The number of licensing and publishing programs tied to streaming entertainment—distributed on platforms such as YouTube, Amazon, and especially Netflix, rather than traditional broadcast or cable television—continues to grow. This was one of the licensing trends of note at the recent New York International Toy Fair.
Books or comic books are often among the first products on the licensee list for this type of series. Not only do traditional books and comics help expand the world of the show, as is true of any tie-in program, but they give consumers more ways to discover the property in a fragmented media landscape.
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers is the licensee for two streaming properties, Masha and the Bear for preschoolers and Spirit Riding Free for girls 8–12, both distributed on Netflix. The Spirit books, written by Suzanne Selfors, will release simultaneously with the show this spring.
“A lot of readers will come to the books even if they’re not familiar with the show,” says Kara Sargent, editor-in-chief of brand, licensed, and IP publishing at LBYR. “They recognize Suzanne, and they love books about horses. Others may come to the books from Netflix, or because of the toys in the fall.” Just Play is the master toy licensee, and Reeves International’s Breyer division will sell model horses.
Masha, meanwhile, is a Russian TV series that has become a top property for viewership and licensing in its home country. It is still building in the U.S., where it has been on Netflix for about a year and has also attracted an audience on YouTube. Toys from Spin Master were introduced at Toys R Us in the fall and expanded into other retail outlets this January, and Little, Brown plans storybooks, 8 x 8s, and leveled readers.
“It’s a little riskier than some properties,” Sargent says. “It will be interesting to see what happens.” She notes that Masha’s uniqueness is appealing. “It’s quite different from anything out there. The hallmark is its humor and storytelling. Preschool humor today is so safe, but this takes some risks, in an appropriate way.”
Other publishers involved with streaming-only properties include Lion Forge, which is producing a line of comic books based on Voltron: Legendary Defender. The property, like Spirit, is a Netflix-distributed program from DreamWorks Animation, licensed by Universal Brand Group. It is based on a 1980s TV series. Meanwhile, Abrams and IDW have signed on for books and comic books, respectively, for Hasbro’s Hanazuki: Full of Treasures, a YouTube series. The show is produced by Titmouse and Hasbro Studios and licensed by Hasbro.
Streaming series based on book properties are also on the rise. A Genius Brands–licensed and–produced TV series based on Penguin’s Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney is on Netflix, for example. Similarly, the Mattel-owned American Girl brand has a new spin-off series on Amazon called Wellie Wishers, with associated toys from Mattel and other licensed products on the market, as well as American Girl books. American Girl has been expanding its brand licensing activity of late, signing partners such as Scholastic and DK in publishing and Fashion Angels for crafts and accessories. It has also been partnering with Mattel and other sibling companies within the Mattel family, such as MegaBloks for American Girl construction kits.
Other streaming properties at Toy Fair ranged from preschool examples such as the literacy-based Word Party, licensed by Jim Henson Productions, to those for teens and older, such as RWBY, licensed by Rooster Teeth.
Focus on Films and Franchises
Franchise-based films are particularly prominent among licensed entertainment properties in 2017. In anticipation of My Little Pony: The Movie, set for release in the fall, licensed products were spotted all over Toy Fair’s show floor. The movie tie-in publishing program encompasses 30 titles from publishers involved in the My Little Pony franchise, including Little, Brown; IDW; Phidal; and Bendon. The on-shelf date is August 29. “This is our biggest movie tie-in program since the first Transformers movie,” says Michael Kelly, Hasbro’s senior director of global publishing.
Another high-profile franchise-based movie coming out this summer is Despicable Me 3, and Minions merchandise saturated the show floor. Little, Brown is the master publishing licensee for the franchise, and is planning 8 x 8s, leveled readers, seek-and-find titles, a junior novelization, and a storybook for the film, which is set for a June release in theaters. “It’s a pretty robust program,” Sargent says. Bendon is the coloring and activity publisher.
As has been the norm in recent years, products tied to superhero properties, including a variety of films, remain ubiquitous. Marvel alone has announced a roster of movies that includes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok this year, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 in 2018, and Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 and Captain Marvel in 2019. In addition to Disney Publishing Worldwide’s Marvel Press, book publishers for Marvel include DK; Bendon; Little, Brown; Random House; Walter Foster Jr.; and more. While not all publish movie tie-ins per se, the films tend to give the entire franchise a boost.
Products and properties with a retro feel always have a place in the world of licensed toys. This year at Toy Fair, books and book-based properties played a central role in this trend.
Quarto Publishing Group’s Walter Foster Jr. imprint—which was jointly exhibiting with another Quarto company, the recently acquired Becker & Mayer and its SmartLab activity kit brand—announced a new license with the National Wildlife Federation for Ranger Rick during the show. The character is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and Walter Foster is publishing a series of guide and activity books. “There’s a nostalgic feel to the books, with the parental trust and expectation of quality that come with that,” says Anne Landa, v-p and group publisher of Walter Foster Publishing and Walter Foster Jr.
At its booth, Albert Whitman & Company was focusing primarily on the Boxcar Children series, which is marking its 75th anniversary. “Everyone is so nostalgic when they see it,” says account executive Lauren Michalczyk.
Similarly, Highlights Press’s Highlights for Children brand began publication in 1946. The first-time Toy Fair exhibitor was promoting both its books and its growing brand-licensing program.
Outset Media, a puzzle and board game maker, added Archie Comics to its roster of puzzles based on books and comic books this year, with four products to start. “The initial response has been fantastic,” says Oscar Correia, Outset’s international sales and production sourcing manager. “It’s classic, nostalgic play.”
Almost every licensed toy assortment, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Pokémon to Cabbage Patch Kids and Thomas & Friends, incorporates a line of collectibles, many of them boasting unique figures numbering in the hundreds. They are packaged in sets and in surprise “blind bags,” come in a variety of sizes (each more miniature than the next), and are meant to be played with as well as collected.
This has been one of the hottest trends in the toy industry of late, with the collectible category—including trading cards, collectible stickers, minifigures, action figures, play-set dolls, blind bags, and the like—growing 33% in 2016, according to the NPD Group, which tracks toy-industry sales. That significantly outpaces the 5% growth for the U.S. toy industry as a whole last year. Blind bags alone grew 60% in 2016, and have increased sixfold since 2013, according to NPD.
Licensed properties that originated as minifigure collectibles, or are closely associated with collectibles lines, have launched extensive licensing programs, with book publishing as part of the mix. Moose Toys’ Shopkins, for example, has a roster of publishers that includes Scholastic, Bendon, and Little Bee Books.
Penguin Young Readers holds rights to two properties that count collectibles as an important part of their DNA. It is launching three novels this summer for the first, Animal Jam, an online game from Wildworks that incorporates content from National Geographic and has more than 65 million users worldwide. The Animal Jam toy line, from Jazwares, has mini collectible figures at its core.
The company is also publishing tie-ins for Spin Master’s Hatchimals brand, which launched as an interactive toy last fall and has now extended into a collectible brand called Hatchimals Colleggtibles, as part of an effort to turn the buzziest toy of last year into a long-term franchise.
Penguin Young Readers will publish handbooks and activity books and eventually extend into storytelling formats. “Spin Master is open to us helping create the world of the Hatchimals,” explains Sarah Fabiny, editorial director at Penguin Random House. “The narrative and storytelling was really important to them. We can expand on what they’ve created and help enhance the world.”