Sunday, February 26, 2012

The two faces of Mike at the 2012 Toy Fair.

For the better par of ten years, I've been covering Toy Fair in new York for the newspapers I edit. Western Massachusetts has a number of jobs and connections to the toy industry.

The following is what I wrote for the 'paper. Stay with me there's more.

NEW YORK CITY — From games played with a handful of dice to toys that require the use of an iPhone or iPod, the 109th American International Toy Fair showed once again the wide diversity of play.

An estimated 34,000 visitors from around the world converged on the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center, as well as showrooms around the city, to see new offerings from manufacturers and to place orders. The Toy Industry Association, the sponsors of the trade show, reported the toy industry is an $83 billion global business.

Three companies represented Western Massachusetts at the event this year: Hasbro, whose games division is located in East Longmeadow, Janlynn from Chicopee and The Haywire Group of Springfield.


Hasbro is continuing its program of developing its properties into multi-platform entertainment vehicles with its toys being the center of major motion pictures and shows on its cable television channel The Hub.

This summer will be marked with the release of a movie loosely based on the venerable game Battleship, according to publicist Donetta Allen. The film will be accompanied by several new versions of the board game as well as a card game and several of the company's Kree-O building sets.

Battleship will also be among the Hasbro games that get "zAPPed" — the company's phrase indicating a game that uses an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch as an essential part of the play. Besides Battleship, there are new versions of The Game of Life and Monopoly that require the use of the devices. Players download free software that interacts with the actions on a traditional game board.

The use of an iPhone or iPod Touch is also essential to the new Lazar Tag set. Players use their device as the heart of the game utilizing free software.

The company will be rebranding all of its word games under the Scrabble game and will be introducing Scrabble Race, a new faster-paced version of the game played without the traditional board.

Hasbro updates many of its traditional favorites every year. There are new versions of My Little Pony and The Littlest Pet Shop and Twister. Twister Dance is aimed at tween girls who follow dance steps shown by a console. The game features a special remix of the Britney Spears hit "Till The World Ends."

The company is continuing its licenses with Disney and Marvel, with significant tie-ins with the new Spiderman movie as well as the new Avengers film.

G.I. Joe is also the subject of a new film, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," which will star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Bruce Willis. A line of new toys will accompany the release of that film.

"Star Wars" also continues to be a huge part of the Hasbro line-up and this year among the new items is Star Wars Fighter Pods, more than 100 miniature figurines for fans to collect.


The Chicopee-based company made its mark in the craft industry with its line of needlecraft kits, but at last year's Toy Fair what took off was a line of charms for tween girls.

Thomas Lonergan, executive vice president of the company, explained the success of the new line was a pleasant surprise and this year the company doubled the space for Charmtastic.

He said the market for tween girls is still an important one and the line's affordable price — a bracelet is $5 and charms are $2.99 — make it an affordable item in this time of continuing economic challenge.

Lonergan said the company is moving away from licensing — it had many Disney items for years — and is building their own brand. Many of the craft kits for children are selling well without a tie-in to a Disney movie or character, he added.

"Stitchery is coming back this year," Lonergan said. Although the company never had abandoned its core business, he noted Janlynn would have a full eight-foot shelf section of its needlecraft crafts kits and accessories in about half of the nation's Walmarts starting in the middle of April.

He said the company undertook a considerable research effort to show to Walmart the reasons to carry the products.

"We're pretty excited," he said.

Much of the needlecraft kits are made in Chicopee and the sale to Walmart has allowed Janlynn to hire back several people to its staff.

The Haywire Group

Based in the Indian Orchard Mills, the Haywire Group has been creating games since 2005, Davis Blanchard, director of sales of marketing for the company, explained.

The small company has received some big attention as its Flickin' Chicken game was a nominee at last year's Toy Fair for Toy of the Year. Flickin' Chicken is a game that can be played inside or outside. The goal is to throw a rubber chicken at a target placed on the floor or the ground. Blanchard said players can score the game like golf, keeping track as of many attempts it takes to get the chicken to land on the bull's eye.

This year, the company introduced seven new game titles at Toy Fair and as technologically laden the new Hasbro games might be, the Haywire games are simple in design. They also cost less — they retail for less than $20 — and Blanchard noted sales are up 15 percent this year over last year.

Among the new games is Chupacabra: Survive the Night, a dice game based on the legendary and mysterious beast that attacks farm animals. The players can charge the dice in light to make them glow in the dark. Depending what dice a player rolls, the goal of the game is to be the last farm animal standing.

Robbin Eggs is a memory and math game that Blanchard noted was tested in a school in Wilbraham. A set of robin blue eggs all have numerical values on the bottom. A player rolls the dice to determine a number, while also drawing a playing card that determines the number of eggs he or she can turn over to match that number.

Addition and subtraction skills are necessary for the game that is aimed age children starting at age 7.

Local connections

Toys based on the works of two prominent authors and artists also represented Western Massachusetts. Wonder Forge featured a group of Dr. Seuss games and puzzles, while Zoobies was selling several plush toys based on Eric Carle's book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." One of the toys was a "Book Buddy." The plush toy opened up to reveal a book inside.

The Pioneer Valley was known for years by comic book fans as the home of Mirage Studios, the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). In 2009, Peter Laird, co-creator of the wildly successful comic book, television and movie characters, sold the rights to the TMNT to Nickelodeon for a reported $60 million.

This year, Playmates Toys, the company that had created the original TMNT action figures, was displaying its new line of toys with the design reflecting how the Turtles will look in the new animated series that is currently in production for Nickelodeon.

Sarah Hoffman, a spokesperson for the company, explained the new animated series will debut in September and a new film is planned for release either in 2013 or 2014 with Michael Bay, director of the three Transformers movies, slated to produce it.

She said the original designs of the TMNT had the turtles too much alike and the new designs provide additional details to make each of the turtles stand out. Besides the standard action figures there will be deluxe versions complete with sounds and phrases spoken by the voice actors from the new cartoons.

Cool stuff

One of the true joys covering Toy Fair is finding items that are surprising, cool or perplexing.

Locker Lookz may be cool to some or perplexing to others. The company makes accessories that girls can add to their school lockers everything from patterned wallpapers, mirrors and a chandelier.

The QBA Maze 2.0 is the most different building set I've ever seen. Martin Smith from the company Mindware explained that people can build mazes that allow a steel ball bearing to drop step by step from the top of the structure to the bottom.

Ed O'Brien, the owner of Brand 44, has a mission to get kids and adults up from the couch and outside. He reported a "fabulous" response at Toy Fair for his Slackline product. The two heavy nylon lines — one for the hands and one for the feet — are installed between trees in a person's back yard. Then people can learn practice this form of tightrope walking.

O'Brien also was selling a kit that creates a 75 foot long zipline.

Finally, even though I'm writer, I've never liked word games. At this year's Toy Fair I did see a word game I wouldn't mind trying.

You've Been Sentenced is a card game in which a player receives a hand of cards that all have various words on them. The goal is to create a sentence using as many of the words as you can and your fellow players must vote that the sentence actually makes sense.

It's not unlike writing under deadline.


Okay, naturally while I'm walking around as a reporter I'm also walking around as a fanboy. I'm also curious to see what movies, television shows and the pop culture properties are begin transformed into toys.

The interesting thing to note is that years ago, licensing was huge in the toy industry. Manufacturers wanted to have a toy that tied into a hit movie or television show. That really isn't the case today.

More and more manufacturers are reluctant to roll the dice that a film or television show is going to inspire the kind of success that translates into the purchase of merchandise. That's easy to see walking around Toy Fair over the past five years.

Not even Disney properties are sure things as the additional cost of a license – one person told me it adds thousands of dollars to the production process – can eat up part of the profit margin on an item that could sell almost as well without a Disney character adorning it.

So this year I noticed that nearly all of the licensed material was placed in one area. Diamond Distribution, Necco, Funco, Underground and McFarlane were all in the same area with toys that were clearly aimed at fans.

It was like a fanboy ghetto.

McFarlane featured a bunch of "Walking Dead" items, Funco had a new selection of bobble heads, including ones from "The Big Bang Theory" and Underground featured "Dr. Who" and "Star Wars" stuffed toys.

There was a smattering of Betty Boop items, but I saw no Popeye toys and no Warner Brothers items. Perhaps I missed them. Despite a big movie splash, non Tin-Tin toys and Hasbro seems to have the lock on the new Spiderman and Avengers movies.

I really expected to see more "Big Bang" items. The show is a big hit and from t-shirts to recordings of choice Sheldon-isms, the possibilities of "Big Bang" tie-ins I would think are pretty big.

It would seem that many people have decided the market for such merchandise is a relatively small one and is aimed at collectors who are seeking the next anal retentive item. Diamond had a bumper crop of such oddities. One of the hallmarks of Bill Gaines, the publisher of MAD was that he could't abide with merchandising. Of course, Gaines has been dead for years and MAD now carries advertising, something else Gaines wouldn't allow.

At the Diamond area, there were truly bizarre items such as Alfred E. Neuman figures dressed as superheroes, a huge Spy vs. Spy figurine set – which I would love but could never afford – and an intricate set featuring Boris Karloff from "Abbott and Costello meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Really, who the hell is going to buy that? Only the most dedicated Karloff collector would consider such as thing. The "Mad Monster Party" items were also displaying had more sales potential, I think.

I just thought it was an interesting disconnect: while mainstream pop culture is thought by many as being more welcoming for the kind of fanboy interests that were practically underground while I was a kid, there was little evidence of that here at this year's Toy Fair.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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