Comic-Con's Grown-Up Nerds Give Mattel, Hasbro New Toy Pitches

Move over Green Lantern. The new stars of this week’s Comic-Con International comic-book festival may be Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake.

Like Hollywood studios, Mattel Inc. and Hasbro Inc. view the annual Comic-Con gathering in San Diego, the biggest U.S. comic-book and movie convention, as a pipeline to fans who can build buzz for new products. They’re pushing to put toys in films and on TV, and see the show as more than a nerd-fest.

“It’s turned from a fanboy event to a family event,” said Doug Wadleigh, vice president of boys action play marketing for Mattel, based in El Segundo, California. “Parents are bringing their kids.”

About 40 percent of this year’s attendees will be female, the organizers say. Mattel and Hasbro, the world’s largest toy companies, will sell limited-edition dolls and offer peeks at new products to an estimated 125,000 fans registered to attend starting today. Hasbro is bringing figures based on characters from “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers.” Mattel is producing “Masters of the Universe” and “Ghostbusters” toys.

Mattel is spotlighting girls toys at Comic-Con for the first time, Wadleigh said in an interview. Barbie has a booth and the company is selling a limited-edition Polly Pocket figure, he said. Mattel is also promoting Monster High, a toy line that targets girls.

Adult Collectors

Worldwide toy sales rose 3.6 percent to $80.3 billion last year, according to researcher NPD Group based in Port Washington, New York. Adult collectors spend more than $1 billion a year on film and comic-related products and even more on toys for their children, according to Jim Silver, editor-in- chief of TimetoPlayMag.com and Royalties$ magazine. Limited- edition toys are a popular draw.

“It gets your fans talking,” Silver said. “They talk a lot on the Web. If you do a really great collector’s item, it can enhance the overall value of that toy line.”

Hasbro, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is offering an exclusive Strawberry Shortcake doll and a My Little Pony figure.

Typically, 1,500 or so copies of exclusive toys are made and are sold only at Comic-Con, Silver said.

“Exclusives are really what bring people in,” Silver said.

Comic-Con also gives the toymakers an opportunity to showcase products at the same time studios are promoting movies that the toys inspired. Hasbro’s Transformers and G.I. Joe toys both have become the basis for big-budget movies produced by Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures.

Movie Tie-Ins

Sales of Transformers toys and merchandise rose to $590 million last year with the release of the second movie from $480 million in 2007, when the first film was released, John Frascotti, Hasbro’s global chief marketing officer, said in an interview.

In October, Hasbro will start a new cable television channel, The Hub, with Discovery Communications Inc. The programming will include shows based on Hasbro toys, including Transformers, G.I. Joe and Strawberry Shortcake, according to a May 17 statement from the companies.

Mattel is considering a movie based on the “Monster High” toy line, Wadleigh said. The company also is trying to develop a film based on the 1980s’ “Masters of the Universe” TV show. The idea, he said, is for consumers to spend more time with Mattel products.

“Adults like to engage in play, whether it’s games or action-figure collecting,” Wadleigh said. “This playful attitude in society is one we’re really focusing on as a company. I don’t know where it’s going to take us, but it is an exciting new direction.”

Old Comic-Con

The first Comic-Con in 1970 focused on comics and novels and had guests including author Ray Bradbury, according to the convention’s Web site. Things changed as Hollywood studios began basing more films on comic-book characters.

This year, Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. will host a presentation on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I,” based on the last book in the series by J.K. Rowling. The film is scheduled for release In November. Walt Disney Co. will show footage from “Tron: Legacy,” due in theaters in December.

Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake aren’t the only variations. Television networks are promoting shows that don’t fit with the usual Comic-con fare, such as comedies, along with horror series such as the vampire saga “True Blood” on Time Warner’s HBO.

News Corp.’s FX cable network will host a presentation about “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” a comedy starring Danny DeVito. General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal will screen footage of “Community,” a comedy series about students at a community college.

Some hard-core fans don’t like the shift away from science fiction, horror and fantasy. Most embrace it, said Jonah Weiland, owner of the web site Comic Book Resources.

“There is a smaller group, very vocal, who like the old days when Comic-Con was just a comic-book convention,” said Weiland, who has attended for the past 18 years. “But truth be told, Comic-Con was never just a comic convention.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Michael White in Los Angeles at mwhite8@bloomberg.net.

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