Home / Licensing / Charms race: How is tech becoming the lead character in today’s movie toy launches?

Charms race: How is tech becoming the lead character in today’s movie toy launches?

"We’ve seen a huge resurgence of the Harry Potter franchise of late,” Richard North, CEO and founder of the UK outfit, Wow! Stuff tells Licensing.biz over a chorus of laughter and clinking glasses.

We’re at the opening night Toy of the Year Awards at the North American International Toy Fair in New York City. North is dressed in a three piece suit complete with a bow tie, cutting a fine – if excitable – figure of a man up for an award in the innovation category.

“It seems to not only be coming from the popularity of the Fantastic Beasts franchise and the latest film to have landed, but there’s a real renewed love for the original Harry Potter coming through,” he adds.

Should he ask some of the people I have encountered in this job, it’s arguable that this $25bn franchise never really went away. It was only the other day that I had been introduced to the President of the Harry Potter Society at Edinburgh University, via a mutual friend, of course.

“You’re joking…” responds North. I admit that I am, she was actually the Head of Slytherin.

But that aside, there has been a recent step change in the level of innovation and thought gone into the toys surrounding this global license. This is the man that has, afterall, brought us the Mystery Flying Snitch. And have you seen what can be done with his wand?… You can write your name in light and summon a Petronus, for a start.

It’s all enough to win North and his toy making outfit an award. In fact, it already has; several of them. And it could truly be said that Wow! Stuff has managed to inject real innovation into a franchise that until now, has been largely plush and LEGO sets.

And this was all before North had even showed me what was on his phone.

“It’s meant to be a secret, but I have been telling everyone,” he laughs as he swipes the screen and plays me a video. I recognise the face in the video as that of North, but his head is bodiless as it floats to and fro before a backdrop of Harry Potter graphics.

Suddenly North’s body begins to peel into view as he sheds a cloak. He stands beaming at me.

“It’s green screen technology, just like they used in the film to create the invisibility cloak, but in a toy and an Augmented Reality app. It’s going to change the whole game.”

It really is. From the video I am watching and subsequently the many times I had a go with it myself over the course of the New York Toy Fair, the technology is seamless. It’s been a long time coming that toy firms started seeing real return on the investment made in tech like augmented reality in achieving real spectacle, and with Wow! Stuff’s Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak, it seems the time has arrived.

Then again, toy and tech developers have little choice but to make it work. 30 per cent of toy sales in the US are now licensed items, and with the exception of those such as Fortnite or LOL Surprise, much of that is driven by movies. Meanwhile, the films that families and children are watching today are becoming better advanced in technology and spectacle.

In fact it’s even born a new super-category in Explosive Entertainment, something highlighted by New York Toy Fair’s own team of trend hunters this year.

“It’s almost become expected that the toys children play with having watched the movie with these characters in, offer them the same level of entertainment as they get from watching them on screen,” says Darran Garnham, CEO of Thinkway’s UK distributor, MTW Toys, the team behind a new range of Disney-Pixar Toy Story 4 toys.

“Our engineers had a lot of fun bringing the new characters from Toy Story 4 to life and developing new ways to play. They have really come into their own, and they are going to get a lot of kudos for what they have achieved here.”

What they have achieved was first unveiled to visitors to London Toy Fair back in January during a showcase of the newest Toy Story products to be hitting shelves this year.

Forky was first out of the block, a gangly fork-like character that can dance to any tune played to it and interact with a new level of sophistication, with its child user. It was followed by the piece de resistance, a hero Woody and a hero Buzz.

The pair can operate in play mode, engaging in conversation with their child user before collapsing to the floor on command and shift into toy mode.

“I think the tech that we have put into this product is at a level where kids will think it is just magical, and the older you are, you will think, actually, this is just brilliant,” continues Garnham.

"We have kept it at a level where the older consumer would love them and the younger consumer would be in awe of them. There was other stuff that we did initially build into these products that did feel a bit ‘tech for tech’s sake’ or that we decided to hold back, because this is a continuous license for us, and we have time to take that journey with the product and the characters.”

Thinkway has been attached to the Toy Story franchise since the idea was first hatched in 1995, when the original film became the first fully CG animated movie to hit theatres and bring home an impressive $361m at the box office. 25 years later and with the launch of the fourth instalment in the franchise, Thinkway is still a working partner with Disney.

“There are obviously other companies working in the franchise, but we like to think of ourselves as much as the master toy partner as possible,” suggests Garnham.

While the range Thinkway presents has been a long time on the making, Garnham admits that there is a “lot more in the cupboard to come.” It is under the watchful eye of Disney’s PR and licensing executives that Garnham is stopped short of giving the entire game away.

“This license is very, very precious to us,” he suffices to tell me. “Certainly over the coming weeks and months, there will be more to reveal.”

Toy Story 4 won’t be the only Disney film to land this year, in fact many a licensee has already proclaimed the 2019 box office to belong to the studio who will sweep the next 10 months with a run of eight big titles, including Frozen 2, a live action remake of Dumbo, Aladdin and Lion King, the recently released Captain Marvel, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame and finally, Star Wars Episode IX.

“I am thinking it’s Disney’s year this year, license wise…” muses Phil Ratcliffe, MD of MV Sports, a firm renowned not only for its outdoor toy lines but also its affinity to the licensing game with an array of top-selling licensed ride-ons and scooters.

“The ones that it seems everyone will be coalescing around will be Avengers: End game, Toy Story 4, and Frozen 2.”

And that’s even amid the speculation or trepidation that the six year interstice between 2013’s mega blockbusting hit, Frozen and the subsequent phenomena that circled its merchandising programme, and this year’s sequel, has been too long a wait for the fanbase with whom it struck a chord the first time around.

“There’s the old adage that lightning doesn’t strike twice, and I think in licensing, the books will tell you that you’re lucky to see it strike the first time around. But you really don’t know, and what you have got to remember is that Frozen was such a massive property, that even if it did a percentage of what it did before, it will still be bigger than anything else this year.”

A major player in the licensing space and a formidable and savvy licensee, Ratcliffe has turned quite the business out of popular IP, the majority of which has this year been through the pre-school market and the likes of LOL Surprise, Peppa Pig and PAW Patrol that all ‘held really well’ for the company.

“It’s been well documented that last year wasn’t a fantastic year for licenses,” continues Ratcliffe. “There wasn’t many superstar licenses – with one exception to the rule in LOL – but film wise, it was quite a flat year…”

So does 2019 present itself as the year of golden opportunity, given the upcoming slate from Disney and the number of new children and family-focused titles landing over the course of the next 12 months?

While Steve Pasierb, the president and CEO of The Toy Association in the US – a nation known for its embrace of the movie license – believes it very much will be, with sales of action figures helping to drive it, opinion is very much divided. The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part landed in cinemas last month, not to the record-breaking numbers its 2014 counterpart did when it ended its run at nearly $500m in global box office takings, but to rather more of a wet weekend.

At $72million in takings so far, it will undoubtedly make its money, but the slow start has prompted some in the toy industry to question the demand for toy-movies among today’s audience; those supposedly too preoccupied by social media and YouTube.

MGA’s CEO, Isaac Larian didn’t miss the chance to promote LOL Surprise amid LEGO’s sequel movie’s opening weekend, suggesting that the time for the toy movie was at an end. However, there are those, like Spin Master, who would disagree with the sentiments, having heavily backed Universal DreamWorks’ popular How To Train Your Dragon series with an innovative toy line inspired by its 2019 title, The Hidden World.

It even features a smoke-breathing Toothless, reinforcing the concept that innovation has become a key driver in the movie tie-in space. Meanwhile, the recent string of Oscar wins for Marvel’s Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse have made history for populism cinema and pop culture.

Black Panther will now go down in history as the first of Marvel’s billion dollar blockbusters to bring home not just one, but three awards – reigniting the conversation that if only Disney and Hasbro could have foreseen the extent to which the demand for this title would reach, they could have capitalised on that latent want.

“Black Panther did very well in terms of toy sales and in the action figure category in particular,” states The Toy Association’s Pasierb, “but I don’t think it was really capitalised on in terms of just how much demand there was for it…”

An opportunity missed? Perhaps. But with sequels in the works and Captain Marvel making her own history this year, perhaps there’s still time for redemption?

The action figure category provides a fair chunk of muscle to a space in the toy industry that is increasingly being taken over by tech innovation, and if anything proves that traditional play can still hold its own in movie tie-in toys, let it be the very fact that last year Universal’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom took a 41 per cent share of the total number of dinosaur toys sold, lead by Mattel’s range of dinosaur figurines.

That said, tech innovation is not in the process of slowing down, rather finding itself being better developed and put to better use by the toymakers and their film studio partnerships.

Spin Master’s Toothless breathes actual smoke, Thinkway’s Buzz Lightyear can fall to the floor on command, and if you cast your eyes downwards, you’ll see that Richard North’s head really does float.

About Robert Hutchins

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