Merchandising Middle Earth
"There were toys the like of which they had never seen before,
all beautiful and some obviously magical."
These words of JRR Tolkien are not the most often quoted (and may have never been quoted at all) but they are as appropriate to the toys from the new Lord of the Rings movies as they were at Mr. Bilbo Baggins eleventy-first (and Frodo's thirty-third) birthday party. The toys are beautiful and wonderful, and they have they own magic, as they seem to walk and talk of their own volition.
While it may have taken over half a century for the popular epic to make it as a big budget series of live-action films, that entire period wasn't devoid of toys and similar merchandise from the books. There have been a few of these over the years, but they are culminating with a huge merchandising push for the new films that involves action figures, statues and other toys.
What Has Come Before
There have been two action figure lines covering The Lord of the Rings prior to the current film version from Toy Biz - a Knickerbocker line based on the animated work by Ralph Bakshi and a line based on the literary work done over the last few years by Toy Vault. Collectors value both previous lines though neither had a large number of figures compared with the characters in the books or the line from Toy Biz.
The Knickerbocker Toy Company produced a line in 1979 under license from Tolkien Enterprises that was based upon the animated versions of the characters from the Ralph Bakshi film in 1978. The line only yielded six figures and two mounts and was produced in very low numbers. The characters that made the cut included Gandalf, Frodo, Samwise, Aragorn, Gollum and a Ringwraith. Mounts for both Frodo and the Ringwraith were produced and sold apart from the figures.
The line was produced in low numbers and had competition from 'Star Wars', which crowded these figures out. These figures are very difficult to find, and garner large prices on the secondary market due to the relatively scarce supply and that fact that many people who bought them arenít willing to part with them.
Toy Vault took a different approach to the line, with a focus on the literary work rather than the animated film. Toy Vault did exhaustive research on the descriptions used in the books for the characters, and enlisted noted fantasy artist Daniel Horne to help with concept drawings and the sculpting on many of the figures.
What was produced were highly detailed and articulated toys of the characters as they appeared in the books, rather than the animated film that the prior figures had been based upon. This line was perhaps too ambitious to be completed in any short period of time, and it featured 9 characters with several variants of each of these. There is no doubt the line would have continued if Toy Vault were able.
The Current Films
The merchandising effort for the current films easily eclipses all prior efforts combined, and it was one of the hottest properties at the licensing show in 2000. Toy Biz was granted the master toy license for the films and has an expansive line of action figures in several scales planned. Playmates Toys also has a license to produce some toys that will include building toys with voice technology. Sideshow Toy has partnered with WETA, the company doing the make-up and effects work on the actual film, to produce extremely high quality polystone sculptures. There are also fast food premiums planned for the film that will be available from Burger King. Additionally, the Games Workshop is creating a series of figures for miniature gaming.
Something that sets the LOTR collectibles apart from any previous movie is the unprecedented use of computer technology and cooperation with the filmmakers and actors. Toy Biz has employed Gentle Giant Studios to create computerized scans of all the major characters to create the most authentic likenesses possible. Additionally, the unique partnership of Sideshow Toy and WETA is the first time that movie collectibles are being produced along with the actual people who worked on the effects and make-up in the film. This means that the same people who applied the make-up to the actors during filming were the ones to help design and paint the same characters as collectibles. Along with WETA, Sideshow has received extensive support from the actors in the films on creating the right look for their characters.
Toy Biz has an ambitious toy line planned for the film series that is larger than both previous lines combined. They will be making action figures of all the major characters from the first film 'The Fellowship of the Ring', with some characters in multiple scales, and plan to continue through the two sequels - The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
To ensure a high degree of fidelity for the actor's likenesses Toy Biz employed the services of Gentle Giant Studios, who is rapidly building the reputation as a major player in the toy business (not to mention Hollywood) with their revolutionary use of computer scanning technology. Gentle Giant is perhaps best known for their hyper-realistic scans of professional wrestlers for JAKKS Pacific, but they were tapped by Toy Biz for Lord of the Rings (and Hasbro for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones). For a closer look at Gentle Giant and their work with Toy Biz for The Lord of the Rings, please read our exclusive interview and feature about making these action figures.
Beyond the computer scanning, Toy Biz has made it a priority for the LOTR figures to have outstanding play value to hit the clear target audience - children. At Toy Fair 2001 they made it clear that these were all designed to have action features that would enhance the play value to appeal to children, and that the line would continue for several years, supported by the film releases each Christmas from 2001 to 2003 and the home video releases that would take place between the theatrical premieres.
Toy Biz also had a keen sense of providing balanced value over the broad range of characters in LOTR. What they reached was a trade-off to ensure that consumers would get a fair value from the figures in the line. This involved adding in bases and dioramas to some of the smaller figures (such as the hobbits and Gimli) to counter-balance the size differential between them and the larger human characters like Gandalf and Strider.
While Playmates Toys is not the master toy licensor for LOTR, they have created some unique products for the films. Shying away from action figures they will be releasing a set of building toys, which will feature a version of their 'intellitronic' voice activation technology that is very popular in their line of 'Simpsons' toys called 'intelliblox'.
The technology essentially works by using a resistor in the figure to allow the playset base to identify that character and be able to play sound clips appropriate to that character. The figures for these toys will be able to plug in to various points in the playset bases and then play voice clips. The bases will be programmed with not only sound clips for the figures included but also for other characters sold in different sets. Presently, the only set that uses the voices is the Mines of Moria playset.
The major toy products they are producing are a combination of building toys and their own line of Simpsons figures. They will be producing many playsets, which will include a variety of building blocks and small, articulated figures that will attach to an electronic base. The base will have several points on it that the figures can plug into to allow the base to identify the character and play sounds related to that character as well as allow some 'interaction' between several characters simultaneously attached to the base.
Currently planned are four sampler sets (80-85 blocks and 2 figures each), three basic sets (180-185 blocks and 2-3 figures each), four block buckets (with 250 blocks and seven figures each), two basic electronics sets (350 blocks and 4-6 figures each) and a deluxe electronics set of the Mines of Moria, with 420 blocks and 4 figures. There will be 41 small figures in total for all the sets and the characters should be interchangeable from each set to another.
One of the most unique collaborations for LOTR is that of Sideshow Toy and WETA Workshop to produce some stunning and high quality polystone collectibles of the major characters and props from the film trilogy. The statues will cover many characters from the film both in 1:4 scale bust and 1:6 scale fully realized forms. They will also produce a set of polystone weapon and helm miniatures of the various races shown in the film. Last they will have a set of buildings and environments sculpted to various scales that will represent the locales from the saga.
Sideshow Toy has built a reputation for high quality 1:6 scale action figures that have spanned licenses as diverse as Universal Monsters, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and highly detailed WW1 and US Civil War figures as well as producing some high quality statues. With LOTR they have embarked upon an unprecedented collaboration with the WETA Workshop.
WETA is the effects house responsible for all make-up, props and special effects from the film trilogy. They are the premier effects house of New Zealand and their work has been used in Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. WETA spent over four years conceptualizing and creating the look and feel of Middle Earth and is using their talents to ensure the collectible statues meet the same rigorous standards that they applied to the films.
Sideshow/WETA's decision to sculpt the statues rather than rely on computer scanning technology was a very conscious decision. Simply put, the goal was to create works of art, so the entire line is being hand sculpted by a talented team of artists. They wanted to capture the look of the characters as interpreted by the artist and felt that the target audience (adult collectors) would prefer this technique.
Sideshow/WETA is also at work on a series of 24 medallions that will depict various scenes from the three films. These medallions will be of museum quality and will have a bronzed finish to complement their look. For complete information on these medallions and how you can order them, please visit Sideshow/WETA's medallion section.
The complete story of this unique collaboration can be found in detail at the home page of WETA Workshop and a more detailed look at the polystone statues and medallions can be found at Sideshow Toy.
Miniatures based on Lord of the Rings are not a new idea by any means. Miniature figures have been a staple for wargaming literally for centuries. Basically, they are very small models of various figures, such as a character or generic warrior, and they are decorated and moved around a playing area to simulate military action. Some figures get very detailed and play fields can be decorated with hills, faux grass and trees and can really look realistic. While many miniatures have traditionally been made of lead, now some are made either of pewter or plastic. Normally these come unpainted, though you can still enjoy their detailing without painting them. However, for some fans painting them is more fun than playing games with them!
There has been (and continues to be) a robust market for these figures over the last few decades. There have been three lines of miniatures prior to the current films: One by Heritage House in 1977, one by Grenadier Models in the 1980's for use with the Middle Earth Role-Playing Game, and Mithril Miniatures. The former two are now defunct, but Mithril is still around making miniatures. The Mithril miniatures are based on descriptions in the books and they have produced over 500 figures since 1987 when the group began. Suffice to say, they are very committed to their line of miniatures and they're Irish to boot! ;)
For the new films, Games Workshop is doing the miniatures honors, producing a game to go with their figures. They are planning a large line of figures covering all the major characters from Fellowship of the Rings and images of many of the figures can be seen at their website, along with some interviews with the game creators and ordering information. They also have an e-mail newsletter to keep you informed about the line as it develops.
In the Future
RTM will keep you updated as future toy lines and related merchandise lines are unveiled, and will continue to cover the current ones.