Following Toronto, Canada-based Spin Master Toys’ successful 2001 relaunch of Shrinky Dinks, a line that garnered ‘it’ toy status for this past holiday season, toy companies and retailers have increasingly been looking to mine the industry’s past for future hits. Though recycling is not new to the sector, the current driving factor behind the if-it’s-old-its-gold principle is inescapable–built-in brand awareness. As they roll the dice on the next big event pics, retailers are ever hungry to augment their offerings with low-risk products that come with some established equity. An interesting common trait shared by many of this year’s comeback bids is that they hail from the decade of acid wash and bad hair.
‘I think we’re seeing a whole ’80s retro industry building up right now,’ says Michael Carlisle, managing partner at New York-based licensing agency The Wildflower Group. ‘If you look at the Care Bears, Transformers and He-Man, many of those ’80s properties are back and doing well.’ Carlisle’s company is resurrecting a licensing program for the smart-mouth alien TV character ALF, the centerpiece of which is a master toy deal with New York’s Fun-4-All Toys. The linchpin licensee will make plush, talking plush, key chains and clip-ons, all of which it plans to release to specialty chains in May. Wildflower has also signed Aquarius to manufacture ALF posters, and is looking for licensees in the apparel, backpack and headwear categories.
Though kids do figure into Wildflower’s long-term plans, the first two years of the program will aim for Gen Y teens, with targeted distribution at specialty chains like Spencer Gifts and Hot Topic, before moving on to mass if sales warrant it. Even though many of today’s teens likely have vague recollections of the character, Carlisle is banking on Gen Yers’ penchant for identifying their own pop icons to help kickstart the property’s revival. ‘Just as the boomers didn’t want to be force-fed brands, Generation Y wants to discover its own brands. For whatever reason, they seem to be tapping into things from the ’80s, and ALF was one of the biggest TV stars of that decade,’ says Carlisle.
Based on the live-action sitcom about a wiseass alien who is adopted by a family of humans, ALF appeared on NBC from 1986 to 1990. Though the show has long since left network TV, reruns still air on the Hallmark Channel in the U.S. (it’s the channel’s 17th most-watched series with kids six to 11) and on The Family Channel in Canada (where it’s currently ranked among the top 15 shows with viewers six to 12). According to Carlisle, Alien Productions, the owners and producers of the ALF TV show, are actively looking to loan out the character to potential corporate partners for spokeswork. There is also talk of a new TV show, though nothing was finalized at press time.
Also hoping to ride the current wave of retro toy revivals is L.A.-based licensor Global Icons, which recently pegged Palisades Toys to create figures and vehicles around the sci-fi boys toy line Micronauts. Originally based on Japanese toyco Takara’s Micromen toys, Micronauts were tiny robot-like action figures that came with interchangeable parts. Produced under license in the U.S. by the Mego Corporation in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the toys managed to draw a large boy following, which has since evolved into a solid adult collector base.
Global Icons president Ken Abrams sees strong underground interest for the toys today, evidenced by hundreds of websites detailing Micronauts minutia, as well as symposiums where comic book aficionados discuss Micronauts comics.
There is also a familial reason driving Abrams to bring back the line. His father Martin secured the North American licensing rights to Micronauts back in the late ’70s, after (according to toy lore) he opted to take a pass on the toy license to Star Wars.
Like The Wildflower Group with ALF, Abrams’ ultimate goal is to make Micronauts a viable toy line for kids again. However, in order to successfully reintroduce the property, he says the company will have to seed the program with collectors first. ‘You can’t go out and launch a full-scale merchandising program for something that hasn’t been around in more than 20 years,’ he says. ‘Micronauts was huge in the ’70s, but what does it mean to a seven-year-old boy today?’
In May, Palisades will release an array of three-and-3/4-inch figures, as well as playsets and vehicles, following up next year with an updated version of the line. For Palisades president Michael Horn, the Micronauts license is helping the company expand its consumer base. Though historically Palisades has cranked out finely detailed lines based on edgy video game properties like Resident Evil, that market has been drying up as retailers become increasingly squeamish about carrying product that has any whiff of violence to it. ‘We love to think of ourselves as artists, but we are running a business,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘We can make the best-looking product in the world, but if we can’t get it placed, what’s the point?’
In addition to the toys, Global Icons has given the nod to Devil’s Due to create all-new Micronauts comic books. Until 1990, Marvel had produced a series that drew a faithful following, even well after the toys were no longer in circulation. To coincide with the launch of the Micronauts toys, Devil’s Due will bow with its new bimonthly comic book series in April.
On the entertainment front, Global Icons’ Abrams has considered creating a Micronauts TV show, but says he prefers to first sign a software studio to create a Micronauts video game, which he believes will hold greater appeal for the immediate target demographic.