Joe Lawandus, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Global Toys & Hardlines, Universal Products & Experiences, discusses the intersection of toys, entertainment, licensing, and more in this extended edition of The Toy Book’s 2023 State of the Industry Q&A roundtable. Want more insight from the all-stars of the toy industry? Click here to explore this year’s lineup!

The Toy Book: Universal combined the forces of its Parks’ consumer products and global consumer products divisions last fall. How is the unified Universal Products & Experiences (UP&E) division working to better serve licensees, retailers, and consumers?

Joe Lawandus: This new UP&E division unites the theme parks’ merchandise group with global consumer products into one powerhouse division. We are creating a center of product excellence to holistically service our fans both inside and outside of the Parks in a much deeper, more coordinated way.

External partners that once worked independently with both arms of Universal will see streamlined changes under the new creative center. One where we’ll be able to combine all the different elements of physical products, gaming, digital products, and park experiences to amplify fan touch points.

ToyMonster International’s Jurassic Park 20th Anniversary CAPTIVZ on display at The Play Date in New York City, March 8, 2023. | Source: James Zahn/The Toy Book

TB: Last year saw some milestones celebrated with consumer products programs for E.T. and Knight Rider rolling out, alongside continued success for newer and evergreen IP, including Gabby’s Dollhouse, Minions, and Jurassic World. What are some big brands and major initiatives that retailers should be excited about this year?

JL: It’s incredible that in 2023, Universal will celebrate 30 years of Jurassic Park. In partnership with our studio partners, we’ve all worked hard to keep the franchise relevant now delivering content to our fans in theaters; on multiple broadcast, streaming, and gaming platforms; in our parks; and, of course, on YouTube. It’s been a huge investment across NBCUniversal, and it’s no accident that in 2022, Jurassic World was the No. 1 action figure property and the No. 2 entertainment property in the toy category. The strength of the franchise is one that just won’t quit, and we have a wide array of anniversary products coming from Mattel and LEGO, and a new, kid-targeted “Dino Trackers” theme in 2023. 

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We also have some other franchises celebrating anniversaries this year including Fast & Furious, which will see its 10th installment, Fast X, coming in spring 2023. In celebration of all 10 films, we are really excited about our biggest Fast vehicles line ever coming from Jada Toys and Mattel’s Hot Wheels.

Spin Master’s latest Gabby’s Dollhouse toys on display at The Play Date in New York City, March 8, 2023. | Source: The Toy Book

And of course, I can’t talk about our major toy initiatives without expressing how thrilled we are with the success of DreamWorks Animation’s Gabby’s Dollhouse. In just two years, Gabby’s Dollhouse has become the No. 4 preschool toy brand in the U.S., and Spin Master’s Gabby’s Purrfect Dollhouse was the No. 1 preschool playset in the U.S. last year. In 2023, we will launch a new “adventure” theme with all new ways to play, while expanding the brand into new categories and new international territories as the show rolls out on free-to-air broadcast.

And if that’s not enough toy goodness, we have two additional blockbusters on deck this year. Q2 brings the new Super Mario Bros. Movie from Nintendo and Illumination. We’re working with master toy partner JAKKS Pacific to launch a line of toys and collectibles that will bring the big-screen story to life for fans of all ages.

And finally, DreamWorks Animation gives us Trolls 3 in Q4 with new core partners Mattel and Moose Toys. We’re excited about the combination of these partners and the fresh new product inspired by the film.

Source: JAKKS Pacific

TB: Following a mixed year at the box office, the business of licensed toys has seen some disruption across the board. How has Universal’s presence in the toy department been affected by changing consumer habits?

JL: 2022 was a great year for Universal Pictures with Jurassic World Dominion and Minions: The Rise of Gru dominating the global box office. And fans coming out to see these films helped drive record toy sales for UP&E last year. 

Looking ahead to 2023, we expect fan experiences to grow in importance so we will begin leaning into new brand-building initiatives and product launches at our theme parks.

Universal’s UNIVRS store at Citywalk, Hollywood | Source: Universal

Also, the growing kidult toy trend shows no signs of stopping. Fanship and nostalgia continue to play a big role in the toys and collectibles space, which is where our vault IP really shines. Following the 2022 launch of our UNIVRS pop culture store at Universal CityWalk Hollywood, we’re going to begin investing in all new ways to showcase iconic NBCUniversal characters and moments, directly connecting with generations of our fans.

TB: What are your overall predictions for the state of the toy industry and toy retail in 2023?

JL: 2022 saw consumers returning to pre-pandemic behavior, waiting to purchase toys until very late in the year, often with an intent to get the best price. Couple this with a year of some of the heaviest retail discounts we’ve seen in a long time, and I think there needs to be a wake-up call for the big toy companies. Most of them have taken significant price increases over the last 48 months that have, in part, been passed off to consumers. I think toy consumers across the globe still hold value as an important part of their purchase decision, key price points are still relevant, and the major players are at risk of pricing themselves out of the market. Particularly on kid-targeted toys, we see small to mid-size toy companies often having a stronger value proposition than some of the major players. This trend has us thoughtfully considering the incremental consumer value associated with smaller and or regional license partners to augment our portfolio.

And with much of our industry growth now coming from kidult sales, I think the nimble toy companies and retailers that aren’t afraid to place some inventory bets will win in this space. We’ve seen material CP growth around our seasonal events like Halloween Horror Nights and from “modern horror” theatrical releases via Universal, Blumhouse, and MonkeyPaw. Looking holistically at our horror portfolio as a year-round proposition is likely our next big franchise opportunity. Giving fans what they want, when they want it, is core to the pop culture business. Flexible inventory management and retail real estate will be critical for companies that want to really maximize their kidult potential.

A version of this Q&A was originally published in the 2023 edition of The BIG Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue! Want to receive The Toy Book in print? Click here for subscription options!