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Licensing Plays a Growing, Risky Role in Toy Business

February 17, 1985|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

Licensing agents argue that products featuring a broadly licensed character will reinforce sales of one another; some go so far as to argue that canny licensing can be a substitute for costlier advertising campaigns. But toy makers tend to feel that it's their products that will determine any character's success.

"There must be a toy line that the kids like," says Beverly Cannady, director of licensing for Mattel. She adds that a bigger manufacturer is better, too. "You bring a character to a nightgown maker, and the first thing he'll ask is who's the toy manufacturer."

Still, some toy makers think all that exposure comes at too much cost. "Licenses have been so important to the industry in the last few years that the prices have gone through the moon," says Robert Galoob, chief operating officer of Galoob Toys in South San Francisco. Furthermore, he complains, "you sign a license based on looking at a script, without knowing if they'll even produce the show. Or you sign a license before they shoot the film."

Forecasting Is Difficult

Toy makers and retailers agree that forecasting the hot property of any season is about as easy as predicting next week's weather. Among the unexpected bombs of 1984: the Michael Jackson doll. Toy popularity is also parabolic, often hitting a peak in sales swiftly before sharply falling off. Dayton-Hudson's Starkey admits to some uneasiness about Mattel's top-selling Masters of the Universe line of burly fantasy dolls for boys: "It's the third year for Masters and there's not a hell of a lot in this industry that lasts for three years." ("We expect Masters of the Universe to be around for a long time," responds a Mattel executive.)

And toys keyed to a specific television show tend to fall off particularly quickly, even if the show remains a hit. Witness the widely franchised A-Team toys, musty and timeworn after 18 months even as the television show remains at the top of the Nielsen charts.

For that reason and others, Galoob says, his company is trying to move away from Hollywood-generated characters and toward what he calls "proprietary lines"--characters the company helps create and for which it can sell, rather than buy, licenses.

Yet for all the perennial complaining about Hollywood's dearth of creativity, the toy makers seem to have fallen into the same gulch. Drawing from the same studies indicating that little girls tended to play with their brothers' Masters of the Universe fantasy toys, Galoob contrived its counterpart to Mattel's She-Ra: Golden Girl, a similarly blond-tressed empress with a unicorn and castle (sold separately). Asked why his super-heroine and Mattel's are so nearly identical as to resemble imperial twin sisters, he shrugged and remarked:

A Matter of Marketing

"These are archetypal play situations. Fantasy figures have horses--very often unicorns--and chariots and castles. There's really nothing new under the sun; it's just a matter of marketing."

Whatever the origin of the character, that marketing still depends heavily on Hollywood. Where sorcerers and demigod heroes once needed only their super powers to prevail, Mattel now promotes She-Ra in trade advertising as "the most powerful woman in the universe, backed by a 65-episode TV series."

On behalf of his Golden Girl, Galoob says that "we feel we can make it a success with our own promotion." Still, CBS Inc., to which Galoob has licensed the Golden Girl character, is developing an animated Saturday morning TV show around her, just in case.

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