Will Hideous Green Things Bring Lotsa Green?

Betting that Nintendo’s stranglehold on pint-sized boys will finally slip, toymakers are pouncing on the action figure market with movie/tv-driven toylines.

And several makers of new action figures that debuted last week at the American Intl. Toy Fair share the same formula they hope will be rewarded with big sales: create environment-conscious characters that are so ugly they make the Wishniks look like Barbie and Ken.

Mortality among the plastic combatants is high – nine out of 10 lines don’t survive a year on the toyshelves. More and more licensing agents are fortifying their efforts by striking deals with tv syndicators and movie studios. As “Dick Tracy” licensees learned last year, even a blizzard of hype of the magnitude produced by Disney won’t guarantee an enduring merchandising hit. Though “Tracy” grossed over $100 million, the toyline stayed hot only about as long as the pic did.

Sources said Mattel paid in the neighborhood of $3 million to license the now-in-production “Hook” for an action figure line, based on the strength of Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams.

Kenner will unveil a line to coincide with the release of Morgan Creek’s “Robin Hood,” starring Kevin Costner. Both lines were unveiled at Toy Fair and will hit toyshelves in time for the holidays.

Most other action figures now need tv shows to get toy deals. Movies only move product two weeks before, and four weeks after a film’s release, toymakers said. Tv shows keep kids interested in the characters, and introduce characters and equipment to expand the line. Some of those are:

* Toxie and the Toxic Crusaders, accurately billed by Playmates as “hideously deformed creatures of superhuman size and strength.”

Toxie is a green mop-wielding mutant – the left side of his face looks like a landslide, with the eye hanging from the socket. The character is loosely based on several schlocky Troma movies. Toxie is backed by a new cartoon series and a Marvel comic book, and accessories include other mutant characters covered with Day-Glo “toxic” colors, and, of course, the toxic dump they call home.

“We skewed him to young audiences,” said Playmates marketing director Karl Aaroman. “It has the integral elements: humor and a strong central character. He’s unique, gross and bizarre, exactly what every boy that age is looking for. Plus, the environment is hot.”

* Bucky O’Hare, a green haired space pirate hare who originated as an underground comic book, is now a Hasbro toyline. Sales will be driven by a three part animated miniseries and a fall series, “Bucky O’Hare And The Toad Wars.” Anthony Gentile, v.p. of Abrams Gentile Entertainment, which licensed the characters, said the series is more lighthearted and the toyline less “mutant-driven” than some of the other players. Gentile made the toy line deal in conjunction with the tv pact, and is working on a feature film.

* Swamp Thing might have seemed out of gas after two films, but interest was revived by a live-action series on USA Network and DC comic book sales. Kenner has unveiled a line of mutant characters, with such accessories as the “swamp buggy.”

* “Attack of The Killer Tomatoes,” another unlikely movie spinoff that has done well as an animated series, was picked up by Mattel. The toyline consists of soft, red vinyl maneating tomatoes – each comes with a human figure to munch.

Though there’s no mutant green involved, Kenner is basing a toyline on “Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a surprise hit pic whose sequel gets released this summer and is now a CBS Saturday morning cartoon series. Playmates also will launch toylines based on Disney’s animated series “Talespin” and “Darkwing Duck.”

Except for G.I. Joe, the action figure category became a wasteland when Nintendo stole away most boys old enough to read. That changed when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hatched in 1988 and carved a niche with the younger male market. Action figures boomed last year, despite lagging toy sales in general. According to Mark Freedman, president of Surge Licensing, the Turtles have about 70% of the action figure market.

Freedman, who controls all commercial licensing deals made for the Turtles, said the Turtles will fend off the newcomers with entirely updated product lines and new toys.

“We have all new action figures, the Turtles are into rock ‘n’ roll, we have talking turtles, and we have storage shell Turtles, where the accessories fit into the shell,” said Freedman. He also has the New Line sequel coming out in March – which will spawn several new toy characters – and a Saturday morning cartoon. A live-action concert tour will be expanded beyond the U.S. this year.

While some competitors whisper that the Turtles have matured, Freedman said that brings new opportunity.

“Every year since we launched in 1988, they’ve predicted our demise, but I figure as long as they keep using us as the benchmark, that’s good,” said Freedman. “We’re faced now with a more difficult problem than the launch – how to go from being a cultural phenomenon to a classic like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.” Freedman also has branched out to form Surge Entertainment, with hopes of launching his own new characters for film/tv/toy treatment.

Surge’s Freedman called the Turtles movie revenue “just icing on the cake. The dolls drive this company. Not surprisingly, some movies are being done with merchandising in mind.

Kim Penny, v.p. of Creative Licensing Corp., is Orion’s agent on “The Addams Family,” which is about to get a toy deal, and a syndicated cartoon to follow the movie, and “Robocop 3.” Despite the disappointing results of “Robocop 2,” and the fact that about 60 licenses have been issued, Penny said the new movie will be more conducive to aggressive licensing.

“The key thing for the licensing effort is that the third picture will be rated PG-13,” she said. “The others were R-rated, which kept out the kids. We think that will be very helpful. We’re not expecting it to be the blockbuster license of all time, but we should be able to bring in others that stayed away from the R-rating.”

While it is often difficult to revive licensing interest in a product past its peak, it is never too late to board the bandwagon. “Home Alone” was such a surprise smash, that even the most astute marketer probably wouldn’t have thought to make merchandising deals. Fox is already trying to put together a sequel, tentatively titled “Alone Again,” and is actively trying to secure likeness rights for licensing of star Macaulay Culkin. Licensing execs at Toy Fair salivated over the merchandising possibilities.

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