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Collectible Trading Cards: Not Just for Sports Heroes Anymore : Marketing: Characters from movies and television shows are becoming a staple of the $1-billion industry.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Robin Williams movie “Jumanji” may not arrive in theaters until mid-December, but the title’s already on shelves in hobby, drug and toy stores throughout the country. Even before the TriStar film about a man trapped inside a board game has been projected onto a single silver screen, trading card company Fleer/Skybox International has shipped millions of 2 1/2-by-3 1/2-inch cards to retail outlets.

The “Jumanji” cards are just one of 10 series based on movies and television shows that the Mt. Laurel, N.J., company is releasing between October and December. Next year, Fleer/Skybox plans to market 50 lines of entertainment-based cards, said Kate Travaline, a company spokeswoman who wrote and edited a series of cards based on the Nickelodeon cartoon series “AAAHH!!! Real Monsters” earlier this year.

While sports fans have been collecting trading cards for decades, cards based on movies and television shows began to take off only five years ago, with some of the biggest licenses coming into play in the last two to three years. Trading card manufacturers say they plan to bolster their entertainment-oriented product lines in the coming years, and they are optimistic that these lines will soon account for as much as a third of the $1-billion-plus industry.

“The entertainment card category is really flourishing,” said Bruce Regis, vice president of worldwide licensing and new products for Upper Deck, a premium trading card company based in Carlsbad in San Diego County. Within the next couple of years, he expects entertainment cards to account for 25% to 30% of Upper Deck’s revenue.

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Regis says the cards appeal to kids because they give them a “chance to relive a movie.”

The Licensing Letter, an industry newsletter based in New York, estimates that entertainment-oriented cards account for between 10% and 15% of the trading card market. And the number of properties that will soon find their way onto trading cards is expected to balloon, said Karen Raugust, the newsletter’s editor.

“From the point of view of the licensor or the movie maker, it’s just a category that makes sense,” Raugust said. “The licensors don’t have to spend time on product development and they don’t have much to lose in an agreement. They get a guarantee of about 10 cents in royalties per pack of cards.”

Sales displays of entertainment-oriented trading cards serve as mini-billboards, reminding consumers of movies and television shows in places that are normally devoid of advertising, Raugust said.

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Trading card manufacturers say they use the entertainment cards to cultivate new customers, diversify their product lines and get maximum use out of their card-making infrastructure.

“We’re looking for a different audience than the typical sports card collector,” Travaline said. “We’re thinking about the future of the trading card industry. We want to get kids hooked.”

Sports cards have taken a beating recently, particularly in the wake of the baseball strike last year, which persuaded the premium trading card maker Upper Deck to get a piece of the entertainment card market, Regis said.

Card makers typically produce 80 to 150 cards in a series, then sell them in groups of eight or 12 for prices ranging from $1.49 to $3.99. The cards can be ornate. Some are trimmed in gold foil, while others contain holograms and similar optical illusions. An Upper Deck card based on the “Street Fighter” movie shows a character that appears to kick into space when the card is spun around. It was distributed in only one out of 72 packs to keep buyers interested.

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Travaline says last year’s baseball strike gave entertainment cards their long-awaited opportunity to prove their market worth.

“They kept the industry afloat,” she said. “I’m not saying baseball fans started becoming comic book geeks. But the card executives realized that the entertainment cards were selling. Then they put more money into development and things really took off.”

Like any decision in the entertainment business, giving the green light to a series of trading cards can be fraught with risk. Like studio executives, card makers must bet months or years in advance on which movies are likely to be embraced in the popular culture.

“We have to make a bet on a movie one year before it’s released,” said Marty Appel, a spokesman for Topps Co., a New York trading card company that released cards based on “Batman Forever,” “The X-Files” and “Animaniacs” this year. “That’s a disadvantage because you’re gambling on something unseen in order to have the cards ready by the time the movie comes out.”

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Fleer produced a series of cards based on Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” which had a disappointing performance at the box office, and decided to scale back production in the months preceding the movie’s release because of the negative publicity surrounding its cost overruns.

But Rand Brenner, director of licensing for Burbank-based Saban Entertainment, which owns the rights to the popular Mighty Morphin Power Rangers characters, said, “If you get a property that’s really hot, you could sell 8 million, 10 million, even 15 million cards.”

Another problem occurs when a studio doesn’t want to give too much of a movie away on trading cards before audiences get a chance to see it. Fleer’s cards based on the movie “Casper” did not include any images of the friendly ghost as a young boy because Universal refused to release those pictures before the movie premiered, Travaline said.

Trading cards based on the animated television shows “The Tick,” “Bobby’s World” and “X-Men” help promote the lineup for Fox Children’s Network, said Bert Gould, the division’s executive vice president for marketing, promotions and program strategy.

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“It is definitely exposure for the properties, and it’s certainly a revenue opportunity,” said Gould, who plans to have more Fox shows turn up on trading cards. “There’s a whole number of different reasons for doing it.”

For television shows, manufacturers can wait to see if a particular program gets good ratings before deciding whether to produce trading cards. But with the lower risk comes a lower payoff.

“Cards based on TV shows will have the longer life, but cards based on movies will have a bigger bang,” Bradley said.

With cross-promotional tie-ins becoming increasingly sophisticated, trading-card makers say they will find more opportunities to hawk their wares. For example, a deck of cards could be included in a McDonald’s Happy Meal themed around a popular children’s movie, one executive suggested.

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Plus, as cable television and video rentals extend the life of a movie or television show, the shelf life of a trading card is extended as well.

“We believe the market is ready to expand,” Bradley said. “Collecting cards doesn’t have to be just sports figures, it could be anything.”


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