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Space Jammin' on the Shelves : Even a Hit Movie Is No Guarantee of Success for a Board Game

November 21, 1996|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Marketing a successful board game that features "Space Jam" stars Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny would seem to be child's play.

Yet, even with an assist from Warner Bros.' heavily promoted movie, the new board game from Playmates Toys Inc.--its first venture into the $374-million board game niche--is far from a slam-dunk.

The Costa Mesa-based company faces cutthroat competition at every turn from market giants such as Parker Bros. and Milton Bradley. And the company will be hard-pressed to find space on store shelves in the midst of a shrinking toy store consolidation.

Despite the barriers, Playmates is optimistic that the board game will fly.

"Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny are a combination that people would kill for," said Playmates Vice President Timothy J. Wills. "Our strategy is to catch some of the heat from the movie to push up velocity on our sales."

Licensing deals like the "Space Jam" collaboration with Warner Bros. are the meat and potatoes of Playmates' business.

The subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Playmates Holdings Inc. stunned toy industry competitors during the early 1990s by selling 247 million "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" action figures. It holds the license to the next generation of "Star Trek" action figures and recently bought the rights to produce play figures for the Looney Tunes cartoon characters.

Like most toy companies, Playmates wants to expand its catalog to include other types of toys. And it's betting that "Space Jam's" merchandising juggernaut, which is spitting out everything from Michael Jordan cookie jars to "Space Jam" vitamins, will serve as its springboard into the board game niche.

But "Space Jam's" strong opening is no guarantee of success. There's always the risk that some other toy will grab kids' attention.

"Space Jam" opened Friday and managed to carve a place in box-office history during its premiere weekend. The film took in an estimated $29.25 million in receipts, making it the biggest non-summer opening ever for an animated film.

"We'll know in the next couple of weeks what's going to happen," Wills said. "In the end, all you can do is cross your fingers. We've spent all of our money, the plans are in place and it's up to Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan."

Electronic and computer games grab most of the headlines, but board games aren't ready to be buried alongside the Pet Rock. Board game sales rose to $374 million in 1995, up from $311 million a year earlier, according to the New York-based Toy Manufacturers Assn.

Board game sales typically rise during the holiday shopping season, fueled by adults with fond memories of afternoons spent playing games such as Monopoly and the Game of Life. They're also less expensive than electronic games.

"You're not spending $65 for a game and $200-plus for a video system," said Carol Steinkrauss, spokeswoman for Beverly, Mass.-based Parker Bros., the maker of Monopoly. "You can buy a good game for between $7.99 and $24.99."

And even though board games are, at heart, fun, they win praise from parents who are trying to develop social skills among their offspring--say, teaching a 10-year-old to win or lose gracefully.

"Parents won't always articulate it, but they inherently realize that board games teach their children how to take turns, formulate strategy and all that good stuff," said Mark Morris, public relations manager for Milton Bradley, the Pawtucket, R.I.-based board game manufacturer.

Manufacturers like board games because they generate a steady cash flow.

That's why El Segundo-based Mattel paid $90 million to end a bidding war with Rhode Island-based Hasbro for an English company with the overseas rights to the Scrabble board game. And in 1991, Hasbro added Parker Bros. to a board game empire that already included Milton Bradley.

During the upcoming holiday season, the two Hasbro subsidiaries will be marketing a combined total of 150 board games.

The onslaught of games, coupled with the scarcity of retail shelf space, makes it "tougher, much tougher" for newcomers like Playmates to succeed, said Neal Chukerman, whose Northbrook, Ill.-based company manufacturers board games.

Said Playmates' Wills: "When the giant toy companies are eating dinner, some crumbs are going to fall. And for a small company like us, that crumb can be a big meal."

While toy developers pump considerable time and money into developing board games, the process is astoundingly simple. Chukerman, whose factory is manufacturing "Space Jam," has boiled the process down to two steps: "It's got to be fun and it's got to be easy."

It isn't easy to pick good board games, though. Parker Bros. passed on Monopoly in the early 1930s, complaining that it had as many as 50 "internal flaws" that made it unplayable. When it became obvious that the game was going to be a classic, the company quickly reversed field.

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