Nearly every holiday shopping season has a must-have toy that parents scramble to get under the Christmas tree — a Tickle-Me Elmo, Furby, or Zhu Zhu Pet that sends them on a desperate cross-county mall expedition or a last-minute eBay hunt.
While Elsa is expected to reign supreme at the cash register, toy sellers and analysts say that many other must-have toys this year also will have tie-ins to some of the year’s biggest movies, including blockbusters such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “The Lego Movie” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
As the lines blur between screen time and playtime, toy makers and media companies are finding that there’s lucrative business in building a beloved character that kids can enjoy everywhere: on tablet apps, DVDs and as a life-like toy.
“It really just shows that what kids watch, they inevitably want to interact with,” said Matthew Hudak, a toy industry analyst for Euromonitor International.
Stores such as Toys R Us and Wal-Mart are hoping that these movie-themed toys will help them deliver strong holiday sales in a retail environment that economists and retailers say is likely to be characterized by deep discounts and fierce price competition.
Richard Barry, the chief merchandising officer at Toys R Us, said that the anticipated popularity of movie-inspired toys is in part based on the popularity of this year’s slate of kid-focused films. But, he said, toy manufacturers also have become more innovative and made their toys more life-like.
“That is the secret here, the fact that you can bring to life in a very clear way the essence of the characters that are in the movie,” Barry said. “That’s what makes this a much more impactful part of our business this year.”
Take Disney’s Infinity Marvel Super Heroes 2.0 Starter Pack. It includes three action figures and a video game. When you place the chip-enabled action figure on a special base attached to a gaming console, the character becomes part of the onscreen action. The game includes characters from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and other popular Marvel Comics films.
Perhaps the clearest sign this year of the synergy between the box office and toy store shelves has been the surge of Lego, the Danish company whose building blocks have been a fixture in playrooms for decades.
“The Lego Movie” has raked in $258 million in the United States, making it the third-highest grossing film this year. Amid the movie’s massive popularity, the toymaker’s sales surged 11 percent in the first six months of the year, allowing it to pass rival Mattel in sales and profits for the first time ever to become the world’s largest toymaker. Lego already has more films planned in the franchise, with a sequel expected to hit theaters in May 2017.
This holiday season, Toys R Us expects the Lego Fusion Town Master to be among its most coveted items. Aimed at 7- to 12-year-olds, the set allows kids to build stores and fire stations and then manage their creations with a smartphone or tablet app.
“Frozen” opened in November 2013, too late to pick up enough steam before last year’s holiday shopping frenzy to land on many kids’ Christmas lists. But now that it has become the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time, expect plenty of requests for Elsa and her sister, Anna, not only in doll form, but tiaras, singalong boomboxes and nail polish sets.
“With Anna and Elsa, as prepared as retailers are for the holiday rush for these products, they’re still going to find themselves short,” said Laurie Schact, chief toy officer at Adventure Publishing, a company that publishes trade magazines for the toy industry. “It’s a phenomenon.”
While “Frozen” brought a fresh set of characters to the big screen, some of this year’s most popular movies brought back franchises that today’s parents recognize from their childhoods.
Those, too, are expected to be big sellers at the toy store as nostalgic adults gravitate toward toys that bring back fond memories. Toys R Us, for example, is betting that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Stretch N Shout action figures will be a big seller this year. The dolls shout catchphrases from the movie when you pull their stretchy arms.
There’s also the Transformers Age of Extinction Optimus Prime action figure, which Kmart says “comes loaded with smack talk and a sword.”
And for toymakers and sellers, a steady stream of films from one franchise can buoy interest in a single character for a long time.
“The toys are now evergreen, and every time a new movie is released, it brings interest back to the property as a whole,” Schact said.
And with new movies in the “Star Wars” and Marvel Comics franchises expected next year, it seems likely that Hollywood will continue to have a strong influence on toy store shelves in the near future.