Despite a push toward original IP development, licensing is on the rise.
As toymakers continue pushing toward the in-house development of original properties that can become evergreen staples with big profit potential, it’s impossible to ignore that we are living in a licensed world.
The Toy Association dubbed it “Explosive Entertainment” when revealing this year’s top toy trends, noting that licensed properties represent around 30 percent of all toys sold in the U.S. Traditionally, properties from film and television have been the drivers, but we’ve turned the corner, and the road ahead is dotted with top licenses from every facet and fandom. We’ve identified six key trend categories to watch.
It’s a massive movie year, and that means equally massive consumer products launches at retail. While the prospect of creating tie-in products for the latest blockbuster is tantalizing, it’s also an area where caution and restraint are best suited.
“Franchise fatigue” is an oft-touted buzz phrase that’s generally been proven false or irrelevant in terms of the box office. Marvel Studios is the shining example as it prepares to open the 22nd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with the release of Avengers: Endgame this month. While audiences will gladly line up for a quality film, there’s a real concern for overkill at retail, especially with accelerated release schedules that create shorter windows to move product.
The same applies to the overlap between competing projects that are vying for eyeballs and wallets, not just at the box office, but in the toy department as well.
The LEGO Movie 2, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, and Captain Marvel have already made an impact at retail. Shazam!, UglyDolls, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Toy Story 4, Aladdin, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Lion King, Dora the Explorer, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Spies in Disguise, The Addams Family, Sonic The Hedgehog, Frozen 2, Playmobil: The Movie, and Star Wars: Episode IX are just some of the other movies impacting the licensing front.
One early disappointment was Paramount’s Wonder Park — a cautionary reminder that a $100 million budget and an A-list cast do not equal guaranteed success. The production was accompanied by a toy line from Funrise with endcap placement at Walmart. It opened to just $16 million at the box office, which was slightly more than expected. Still, there’s potential for Nickelodeon’s forthcoming animated series to turn Wonder Park into a winner down the line.
THE STREAMING GENERATION
The lines have been crossed, and it’s not just about YouTube anymore. Streaming is all about reaching an audience on every screen possible. That means traditional television; VOD; over-the-top (OTT) services such as Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV; and yes, YouTube, where new licensing opportunities continue to be born.
Ryan, the child star from YouTube channel Ryan ToysReview, is impossible to avoid. The accomplishments of his family and the team at pocket.watch are numerous, including dozens of licensing partners and a new series coming to Nickelodeon — but he’s far from alone.
The Toy Book broke the news that Blip Toys partnered with YouTube family Tic Tac Toy for a whimsical line of collectibles, plush, and more. With a channel boasting more than 2.6 million subscribers, the family’s videos have more than 1.3 billion views on YouTube. The line will hit retail on Aug. 1.
With other successes from the likes of Craft City by Karina Garcia and Guava Toys by Roi “Guava Juice” Fabito, and the cross-platform appeal of JoJo Siwa, potential licensees are searching for new partnerships to harvest from the digital fields.
From the traditional TV side, properties such as PJ Masks and Peppa Pig continue to perform, but even they have competition from digital-first brands. Little Tikes, which traditionally stays away from inbound licensing deals, recently signed on to produce toys based on the YouTube hit Little Baby Bum. And who can forget Pinkfong’s Baby Shark?
THE ESPORTS STARS & GAMING GODS
Last month, Electronic Arts unveiled plans to build its own esports video production and broadcast studio, complete with two sets — one competitive, one casual. Blizzard has its own arena and will soon take Overwatch League on the road.
The appetite for professional gaming from an audience standpoint is growing, with star gamers building personal brands by forging connections with a highly engaged following.
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins currently leads the pack as the top Twitch streamer, racking up consistently record-breaking views while playing Epic Games’ Fortnite. Wicked Cool Toys went all in with Ninja, locking the streamer for plush, app-enhanced figures and more — pretty much everything except for blasters. ZURU stepped in for the latter, launching a Ninja-branded X-Shot line.
There are Overwatch action figures and NERF blasters from Hasbro, while Fortnite is on everything, with licensees including NERF, Jazwares, Moose Toys, and McFarlane Toys.
Evergreen characters and properties, including Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, and Tetris, continue to do big business alongside new-school counterparts.
THE PLAYERS (AND MASCOTS)
Traditional sports licensing has been stale in recent years, but this year shows freshness, starting with Major League Baseball (MLB). SuperSports by Super7 is the most notable line to spawn from new MLB licensing deals, and the fun is going beyond the players.
Mascots are on fire, and they’re popping up everywhere. Super7 has action figures and Super-Buckets, while Funko is releasing mascots in its signature Pop! Vinyl format. And it’s not just mascots from MLB getting in on the action. Uncanny Brands has plush figures of team mascots from across the NBA and NHL appearing in its Bleacher Creatures collection, including the hottest mascot right now: The Philadelphia Flyers’ Gritty.
Motorsports are also hot, with a NASCAR line on the way from Far Out Toys and vinyl figures of famous drivers coming from Funko. Feld Entertainment Inc. just kicked off a 10-year partnership with Spin Master for an all-new range of Monster Jam toys, while Bigfoot — the original monster truck manufacturer — returns to toy aisles thanks to deals with Mattel, Greenlight Collectibles, and New Bright.
Warner Bros. Consumer Products’ global rollout for Batman’s 80th anniversary and continued expansion for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter are two prime examples of legacy brands poised to do big business across hundreds of licensees.
Comic book heroes and retro interests are hitting the right notes for kids and adults alike. Basic Fun!, which already has a range of retro products from Fisher-Price to Lite Brite, will relaunch Texas Instruments’ Speak ‘n Spell. Meanwhile, Super Impulse continues to bring more licenses into its line of World’s Smallest and World’s Coolest collectibles. These days, classic brands are popping up everywhere we look.
MGA Entertainment’s L.O.L. Surprise! took home “License of the Year” at this year’s Toy of the Year Awards. The category, which recognizes properties that have spread themselves across toys, entertainment, and consumer products, featured seven nominees — only three of which began purely as toys. Alongside L.O.L., Spin Master’s Hatchimals and Mattel’s Hot Wheels completed the top three. The other nominees were all existing entertainment brands.
Those three original properties are the benchmark that everyone is shooting for: toy lines that become the center of their own world and fandom, attracting other companies eager to get a piece of the action. On its own, L.O.L. has more than 270 licensing partners. Hasbro even partnered with MGA for a Monopoly game featuring the popular dolls.
Hot Wheels, now in its 51st year, has become a lifestyle brand, extending beyond die-cast cars and into real-life automotive products and car care goods. Hatchimals, which has slowed in the past year, still boasts more than 30 licensees, though Spin Master continues to do well with its refreshed Paw Patrol offerings and the new Abby Hatcher.
Funko put it best when it adopted “everyone is a fan of something” as its mantra. There’s a lot of opportunity to reach kids and adults of every age and interest, and with the amount of quality licenses out there, this should prove to be one of the most competitive years in ages.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of the Toy Book