Sales of action figures are up 8% this year

Be the first 40-year-old on your block to own the Ark of the Covenant!

At last week’s Toy Industry Trade Show in Gotham, it was clear that toymakers aren’t pitching their film and TV-related wares to just kids.

Hasbro’s new doll-size Indiana Jones toys, for instance, have a mail-away promo just like the cereal boxtop offers of yore: Buy four of the super-detailed 12-inch figures — which look like they belong in a glass case, rather than a toddler’s mouth — and the company will send you your very own scale-model of the vengeance of the Ark.

It’s a growing — and increasingly lucrative — trend: Toy manufacturers and their showbiz partners are rolling out toys for people who, one might gently suggest, are too old for toys. Some of the product is breathtakingly expensive, or based on R-rated movies or painfully obscure characters — and they’re selling bigtime.

Sales of action figures are up 8% this year to $1.4 billion (last year they were down 9%), and though the majority of that revenue comes from high-profile kid-appeal lines like Transformers and Batman, edgier, adult-oriented toys are coming on strong.

New Line merchandising guru David Imhoff estimates that its small lines of slasher film-based toys do about 10% of the business that New Line saw for “The Lord of the Rings” figures.

Those sales have come not from industry heavyweights Hasbro or Mattel but from small, detail-oriented workshops like McFarlane Toys, NECA and Mezco. McFarlane was the only kid on that block a few years ago. Now there are about 10 serious competitors producing what amounts to poseable statuary.

Research firm the NPD Group estimates that the toy industry generated about $22.1 billion in 2007, but that figure doesn’t include toys sold in comicbook and specialty shops, an increasingly lucrative niche.

Showbiz licenses don’t always go to the big toymakers: The “Hellboy” franchise has stayed at Mezco for the pic’s upcoming sequel, and that company also produces figures for TV’s “Heroes.” McFarlane has “Lost,” “24,” and “The Simpsons” — a license that used to belong to kid-friendly Playmates.

Not wanting to miss out on a good thing, larger toy companies are digging into the same geek demographic by extending their signature toy lines. Mattel is producing collector-targeted figs of every DC Comics character you can imagine, and Hasbro is churning out nostalgic re-releases of ’80s-era versions of G.I. Joe and Transformers.

Hasbro is taking advance orders on a foot-tall collectible versions of the “Cloverfield” monster — at $100 a pop — and it has the holy grail of collectible franchises: Star Wars.

“The brand is very healthy,” says Lucasfilm licensing director Casey Collins. “Even as of last year, when we didn’t have a movie out, we’re still doing over ($)1.1 billion in retail sales.”

Collins estimates that the split between kids and collectors buying the wide-release action figures is about 60-40 this year.

Lucasfilm has also been expanding into specialty markets. The studio has partnered with Gentle Giant and eFX to do pricier statues and prop replicas for the collector market.

Adult toybuyers don’t just drive toy sales, they drive enthusiasm that can be turned into films. “Transformers” and the upcoming “G.I. Joe” both built off a nostalgic and loyal fan base for the original toys.

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