Fun Starts Before the Film - Playing's the thing, as tie-in toys pave the way for big new movies

Here's an excerpt from Alissa MacMillan's New York Daily News article about toys based upon movie licenses appearing at this year's Toy Fair trade show.

The movie version of The Lord of the Rings arrives in December, but the Frodo action figures hit toy stores in August.

Spider-Man isn't due in theaters until next year, but the toys are ready to go. Same for Harry Potter.

These movies hardly need more buzz, but merchandise madness begins long before the release date. Action figures and vehicles, dinos and superheroes with movie pedigrees have taken over this week's annual industry toy fair.

And that means they'll soon take over family conversations, too.

Licensing deals for characters from movies, television shows and books have accounted for about 46% of the toy industry over the last few years, according to Terri Bartlett, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers Association.

"If you go and have a wonderful experience at a motion picture or television series or play, when you come out of that experience you want to rei-mmerse yourself, take a piece of that home," says David Imhoff, executive vice president of worldwide licensing and merchandising at New Line Cinema.

"Lord of the Rings is a fantasy film," says Imhoff, "and kids want to immerse themselves in that fantasy." Action figures can help. The toys will start to appear well before the film's release, to build interest in the first movie.

New Line filmed the entire J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy of novels in a 14-month stretch, beginning with The Fellowship of the Ring for release Dec. 19 (The Two Towers and The Return of the King are slated for 2002 and 2003). Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen and Liv Tyler star.

That's a long time to keep youngsters interested, but Imhoff says every major toy company wanted a part of the action, in part because the characters are so well known. Even the American Library Association is doing a tie-in with the film.

"It's the richness of the fantasy, not just an incredibly wonderful story that has stood up to the test of time, but the richness, the depth that Tolkien put into the story. They don't just have elves and dwarfs and wizards, they have their own cultures and languages," says Imhoff.

When New Line put a short trailer for the film on its Web site last spring, it was downloaded 1.7 million times in the first 24 hours. The toys and collectibles from Hasbro and Playmates include figures with laser-scanned faces, moving swords, horses that gallop, watches and more.

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