The most compelling business story for Hollywood this weekend will play out not in box offices, but in New York. Virtually every studio will be represented at the International Toy Fair, a February 14-17 confab that influences retailers who stock up on playthings including those tied to movies and TV shows. Licensed properties — a category dominated by entertainment characters — accounted for about 31% of the $18.08 billion that U.S. consumers spent on toys last year, according to The NPD Group. Entertainment is driving its growth: Spending on licensed properties was up 7% while the overall industry was up 4%.
And 2015 is poised to be even bigger as Hollywood prepares to release a string of sequels in blockbuster franchises including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Minions. “All signs point to a really, really strong year in entertainment licensing,” says Marty Brochstein, SVP at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association. The trade group says that character-related merchandise — which includes clothing, electronics, and other goods in addition to toys — accounted for $2.66 billion in royalty revenues in 2013 from $51.44 billion in retail sales.
The big story, once again, will be Disney, the market leader. Disney Consumer Products is eager to build on the success of Frozen, which accounted for $531 million in toy sales last year with more than 300 products in 39 categories, according to NPD.
That was a surprise. A few weeks before the animated movie opened in late 2013 “even Disney was chasing the business,” Brochstein says. “Nobody expected what would happen.”
This year the company hopes to reinforce CEO Bob Iger’s observation last week that Frozen “is just one of the 11 franchises at Disney currently driving more than $1 billion each in annual retail sales.”
The company’s marketing machine is already gearing up for its two biggest expected blockbusters. Disney announced last month that it has Star Wars deals with Hasbro, The LEGO Group, and Mattel among others to pump out action figures, role-play items, play sets, diecast vehicles, costumes, and collectibles. Avengers will team with Hasbro, LEGO, Mattel, Thinkway and Mondo.
In addition, Disney-licensed products will capitalize on Pixar’s Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and the 20th anniversary of Toy Story. There’s also Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy and Daredevil, the series that premieres on Netflix in April.
That won’t be the only Netflix offering linked to toy sales. DreamWorks Animation has plans for Dinotrux, its upcoming streamed series featuring hybrid dinosaur-construction characters.
But toymakers still favor familiar franchises. “Retailers are by nature conservative — they’ve been burned in the past,” Brochstein says. “It’s tougher for original [properties] to get to the shelves.”
That could bode well for toys such as Paddington Bear following last month’s movie, Paddington. The stuffed animal “has always been an endearing bear and steady seller, but when the movie released, there was a huge surge in sales,” says Kate Karcher Clark, president of toymaker YOTTOY Productions.
Warner Bros Consumer Products is among the companies that will focus on established characters and properties. Its new lines include Batman Unlimited and DC Super Friends toys tied to the franchises’ upcoming series of made-for-video animated movies and shorts. Of course there’ll be other merchandise tied to The Hobbit and Harry Potter as well as products linked to TV shows including The Flash, Arrow, Gotham, Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, and Big Bang Theory.
Universal Partnerships & Licensing is rooting for toys based on its upcoming Jurassic World and Minions, as well as the 75th anniversary of Curious George. Nickelodeon has big plans for SpongeBob Square Pants and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And 20th Century Fox Consumer Products sees opportunities with Alvin And The Chipmunks: Road Chip, The Simpsons, The Fantastic Four, and The Peanuts Movie as well as next year’s Ice Age 5 and big anniversaries for Rocky Horror Picture Show and Home Alone.
But keep an eye on Sony Pictures Consumer Products. Along with its tried-and-true properties including Hotel Transylvania and The Smurfs, it’s looking for opportunities to sell merchandise tied to its new Breaking Bad TV spinoff Better Call Saul. It may have some surprises in store, too: License! Global reports that the studio is exploring licensing opportunities for The Interview, the comedy linked to the recent cyber attack on Sony.