State of Play

Toy companies have become Hollywood's new auteurs

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Alexander Ho for TIME

When Michael Bay wants to play with toys, Brian Goldner brings the toy box. The 47-year-old CEO of Hasbro Inc. has taken his intel on the kiddie consumer market to Hollywood with explosive results: the Transformers franchise--directed by action-film titan Bay and based on the Hasbro line of warring alien robots--has generated more than $1.5 billion at the box office and more than $1 billion in toy sales; a third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon, is stomping through theaters now. In a few weeks, a Marvel-comics superhero turned Hasbro action figure hits the big screen in Captain America (out July 22), on the heels of fellow Marvel-Hasbro ventures Thor and X-Men. Meanwhile, kids can petition their parents for Hasbro goodies such as the Captain America Disc Launching Shield ($20), Captain America Hero Mask ($9) and Captain America Shield Assault 4×4 Vehicle, complete with action figure and battle cannon ($30).

Tie-in toys and other merchandise have been staples of blockbuster season for decades, but recent years have seen unprecedented synergy between movie and merch makers. "The part of the toy industry that is supported by movies and other entertainment is growing dramatically faster than traditional toys and games," says Goldner, who has an executive-producer credit on the Transformers films. Studios seek out toy-company honchos like Goldner and Mattel's Doug Wadleigh for feedback on scripts up to 18 months before the movies reach the public. "Studios are coming to us earlier than ever in the development process, asking for honest input on whether the film can translate into toys or not," says Wadleigh, senior vice president of franchise development at Mattel, which holds merchandising rights to summer contenders Green Lantern and Cars 2. (With product sales in the billions, the Cars franchise is Pixar's most profitable.)

Once a partnership is in place, toy companies may also have oversight of the film's gadgets, vehicles and accessories to ensure that big-screen props translate smoothly into at-home playthings (Green Lantern Die-Cast Power Ring Keychain, $10). "We have a Hasbro artist in the art department to keep us on the right track creatively," says Adam Goodman, president of production at Paramount, the studio behind Transformers and Captain America.

Because comic-book superheroes are established brands that come relatively cheap, they represent low-risk, high-reward bets for toy companies. Despite withering reviews and lackluster ticket sales, Green Lantern represents a tidy profit for Mattel, which stands to earn $20 million in toy sales against $2.5 million for merchandising rights. Hasbro holds the rights to a grab bag of veteran crime fighters, including Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Avengers.

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