‘Avatar’ takes Mattel into uncharted toy territory

Dec. 15, 2009 | 6:54 p.m.

“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 4 DAYS

We’re code blue here at Hero Complex as we go into the final days of our “30 Days of Avatar” countdown. Today we talk to Jason Horowitz, the marketing director for Mattel, whose company is taking James Cameron’s sci-fi epic to the toy aisles with hopes that it can be the king of the jungle this holiday season.

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GB: It’s so rare these days to have a huge special-effects film that’s not based on a preexisting property — a comic book or novel or a toy. For you, that must make “Avatar” a bit of a challenge and also a pretty exciting design opportunity.

JH: You’re absolutely right. This is an amazing new world that James Cameron has created and when we heard about “Avatar” we were so excited because it has everything that makes for a great toy line. It’s got great characters, great conflict, great creatures and great vehicles. We were very excited to bring that to life for collectors and kids. What we really tried to do was develop a line that would really re-create this amazing world of Pandora. And because what you said is true — this is really the first major blockbuster that isn’t based on a book or some other existing entertainment, so for the designers they really tried to make a line that was really authentic and had all of the detail to really bring these characters to life. James Cameron brings things to life in amazing ways and we really wanted to do the same with the toys and the figures.

GB: You’ve also taken the line beyond the product sold at stores with some tech innovations, can you talk about that?

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JH: Yes, we have this augmented reality technology that is really exciting. We never want to do technology just for technology’s sake. We always want to make sure that it enhances the play experience. When we saw “Avatar” and we had the opportunity to partner on the film, we just knew it was the perfect opportunity for the marriage of this amazing, groundbreaking film – which is the most anticipated film of the year — and this amazing, groundbreaking technology. We’ve put this technology into the toys in a way that it’s never been put into toys before. For the first time, every toy in the line comes with an iTag which allows people to unlock a 3-D image on their computer that allows people to learn more about this world of Pandora and the characters. They get to learn in a really amazing, detailed way that blends the real world and the digital world with our toy-play, just as the film is breaking ground with the 3-D technology and the whole concept of the avatars in the film. In the films it’s about immersion and going into another existence and the iTags fit with that; it allows kids to blend the physical world of the toy with the digital world … with one of the characters, for example, when you activate the iTag it opens up the doctor’s journal and you see one of the amazing plants of Pandora grow up out of the journal [on your computer screen].

GB: Do you find that young consumers now expect that sort of digital innovation with a traditional toy? Is it a marketplace challenge to keep the attention of media-inundated youngsters?

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JH: It was so important to use this technology in a way that made sense with the property. It was the opportunity that the property provided. Because you don’t want to just use technology for the sake of technology. Kids are immersed in technology. For them, it’s not new or different, usually. So we wanted to do something groundbreaking for a property that was groundbreaking and do it in a way that was authentic.

GB: You also have a line of toys for “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Early on, were there any concerns about confusion or undermining brand identity? 

JH: It wasn’t anything that concerned us from a long-term perspective. There’s maybe some confusion the first few times people heard the name “Avatar,” but the second you see footage you immediately recognize that it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before in film. The same with static images. As we showed people this world there wasn’t any confusion between the two of them.

GB: How big is the “Avatar” line to Mattel this holiday season?

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JH: It’s the most anticipated film of the year. And hopefully it’s going to be a huge film and a lot of the people that go see it will want to collect the toys. We have really high hopes and expectations for the “Avatar” toy line. All the toys are on the shelf now and we think it should do great for Christmas as people see the film and on into next year. It’s a big property for us. 

GB: This film seems likely to skew older in its audience than, say, the “Harry Potter” films. Do you aim your toys at an older consumer on this property?

JH: We tried to make the toys highly detailed and authentic because, regardless of the age of the boy or adult that goes to see this film, they are going to be blown away by the world of Pandora. We put a lot of time and effort in making sure the Na’vi figures look exactly like the characters in the film. The creatures look exactly like the creatures in the film. So if there’s a younger boy who doesn’t even see the film — he may just see the trailers and hear about the film and go and collect it — the toys will be appealing. That goes for the older boy that does go see the film and the [adult] collectors.

GB: Well, you probably have run out of blue paint.

  JH: [Laughs] Yes, right. What’s great, too, is that after the film comes out we have a whole new wave of characters and figures coming out that have the bio-illum. There’s a lot of glowing things in the film and after people see it there will be these toys that also glow.

– Geoff Boucher

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VIDEO: “Avatar” interviews with Sigourney Weaver and Jon Landau

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