Chris Jones on the future of movie tie-in merchandise

Movie and TV tie-in merchandise is big business at present. No one knows this better than Chris Jones, marketing manager at Vivid Imaginations. In recent years he has helped to launch Spider-man, X-Men, Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons toys and collectors figures into the UK market. But can the growth of this sector be sustained? Darren Rea finds out...

Darren Rea: How has the toy sector changed in recent years? And what sort of impact have games consoles had on the market?

Chris Jones: Games consoles certainly have had an impact, but it is something that the industry has lived with for 20+ years since the first Gameboy's came out. So the emergence of the games console is not a new challenge for the industry. But, what is tending to happen is that the games consoles are getting increasingly sophisticated. The games are becoming more involving and younger children are becoming more receptive to technology that their play patterns have evolved to the point where they will sit in front of the TV with a game controller in their hand as part of their play pattern. So it has had a big affect on the industry, but there is still a massive traditional market as well.

DR: Everyone always points out that it was Star Wars that kick-started the character merchandising industry. How have things progressed since then? Looking back it's obvious that more time is spent on creating figures that actually look like the characters.

CJ: A lot of the reason that they do actually look a lot more like the characters from the movie now is down to Toy Biz, which is owned by Marvel. They have a special laser scan technology which they take onto the film sets that allows them to scan the actors faces and everything that they wear. These scans are then used as the starting point in their sculpting process. The greatest example of that is in the Lord of The Rings figures.

These are more expensive than the traditional action figures, but the attention to detail is phenomenal. This was something that New Line were very insistent on and why they gave the rights of the toy line to Marvel and Toy Biz specifically.

DR: It seems to be science fiction based movies and shows that produce the main toy lines. Why don't we see toys based on Eastenders?

CJ: I think that there is a certain romance about movies and the stars are the American Royal Family. They don't have their king and queen, they have their movie starts who are put on a pedestal and respected. And they become World famous because of their glamour, their money and the high life that they lead. I think that this makes these characters quite aspirational. Also the stories behind the movies tend to be really strong. Whereas if you look at soap operas - sure they get massive audiences and huge repeat audiences but there is no real play pattern to them. I think kids watch these movies, are exposed to the storyline and can then go back and play with toys and the playsets and recreate things that they've seen in the movies.

DR: There are certainly now more toys aimed at adult collectors. Has the consumer base changed much?

CJ: It has, yes. It's interesting in that primarily a lot of these toys are aimed at children, but there is an increasing collector base out there.

While the toy companies have always been aware of the collector base, they are starting to customise products for them.

If you look at Lord of the Rings, again, they have expanded and are now looking at characters that they know will be really popular amongst the collectors. If you look at characters like Treebeard [pictured right] and the Cave Troll from the Lord of the Rings movies they are great toys, but the investment that goes into developing and tooling them is huge and I doubt it would be financially justifiable to produce some of these characters if the collectors weren't there.

DR: Because actors can now ask for more money in their movie contracts for their toy likenesses has this posed any problems?

CJ: I know that in the US, and I think this has happened with Lord of the Rings, is that the actor gets to sign off on their own likeness. Knowing that the artist has approved their likeness helps to maintain the integrity of the brand.

DR: Do you think the market has much scope for expansion?

CJ: I think it's in a mature stage at the moment where you've got companies, like Marvel, that will continue to produce good figures for good movies. I think that as long as there are a string of good, character based movies in production, there will always be toy lines to support them.

DR: Is there a problem with product being produced before the movie is released? If the movie is a disaster then you have tons of useless merchandise that you can't shift.

CJ: Yes, but I think that the toy companies have to take responsibility there and just be careful. It comes down to a difficult balance between shipping enough to have product at retail so that it doesn't blow out on the day the movie opens, but also not over committing yourself so that if a movie is a flop you are not stuck with loads of product on shelf.

DR: For you personally, which has been the best range to deal with? Which of the toys do you prefer?

CJ: That's a tough question. I think of the stuff coming through this year we have an item that is a toy, rather than a collector's item called Hulk Hands. This will tie-in with the new Hulk movie. These are huge foam hands that have motion sensors in them and when you bash them together you get crashing, roaring and banging sounds.

This is more based around role play, so the kids can become the Hulk. It's just a good, simple toy using modern technology. If the movie does well, and all the signs look good that it will, then this could be one of the hottest toys.

DR: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Emma Jowitt at Norton & Company

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