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The $20 0 -Million Man : Marshal BraveStarr Isn't Just a Plaything, But a Marketing Mega-Concept. : A Look at the Serious Business of Toy Merchandising.

December 21, 1986|DIANE WAGNER | Diane Wagner is a Los Angeles-based writer and the author of "Corpus Delicti" (St. Martin's/Marek).

If Marshal BraveStarr were a real man, he'd stand 6 foot 4. But even at just eight inches of quality-molded plastic, the Space Age sheriff towers over the rest of toyland. More than $15 million worth of BraveStarr figures and accessories were shipped to stores last month, and next year, the mega-concept cowboy will star in an animated feature film and a weekday television series and will be seen on almost 50 licensed products ranging from bed linens to lunch boxes.

All of this exposure is expected to earn $200 million or more within two years for Filmation, the Woodland Hills animation studio that created BraveStarr. And Mattel, the Southern California toy giant, is hoping that BraveStarr and his infrared Neutra-laser gun can blast away the competition and emulate--or maybe even surpass--the success of Mattel's own legendary Barbie doll, which revolutionized the toy business 38 years ago.

In one sense, BraveStarr is just another gee-whiz update of the cowboy as all-American hero. He's Clint Eastwood meets Gene Autry, armed with a high-tech six-shooter. But BraveStarr also represents the state of the art in a fiercely competitive, $13-billion-a-year industry that is all about--but nothing like--child's play. With his thematic tie-in, and in his concept, design, development and marketing, BraveStarr is typical of the new toyland pack.

"The world we live in is different today," says Lou Scheimer, president and chief executive officer of Filmation, a subsidiary of Group W Productions and the country's largest animation studio. "Kids have computers, not just radios. Children don't play cowboys and Indians anymore--they play cowboys and aliens."

No longer are toys pure and simple playthings--pieces of wood, tin or cloth created lovingly by hand. They are products of painstaking research, sophisticated strategy and aggressive marketing, from the start designed as "mega-concepts," with television, film and licensing rights going to the highest bidder. Development costs for just one toy can run into millions of dollars, making television exposure all the more crucial to success.

The return on ancillary rights can be sweet: The film "Star Wars" has generated more than $750 million in toy sales, and the Muppets have more than 500 licensed products to their credit, some of them sold in a New York boutique called Muppet Stuff. Filmation knows a mega-trend when it sees one: Its animated version of "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," based on a Mattel toy, is currently among the top-rated children's shows. Filmation, this time backed by Mattel (which has promised to buy half of the show's commercial time), is hoping for a mega-hit.

BRAVESTARR MAY BE THE QUINTESSENTIAL American hero, but he owes his existence to Tex Hex, a gaunt, ghostly outlaw who is his chief adversary. Tex Hex was created by Filmation's staff artists in the summer of 1984, during the development of characters for another television series, an animated version of "The Ghostbusters." Scheimer, intrigued by this lean, wild-eyed wraith, pulled Tex Hex from the cast and asked Arthur Nadel, the firm's vice president for creative affairs, and art director John Grusd to develop the character further.

What appealed to Scheimer in the villainous Tex Hex, and in his virtuous counterpart, BraveStarr, who was conceived soon afterward, was the memory of a thousand classic battles between good and evil fought on countless Saturday afternoons by such matinee cowboys as Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix and Gene Autry. By late summer, an informal team of about 15 staff artists and writers was at work on the idea of a futuristic Western to be built around Tex Hex.

The "Star Wars"-era story line was a key means of attracting an audience of children who probably have never heard of Roy Rogers and Trigger. In the tradition of the wonderfully strange worlds created by such science-fiction writers as Frank Herbert and Andre Norton, BraveStarr's home-on-the-interstellar-range became New Cheyenne, a harsh, arid planet with three moons and a midnight-blue and dawn-pink sky. In contrast to many previous Filmation series, however, including "Superman," "The Lone Ranger" and "Star Trek," all of which had been based on live-action shows, the creative staffs had nothing more to work with than an idea based on that original sketch of a long-whiskered, sneering bandit.

"We write and draw at the same time," says Scheimer, a tall, trim man with deep-set eyes, who studied classical painting at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. "Most of the time, the drawings have more meaning--ideas seem to spring out of drawing."

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