Since the news of Astro Boy’s revival hit the floor at Licensing Show in June, buzz has been building around the Sony property – and with good reason. The Astro Boy brand has earned more than US$3 billion in its native Japan, and Kids’ WB! snapped up an unprecedented 25 episodes (instead of the usual 13) of the anime-style show, which will start airing in early 2004. Sony Pictures Consumer Products is taking full advantage of the momentum, kicking off an Astro Boy licensing program with Bandai as its master toy licensee.
The toyco plans to produce a full line for the four to eight demo, and action figures, vehicles, role-play SKUs, character-shaped walkie-talkies, trading cards and play sets are just some of the items on the slate. Bandai America senior VP of sales and marketing Bill Beebe says the company will be placing particular emphasis on Astro Boy action figure and role-play lines. ‘These are boys action categories, and the best-selling pieces enable kids to act out the stories they see on the TV show,’ he says, adding that role-play toys have become a very big piece of the business. In fact, sales of Bandai’s Power Rangers role-play line went up 70% in the first half of 2003 over the same period last year.
Beebe says Bandai is working on an exclusive nation-wide retail distribution deal for the Astro Boy line, but details were not available at press time. Astro Boy models were on display at the Fall Mass Market Toy Fair last month, and a full product range is scheduled to hit shelves in summer 2004. Along with national TV and print ad support, Beebe says Bandai is targeting anime and comic book conventions to generate buzz among 40-something Astro Boy collectors who might pass their love of the property onto their young children.
As for Sony: ‘Strategically, we want to treat Astro Boy’s [merch launch] as if it were a movie as opposed to a TV series,’ says Al Ovadia, Sony Pictures Consumer Products executive VP. This means the program’s main retail thrust will take place a couple of months after some initial products trickle out. He says the series promotion and broadcast on Kids’ WB! in the early months of 2004 should build enough property awareness for the strategy to work. Merch will start rolling out in late May, building to full exposure for the back-to-school window at the end of the summer.
Created by Osamu Tezuka in 1953 and first appearing on Japanese and American TV in the early ’60s, Astro Boy stars a robot boy who’s modeled after the dead son of a research scientist. He’s abandoned by that scientist and then revived by the head of Metro City’s Ministry of Science, Dr. O’Shay. Though a robot, Astro Boy experiences emotions and becomes a reluctant hero who uses his superpowers to defend his city from takeover by corrupt robots.
Astro Boy’s reluctant-hero quality is one of the things that Ovadia feels will set the property apart in the kids anime market led by the likes of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Beyblade. ‘He wants to be like everyone else,’ says Ovadia. ‘Clearly he is not. I think kids will be able to identify with that.’ Also, one story arc is drawn out over 50 episodes, introducing hundreds of different robots, transforming vehicles and human characters. It’s like a mini-series or soap opera that kids will want to follow, says Ovadia.
Astro Boy’s wide character portfolio won’t hurt in the licensing/merch department either, building in the key element of collectibility. Added to these factors is Astro Boy’s retro appeal, says Beebe, noting the recent trend in revived properties like Rainbow Brite and Bandai’s own Strawberry Shortcake.
As for what kids can get their mitts on, according to Ovadia, roughly 40 U.S. licenses are in negotiations, with four confirmed deals in Canada. That number is expected to jump to as high as 30 – despite the lack of a Canadian broadcaster. Confirmed U.S. licensees include: FAB (bags, backpacks), Kids Headquarters (boys sportswear), Giant (boys/young men’s T-shirts), Freeze (boys T-shirts), Dan River (bedding) and Harper Collins (activity/story books).