Toy industry bets on Hollywood superheroes and 'Star Wars' to drive 2016 sales

Toy retailers are hoping Hollywood movies will drive big sales again this year, after blockbusters such as "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "Minions" led to huge numbers in 2015.

U.S. retail sales of toys grew nearly 7% to $19.4 billion last year, boosted by films that resulted in record domestic box-office grosses, according to research firm NPD Group. Sales of toys based on movies grew more than 9%.

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Movie business analysts don't expect the 2016 box office to hit last year's record level of more than $11 billion in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada. But experts say the toy business should not fear the likely declines at multiplexes.   

A full slate of superhero movies, kids films and another "Star Wars" picture should continue to drive children and parents to the toy aisles for the latest action figures, dolls and vehicles, said Toys R Us Executive Vice President Richard Barry.

"Even if you put 'Star Wars' aside, there's still a lot of really great stuff going on," he said. "There's a lot to be excited about this year."

Movie characters are likely to be a common topic of discussion at this weekend's Toy Fair trade show in New York, where companies will show off their new lines of merchandise.

Warner's DC Entertainment, for example, is preparing to launch a trove of products from its new DC Super Hero Girls franchise aimed at girls 6 to 12. 

"Star Wars" alone generated $700 million in consumer spending last year, according to NPD Group. And the latest movie didn't hit theaters until Dec. 17, meaning toy sellers should continue to benefit from the movie's popularity.

The first of Disney's planned spinoff movies, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," will be released in December and should stoke further interest in additional product lines.  

Superheroes, always heavy merchandised, could also prove a boon. Toy analysts are looking forward to Warner Bros.-DC films "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "Suicide Squad," plus Marvel movies "Captain America: Civil War" and "X-Men: Apocalypse."   

"It should be awfully good year for the toy industry," Marty Brochstein, of trade group Licensing Industry Merchandisers Assn., known as LIMA.

Brochstein estimates 40% to 45% of toy sales come from licensed properties. "You can't just draw a straight line from box-office to licensing. It depends on what kind of property it is, and who the target audience is." 

There are high hopes for "Warcraft," based on the Blizzard video game. The same goes for "Finding Dory," the long-awaited sequel to the 2003 Pixar hit "Finding Nemo," even though the original didn't do much in merchandise sales, Brochstein said.

"The first movie may not have had a lot of licensing, but when they decide to make a second film, that's when they might kick the licensing into higher gear," he said.

It's not just movies. The toy industry is also looking to popular digital media franchises to pump up sales. One of last year's biggest toy industry hits was Shopkins, a line of tiny collectible dolls that has spawned a successful YouTube series.

"It was a phenomenon," said Richard Barry of Toys R Us. "It isn't simply about movies anymore, but engaging through YouTube and video games."

Indeed, the top-selling item of 2015 was the Shopkins 12 Pack Assortment, according to NPD Group. 

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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