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Hasbro . . . The Movie?

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Confession: as a kid growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, I spent virtually every weekend morning planted firmly in front of the family room television set from dawn until noon, watching — nay, inhaling — with almost addict-like pleasure the parade of Saturday morning cartoons that gave me my weekly fill of intergalactic battles, falling anvils, and humanized animals saving the world from an endless line of evil witches, mummies, and Smurf-haters. In fact, I could even have told you what day and time it was depending on what was on TV. And much to the chagrin of my parents, who tried unsuccessfully to haul me and my sisters off to the library, swimming lessons, or (ugh) Sunday School, the grip of my cartoon comrades on my eight-year-old mind was simply too potent to be broken.

Any toy executives reading this admission must be rubbing their hands together in glee, because, as it turns out, mindless entertainment was not the primary aim of this ''golden age'' of cartoons. It was, rather, commercials — lots of commercials — selling everything from plush toys to video games to breakfast cereals bearing the likenesses of our favorite colorful, comic characters. Indeed, even Rainbow Brite had her own cereal during the promotional run of her first — and last — feature film in 1985.

An old adage tells us that everything old is ''new'' again at some point, and the toy industry has realized this with dollar signs in its new alliance with several major Hollywood studios which are busy developing toy franchises into full-fledged feature films. In a new twist on the marketing ploy which used television shows and movies for the express purpose of selling toys, the marketing dynamic has flipped so that popular toy brands are now being developed for mass consumption in a variety of media, including film, television, and webisodes.

Leading Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists Agency recently signed with the world’s top toy producer, Mattel, to develop some of Mattel’s well-known franchises (which include Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Dora the Explorer) into media entertainment. Other toy producers are expected to follow suit, taking note of the massive international success of last summer’s Transformers (based on the popular 80s Hasbro franchise), which has grossed over $700 million to date and was executive produced by Steven Spielberg. A sequel is already in the works and is being developed for a June 2009 release.

Currently, Hasbro has taken the lead among toy companies in cashing in on the popularity of toy lines through feature films and DVD sales. Many of its popular toy lines in the 1980s have reemerged onto the market for a new generation of young consumers, many of whose parents played with the original product lines. In addition to Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, and My Little Pony have all been successful in their new incarnations, spawning computer-animated DVD specials, new animated series, and of course several highly lucrative series of plastic and plush toys.

Certain products may seem less suited for development deals than others: the Magic 8 Ball, for example, is difficult to imagine as a movie hero. But expansion of a brand through other mediums is widely acknowledged as pivotal in the quest to stay relevant and dominant in the toy market. This concept was a major theme at this year’s Toy Fair ’08, which ran from February 17 to 20 in New York City, and where an estimated 1,200 exhibitors and 7,000 new products were present.

Toy sales have essentially peaked in recent years at around the $20 billion mark, and company executives are constantly in search of new ways to lift the bottom line. Increasingly, media and technology are seen as the best guarantors of future success. Current trends certainly say as much: while toy sales have essentially plateaued, sales of video games have increased by rates which astonish even avid industry watchers, increasing by as much as 40% in 2007, which translates into a record of almost $19 billion in sales for the year, just below the total figure of traditional toy sales.

The move into film and gaming technology for companies like Hasbro and Mattel also provides an invaluable opportunity for the companies to expand their bases of consumers. Adults make up far larger shares of the film-going audience than do children and are increasingly more likely to participate in the ''gaming culture'' traditionally identified with teenagers. A recent survey of shoppers during the holiday season found that the average age of gamers is steadily rising, with a full one-quarter of video game enthusiasts now being over the age of 50. In 1999, the industry estimated that gamers over age 50 made up less than 10 percent of the total gaming population.

Whatever the ultimate configuration between toy companies, film studios, and consumers, the intent from the production end will be the same as it was back in the 80s: to sell, resell, and sell some more. So the next time you’re sitting in the theater watching 20 minutes of ''coming attractions,'' don’t be surprised if you find that most are promising to take you back in time.
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