IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what’s going to be the big family movie next Christmas, ask a toy guy.

Darren Epstein, exec VP, global business development at Corgi Intl., which specializes in movie tie-ins, is hoping it’s New Line’s “The Golden Compass.”

“Nothing else is coming near ‘The Golden Compass’ in the last three months of this year,” he predicts. “‘Prince Caspian’ was supposed to be there, but it moved because it didn’t want to be near ‘Golden Compass.’ They might tell you otherwise, that it’s filmmaking reasons, but whatever they say, ‘Golden Compass’ has got a clear run.”

Epstein, of course, has got a lot invested in being right. Corgi holds the master toy license for the adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials.”

The Nasdaq-listed company was formed last fall by the three-way merger of classic Brit model car firm Corgi, another Brit merchandising outfit Cards Inc. and American collectibles specialist Master Replicas. Between them, they have decades of experience creating tie-in toys for the likes of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Harry Potter” and the James Bond movies.

Indeed, Corgi’s deal to make Bond cars stretches back 41 years — which Epstein believes is the longest uninterrupted toy license.

But as a brand new franchise based on a relatively recent book without a long-established fanbase, “Golden Compass” is as much of a gamble for Corgi as it is for New Line.

In a world where kids are increasing tempted away from traditional games by digital distractions, Corgi clearly believes that the best way to reclaim their imaginations is by delivering toys with an unprecedented level of authenticity and detail.

“We’re bringing some ideas that do well in the adult collectible market into the toy area,” Epstein says. “We want the boy or girl to immerse themselves in the world of the film, so we’re developing and sculpting the best likeness of any toy product there has been.”

“Our Daniel Craig figure of Lord Asriel is the best action figure I’ve ever seen. You put it next to a photo of Daniel Craig, it looks exactly like him,” he boasts. “This is also going to be Nicole Kidman‘s first foray into the world of fandom, and that’s going to be very interesting.”

Corgi has been in constant dialogue with the studio and the filmmakers throughout production. “In the past few years, the studios have realized that toys are a core part of the marketing for a franchise, and they are really helping to develop the product,” Epstein says.

“I was on the ‘Golden Compass’ set a few weeks ago, talking to the costume designer, the props master. Some of these people are Oscar winners, and yet they are concerning themselves about how a prop looks on set and how that can be transformed into something you can play with.”

“Golden Compass” has all the classic elements of a toy-friendly movie — role play, fantasy worlds and a list of characters as long as your arm. But there’s a twist — its lead character is, gulp, a girl.

“Having a girl as the hero in an action/fantasy franchise hasn’t happened that often,” admits Epstein. “For girls, it tends to be Barbie and Bratz. That makes it more of a challenge, but she’s the hero girls want to be, and boys will easily identify that she’s more of a tomboy, so we don’t think they will be put off.”

Although the first “Harry Potter” was a merchandising gold mine, other fantasy properties like the Chronicles of Narnia were not as successful in the toy biz.

Then there’s the question of how far the movie will reach into the adult market, as “Lord of the Rings” did so successfully at the box office and with its collectible toys. Although the “Dark Materials” books appeal to grown-ups with their complex metaphysical themes, they haven’t been around long enough to build an adult fanbase that loved them as children.

But since, as Epstein points out, there has never been a James Bond doll, perhaps there will be an unexpected demand for those lifelike Daniel Craig figures from ladies (and gentlemen) who want to cuddle 007 on their pillow.

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