JON SALISBURY: Ultramontanism

This month, our columnist asks where the real power base of the toy industry lies?
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Ultramontanism: just chew over that word for a minute as you drink your early morning cup of coffee while leafing through the pages of this month’s ToyNews. What on Earth can it mean? And what relevance can it possibly have where toys are concerned?

The term ultramontanism was first used in the Middle Ages to describe Catholic countries that recognised as their spiritual head the Pope who, for most Europeans, was a ‘dweller beyond the mountains’, i.e. beyond the Alps.

The broad church that is the toy industry has many beliefs and practices, but it is difficult not to conclude that ‘the man beyond the mountains’ today is resident on the West Coast of the US, and I’m not simply referring to the world’s biggest toy company in El Segundo. No, the real power base is in Tinsel Town where many of the licensed entertainment properties that enrich so many toy ranges are spawned.

Of course, original IPs are also created elsewhere. Take the Japanese contribution. Beyblade, Bakugan, Pokémon, Hello Kitty, Sylvanian Families and the mighty Transformers stand out as concepts that originated in Japan – but it took local Western know-how to adapt and re-stage them to bring them to market elsewhere.

So, where does ultramontanism come into all of this? The word was revived in France during the 16th Century Reformation as a sarcastic term for the interference of the Roman Catholic Church in the policies of the domestic French government. I’m not implying the toy industry is resentful of US entertainment on the scale of 16th Century Papal States’ distrust of Rome, but the delay until 2013 of the GI Joe: Retaliation movie is an example of how toys can come second. Hollywood decided scenes needed re-shooting, but retailers had taken stock of the toys ahead of the movie’s release date, and were recalled. 

Said Hasbro president Brian Goldner: “It is increasingly evident that 3D resonates with moviegoers globally, and with Paramount, we made the decision to bring fans an even more immersive entertainment experience.”

Thankfully, there are plenty of toy firms and products that thrive outside Hollywood, but even they often feature content from the US. Take Lego. As Europe’s biggest and most innovative toy enterprise, it complements homegrown IPs with the multi-billion dollar likes of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, Disney, Spider-Man and Lord of The Rings. It is better to join the party than to be left on the sidelines, it seems to be freely admitting.

Okay, I’m generalising somewhat about the US being the source of all the biggest IPs. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were of totally British origin (although it took US money to make the movies), and what about the likes of 50 million-plus Moshi Monsters online users out there now?

Perhaps we should be talking about ultramoshi-ism as the latest phenomenon to watch? Oh, we already are…


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