NewsWire: Now Playing at the Toy Box - The Record

Gandalf Lord of the Rings Action Figure.
by Joan Verdon
Staff Writer
The Record

Let the movie moguls worry about how their films are performing at the box office. Jordan Hembrough needs to know how the summer blockbusters are performing in the box -- the toy box.

Hembrough, a Westwood resident and owner of Hollywood Heroes, a company that brokers deals for vintage movie toys and memorabilia, and tracks down hard-to-find collectibles for celebrity customers, is one of the North Jersey collectors pondering:

"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" the movie has grossed $115 million so far, but is Lara Croft the 12-inch action figure, in mint condition in the original box, a good investment?

"Shrek," the DreamWorks hit, is on its way to making history as a top-grossing animated film, but does the talking Shrek doll have a future as a collectible?

The movies of 2001 -- from "Josie and the Pussycats," which bombed both at the box office and in the toy stores, to the much-anticipated fall releases of "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" -- have spawned a bumper crop of toy tie-ins, some already on the shelves, some still a gleam in collectors' eyes.

Most collectibles dealers interviewed agreed that "Lord of the Rings" will rule this year's collectibles market, but they also expect toys tied to "Planet of the Apes," "Jurassic Park III," "Shrek," and next year's "Spider-Man" to be hits with adult collectors.

Hembrough said "Lord of the Rings" toys are virtually guaranteed to be a hit with the mint-in-the-box collectors and the kids who rip the toys out of the boxes and play with them. Kids, he said, "will love the combination of monsters, villains, heroes, and cool-looking castles." And collectors have been craving "Rings" figures for years. "There's not a lot of 'Lord of the Rings' merchandise out there," Hembrough said. "Knickerbocker did a line in the 1980s that died out, and Gandalf [a wizard with a starring role in 'Rings'] and the Ringwraith figures from that line go for $400 or more."

He's predicting a toy hit for the Hasbro line of "Jurassic Park III" figures, because collectors are betting that this will be the end of an era for Jurassic movies. (The movie's producers and actors, in publicity for "Jurassic Park III," are leaving the door open for a part four, but dealers say collectors are buying as if this will be the dinosaur's last roar.)

Kids will clamor for the toys because "this line of toys does not disappoint," Hembrough said, with "real feel" skin and cool sound effects. He also believes Hasbro made a smart move by releasing its toys to stores a month before the film's Wednesday release date. "Not only does this build anticipation for the film, but it also enables the company to get an extra 30 days of shelf life out of the product line," he said.

When to release tie-in toys is a guessing game for movie makers and toy manufacturers. Wait until the movie opens and you risk seeing the toys left unsold if the movie bombs, or release them too far in advance and you risk overexposure that makes the movie's release less exciting.

Warner Bros., responding to the pent-up demand engendered by the wildly popular Harry Potter books, began releasing toys and collectibles more than a year before its movie will arrive in theaters. The market quickly became so saturated with tie-ins, much of which haven't sold particularly well, that Warner Bros. stopped granting new licenses for Potter products at the beginning of this year, 11 months before the movie will open.

Three to four weeks before the movie opens has become the prime time to get the toys to the stores, according to most toy and licensing experts. That's the timeline 20th Century Fox followed with "Planet of the Apes," as did Universal with "Jurassic Park III."

The first of three "Lord of the Rings" movies isn't scheduled to open until Dec. 19, but the first "Rings" toys are scheduled to arrive in stores in September, a move that could make 5-year-olds in the market for cool swords, shields, and other weapons more aware of hobbits and Middle Earth.

David Imhoff, executive vice president of New Line Cinema, which is producing the "Lord of the Rings" movies, said New Line first tested the depth of demand for merchandise with a limited release of products tied to the issue of special editions of the books. The merchandise, a "Frodo Lives" T-shirt, hat, and bookmark, sold out immediately and is now "virtually impossible to get," he said. "That was a real initial taste of what is to come."

New Line and its mass-market toy partner, Toy Biz, decided on a September release for the first toy store "Rings" merchandise because that's when the marketing campaign for the movie will begin to kick into high gear. New Line also has deals with Department 56, the company that produces light-up Christmas villages, to produce a "Hobbit hole" house and collectible boxes, as well as deals with Sideshow Inc. for collectible sculptures and United Cutlery for replica swords from the saga.

Collectors like the fact that New Line filmed the entire trilogy, and will release the second film in 2002 and the third in 2003, rather than leaving them up in the air.

Josh Vilensky, owner of the Plastic Dreams collectibles store in Bergenfield, said collectors are already planning that the end of the "Jurassic Park" series will raise prices for tie-ins from the first movie. "The original 'Jurassic Park' stuff is selling like crazy," he said, and he's seeing increased interest in the "Jurassic III" toys as a result. "I think that a lot of people are putting it away," and expecting that this will be the final installment.

Ken Laurence of K&S Promotions, which organizes collectibles shows of toy and movie memorabilia, said the remake of "Planet of the Apes" has generated so much interest among collectors that he and his partner have given their July show a "Planet of the Apes" theme and arranged for appearances by four stars of the original film and one actor from the new version. The show will be held July 27 and 28 at the Meadowlands Expo Center, the weekend the movie opens.

A movie's performance at the box office doesn't always predict how the toy tie-ins will catch on with collectors.

Michael Giansanti, who owns the Outer Limit collectibles store in Clifton, said toys tied to movie bombs sometimes end up being the most sought-after collectibles. "Take 'Nightmare Before Christmas,'" he said, referring to director Tim Burton's animated classic. "The movie didn't do well, the toys were pulled from the stores. Then the movie is released on video, it turns into a hit and a cult classic, and now everyone wants the toys."

Toys from the remake of "Godzilla," another box-office disappointment, are also becoming collectible, Giansanti said, even though most Godzilla collectors hated the movie.

"You can't really predict what's going to turn out to be big. It's the stuff that sneaks up on you," he said.

* * *

We asked some local toy gurus to pick the hits from this year's cast of movie toys. Here are their picks:

Jordan Hembrough,
Hollywood Heroes

"Lord of the Rings": "With two sequels planned, the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy will have kids, as well as their parents, scouring the toy aisles for years to come."

"Spider-Man": "Just about the most anticipated movie of next summer -- the toys should please even the most discriminating collector."

"Shrek": "With 'Shrek 2' already in pre-production, look for these toys to become collectibles, much the way the original 'Toy Story' line did."

He also thinks a star of the small screen, the "Crocodile Hunter" television show, could have better sales and more long-term collectibility than the big-screen toys.

Josh Vilensky,
Plastic Dreams

"Planet of the Apes": "It seems all the Tim Burton projects turn into hot collectibles."

"Jurassic Park III": "The original stuff is selling like crazy."

"Lord of the Rings": "The older lines have been really hot. Collectors are really on the bandwagon for this."

Michael Giansanti,
Outer Limits

"Lord of the Rings": "Their marketing strategy is very good. There's no three-, four-year gap between movies. The statues by Sideshow look very good."

"Planet of the Apes": "The old items are still popular and command some good prices."

"Final Fantasy": "The trailer looks incredible. It seems like they don't need actors anymore."

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