NewsWire: "Lord of the Rings" Enters Toy Fray - Reuters

by Patrick Markey

NEW YORK, Dec 9 (Reuters) - David Imhoff sounds pretty confident for a man battling hordes of furry blue monsters and a boy on a broomstick.

But then he has Frodo Baggins on his side.

New Line Cinema's worldwide licensing and marketing chief, Imhoff oversees the army of toys and products linked to New Line's The Lord of Rings, the feature film of J.R.R Tolkien's classic fantasy tale of wizards, elves and hobbits.

New Line Cinema, owned by AOL Time Warner, is banking on Tolkien's ageless appeal to capture consumer attention in a toy market dizzy with merchandise from the blockbusters Monsters Inc and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

"When you are working with a property that has this kind of longevity -- that has withstood the test of time -- that's something that Monsters, Inc. and Harry Potter don't have," Imhoff said.

The first part of New Line's trilogy, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is scheduled for release on Dec. 19, but shoppers are already showing keen interest in the movie merchandise, Imhoff said.

Though toy sales are often more recession-resistant, retailers are counting on such film goods to help bolster business as shoppers have been left wary by the recession, job cuts and September's attacks on the U.S.

Consumers have already been snapping up toys from the Harry Potter movie, the fantasy about preteen wizards that has broken box office records worldwide and raked in more $220 million in North America.

Guided by early feedback, analysts expect leading U.S. toy maker Mattel Inc. to benefit from long-term sales of its Harry Potter products, including the Roarin' Snorin' Norbert dragon toy.

Toy experts said with The Lord of the Rings film released so close to Christmas, its merchandise would probably not match the mass appeal of Harry Potter and Monster's, Inc. this holiday. Instead, it would fare better over a sustained time with older children and collectors much as toys from the Star Wars series had done.

"Is it going to be the barn burner that Harry Potter and Monsters, Inc. are? Probably not," said Chris Byrne, an independent toy analyst and editor of The Toy Report. "But it will become a classic."

Still, market watchers said Lord of the Rings could fit in well as consumers focus more this year on family-type entertainment and nostalgic items.

"Lord of the Rings at this point would be a fresh idea and it might be something more novel. Adults in the family might be equally intrigued by the story as well as the children," said Alethea Podmore, director of marketing with The Retail Group, a strategic brand and design firm for the retail industry.

New Line licensees are pushing a huge range of products - from life-like action figures to construction kits and handheld interactive games - they hope will capture the broad appeal of the books.

Toy Biz, owned by Marvel Enterprises, has New Line's master toy license and created a range of Middle Earth action characters from Gandalf to a Frodo on horseback. New Line hopes those toys will complement the collector items aimed at maturer audiences.

Imhoff said he could not provide sales expectations until after the Christmas season. But most of New Line's licensees have signed up for all three films.

"This is just the beginning and we have another two films that we expect to be even bigger," he said

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