlling power over that object.’ The New York-based company debuted Cubix at Toy Fair, and the CGI robot series was in good company with the slew of cyberpets and like-minded toys at that market. Tagged ‘robots for everyone,’ Cubix is slated to air on Kids’ WB! in the fall, with merch set to hit retail in August and September.

So far, Cubix licensee Trendmasters has developed a Collectible Figures Assortment package listed at US$4.99; Robot Builder Action Figures for US$7.99; Robot Action Figures with sound and scan for US$9.99 to US$19.99; and a Supreme Cubix character (it has motion capabilities. . . a swipe of a Cubix card transforms it into another robot) that will cost US$39.99. All the figures come with programming cards that are interchangeable for use on each robot and sold separately in booster packs (15 cards for US$3.99) and starter sets (50 cards for US$9.99). They’re all easily stored in the Cubidex, a storage case that includes a scanner to help kids keep track of the cards and what they do. Canadian dinnerware manufacturer Trudeau has also signed on to create a range of product.

In addition to the potentially infinite number of robot characters the property boasts, there are also a number of devices worked in to follow the futuristic theme (it takes place 30 or 40 years into the future) that could/should be rolled into actual merchandise further down the road. ‘But first,’ Kahn says, ‘like any line, you have to establish the key characters and key robots.’ In Cubix, each kid character is paired off with his or her own like-gender robot-lending itself to both boy and girl appeal.

Cubix’s potential beyond action toys depends on the response to the show. ‘If kids want to emulate and live this concept,’ Kahn says, ‘then they will want to get into all the other licensed categories, they will be interested in the clothing, the fast food and all the major licensed categories,’ which would probably include video games and card games.

Kahn sees the robot trend, and his new property Cubix in particular, as an opportunity to hit the market in another category-’robots and their interaction with humans.’ In the end, Kahn says, ‘I don’t think it has to be as big as Pokémon to be successful. It would be hard to suggest that it could be.’ Robots are a trend, Kahn agrees, but as a rule, he looks for a point of difference and a great play pattern when taking on a property, ‘and this particular show has both.’ As far as the success that it has engendered, ‘we already have a fast-food partner,’ Kahn states, although at press time he couldn’t reveal who it was.

It seems that the robot trend is something that QSRs are keen to latch on to. According to Rosenberg, Tiger/Hasbro has also signed a BattleBots deal with a large QSR for Q1 2002.

As for other developing bot properties, Mainframe has Dot’s `Bots coming down the pipe. The prodco didn’t have any specific licensing program in mind at press time, although concepts that have been bandied about in-house include categories like books, CD-ROMs for girls, Internet applications, apparel and toys. There has been specific interest for publishing and CD-ROMs, with some from clothing licensees as well, says Dan DiDio, Mainframe’s senior VP of creative affairs. However, actual plans could change depending on the broadcaster. The series-in development pending a broadcast deal-focuses on Dot, her scientific mind and her yen for welding. . . she literally assembles a strange surrogate family.

Nickelodeon is also going high-tech in its programming and licensing. Upcoming Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius features a robotic dog called Goddard (see KidScreen’s February 2001 Toy Fair issue, page 71), and the company recently announced the acquisition of U.K.-based Robot Wars, a live-actioner from U.K.-based production company Mentorn that’s similar to BattleBots. The series will debut this month on Nick’s Sunday tween block (which has largely targeted girls to date), as well as on TNN and MTV in the fall. Nick was talking with licensees at the beginning of last month, but at press time, no deals had been announced.

And the natural creative and building extensions of a robot property made the announcement that LEGO Media was coming out with an offering unsurprising, except for the fact that this is the company’s first foray into TV, and that the property targets preschoolers. In preproduction this month for an August 2002 delivery, Little Robots features many types of robots (some of which are not little, despite the name), but focuses on Tiny (who is little), a veritable Mr. Fixit. And while LEGO Media didn’t have any licensing plans underway at press time, surely the company famous for LEGO blocks will think of something.

‘Robots have always been popular,’ says Jennifer Richmond, VP of licensing for BattleBots licensee Jakks Pacific. ‘And I don’t know if this also happens in the [TV] entertainment world, but so often in the toy industry, it seems like everyone has a great idea at the same time.’

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