By John BIERS
Panther claws, masks and action figures are leaping off store shelves after runaway hit “Black Panther” — the first film in the Marvel universe focused on a black superhero — shredded box office expectations with a massive opening weekend.
Toys and accessories linked to the movie, which is also making waves for its strong black female leading roles, have the potential to become an enduring presence in stores, like Spider-Man and other iconic figures, company executives say.
Toy tie-ins are a crucial profit driver for movie studios, even if each merchandise opportunity is not massively successful, experts say.
“It is a huge opportunity,” John Frascotti, president of US toy giant Hasbro, told AFP on the sidelines of the giant Toy Fair trade show in New York.
“We’re still in the early days of this, but it certainly has all the indications that it could be over time as successful” as other major franchises in terms of staying power, he said.
The movie pulled in an impressive $242 million in its opening weekend, a record for this time of year following strong reviews.
“It’s just surpassed expectations,” said Mark Robben, marketing director for Funko, which sells Black Panther bobble heads, plush dolls and fashion.
“It’s an important movie culturally,” Robben said. “That is then translated into people wanting to own a piece of it for their desk or for a t-shirt they’re wearing.”
The film has generated huge enthusiasm within the black community, but also more broadly — many see the strong opening weekend as a sign that audiences will embrace heroes that don’t fit the cookie cutter model if the story is well told.
“I think it’s filling a void, it’s serving a need and it will sell accordingly, and not just with African Americans,” said Kimberly Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.
People “are looking for a hero,” she said.
– Toys don’t always boom –
“Black Panther” comes less than a year after “Wonder Woman,” another big superhero movie that went against the grain, and upended the long-held idea that a female superhero couldn’t attract a large audience.
But while “Wonder Woman” did well in theaters, the film’s toys — made by Mattel — were not especially hot sellers.
“There’s been a trend around movie franchises and not all of them are seeing the uptick in toy sales that they used to see,” said Michelle Chidoni, vice president of global brand communications at Mattel.
Chidoni said the Wonder Woman offerings in its “Super Hero Girls” series performed well. The character’s long-term value had been enhanced by the movie and further boosted by the availability of the movie on streaming services.
“The toy doesn’t always perform with the theatrical release like it used to,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s now performing better when it goes on Netflix, or when it streams, when it’s more available to the mass consumer.”
Hasbro came under scrutiny in the most recent quarter after reporting a steep drop in fourth-quarter revenues connected to its movie licensing business that raised questions about whether the “Star Wars” juggernaut was losing its luster.
But Frascotti said the figures for merchandise linked to last year’s “The Last Jedi” looked worse by comparison because the company launched the tie-in products early.
That strategy had made sense in 2015 with “The Force Awakens,” given the significant anticipation for the first big release in the franchise in many years.
Frascotti said “Star Wars” nevertheless remains “very strong,” and the most sought after franchise in entertainment, and that the company would release toys with a shorter lead time ahead of future movies.
– Broad appeal –
With “Black Panther,” Hasbro unveiled a significant line of products about six weeks ahead of the movie’s premiere and plans more items, such as a collector’s black mask on display at Toy Fair.
The current slate of offerings come at different price points, with more affordable and durable models geared towards kids and more detailed figures targeting collectors.
Frascotti expects “Black Panther” items to sell widely, irrespective of race or gender.
“Kids today don’t see the world along those lines as much as adults do,” he said.
“When you look at the world through the eyes of the young kids who love these characters, I don’t think color or gender is as big an issue.”
He noted that “Star Wars” characters like Rey, the intrepid female protagonist introduced in “The Force Awakens,” has sold well with boys and girls.
The release of new items will be timed to coincide with the film’s launch on streaming platforms or the holidays. Frascotti said those could be supplemented at other times, such as back to school, depending on demand.