Third installment in franchise may surpass 'Cars'

Since “Cars” raced into theaters in 2006, the toon has proved to be Disney’s biggest mover of merchandise, hauling in more $2 billion a year. But “Toy Story 3″ could easily surpass that tally with $2.4 billion in sales when Pixar’s toys return to the megaplex this month.

The Mouse House is already touting the toon as its “biggest event property ever,” according to Andy Mooney, chairman of the Walt Disney Co.’s consumer products division during a press call Wednesday, a week before the licensing industry raises the curtain on its annual confab in Las Vegas. “We’re more than halfway through the year (Disney’s fiscal year ends in September) so we feel pretty comfortable with that number,” he said.

If those kinds of strong sales are tallied up at retailers, “Toy Story 3″ would be Disney’s biggest moneymaker when it comes to licensed merchandise — a considerable coup as consumers tighten their wallets.

“Toy Story 3″ has already rung up $3.5 million in product sales in the past four weeks. Pic bows June 18.

Combined, the first two “Toy Story” pics have earned more than $9 billion in worldwide sales since 1995. Comparably, they generated $847 million at the worldwide B.O. and another $32 million in a 3D release.

Last year, the consumer products division earned $27 billion a year for Disney — or about 7% of the company’s overall earnings. Mooney anticipates the division to generate $50 billion within the next five to seven years.

“Toy Story 3″ sales are likely to be helped by boutique stores built within 1,300 Toys “R” Us outlets promoting the pic. The film also appeals to both boys and girls, whereas “Cars” aimed largely at younger males.

The key to maintaining interest in “Toy Story” products after the third installment has played out is keeping the franchise alive with a series of shorter seven-minute cartoons that play online, on TV and elsewhere. Disney recently pursued a similar strategy with the launch of “Cars Toons.”

Either way, “Toy Story 3’s” potential is another piece of good news for Disney’s bottomline this years, after “Alice in Wonderland” crossed the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office.

More positive sales figures are likely to follow next summer when “Cars 2″ pulls into theater, backed by another truckload of toys and merchandise.

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