Sunday, January 02, 2000

'Toy Story 2' revives Ohio-made Etch A Sketch

The Associated Press

        BRYAN, Ohio — Without Etch A Sketch, Buzz Lightyear and his Toy Story 2 cohorts wouldn't have been able to rescue Woody. And without the smash-hit movie, the classic baby boomer toy would not have been such a popular holiday gift this season.

        Ohio Art Co. executives estimate the movie gave the Etch A Sketch $50 million worth of free advertising at the height of the holiday shopping season.

        It also has boosted sales, stock prices and the spirits of Ohio Art executives who just months ago were fending off questions about the company's future.

        “There's no way Ohio Art could finance the exposure we're getting,” said Larry Killgallon, the company's president.

        While Ohio Art produces dozens of creativity based toys, there is no doubt about its star product. In its 39th year, more than 100 million Etch A Sketches have been sold worldwide. They now come in all colors and shapes, including travel, pocket size and key chain versions.

        Inside the company's modest headquarters in rural northwest Ohio, Toy Story posters decorate the wood-paneled walls. Near the front doors stands a Christmas tree decorated with Etch A Sketches.

        In Toy Story 2, Etch A Sketch appears on screen for only about 30 seconds. In the first movie, its screen time was even less.

        Yet Etch A Sketch sales are up 20 percent this holiday season and Ohio Art stock is up 50 percent. That's quite a turnaround for the toy maker.

        In May, Ohio Art stock was pulled off the American Stock Exchange trading board because it defaulted on $17.7 million in loans from Fifth Third Bancorp.

        The company's auditors, accounting firm Ernst & Young, also said at the time that Ohio Art's finances “raise substantial doubt” about its business.

        Mr. Killgallon blamed the troubles on a retailer that canceled a $15.2 million order for toys last year right before the holiday shopping season. He said sales otherwise remained steady, and that Ohio Art executives anticipated Toy Story 2 would produce a rebound.

        When director John Lasseter of Pixar studio began creating the first Toy Story film for Disney, he reached back to toys of his youth — the Slinky, Mr. Potato Head and Etch A Sketch. Ohio Art didn't hesitate to give its permission.

        “We were overjoyed,” Mr. Killgallon said.

        But toy retailers were skeptical about giving precious shelf space to over-the-hill toys.

        “I can remember going to Toys R Us and being told this is not going to be a big deal,” Mr. Killgallon said. “The toy industry really didn't see it as a movie that was going to sell a lot of product.”

        After Toy Story premiered in 1995, Etch A Sketch orders had Ohio Art's assembly line working overtime. This time around, toy retailers stocked up. Ohio Art produced an additional 200,000 Etch A Sketches.

        Mattel Inc., which wasn't involved with merchandise from the first computer-animated movie, is the sole licensee that can sell products based on characters in the sequel.

        Sara Rosales, a spokeswoman for the world's largest toy maker, said the partnership has been one of Mattel's most successful movie releases.

        “We worked very closely with them to make sure the toys we were manufacturing would translate into the characters,” she said. “Our Buzz Lightyear has the same voice as the Buzz from the movie.”

        The movie's co-producers, though, kept total creative control, never letting the toy makers have any influence over which toys made it onto the screen.

        “We don't want to be in the business of hawking toys,” said co-producer Karen Robert Jackson. “I can't tell you how many toy manufacturers would send us things. We said no to a number of people.”

        But they were careful about being true to the toys' characters.

        “We wouldn't create an evil Barbie,” Ms. Robert Jackson said.

        “It's funny how much we think about the characters,” said co-producer Helene Plotkin. “I just love the fact that Etch A Sketch is so good at what he does. When Etchy draws for himself it's a finely rendered map.” The map is crucial to the plot, leading to a rescue.

        Both think the classic toys have helped with the movie's popularity.

        “People love being reminded of things that were important to their childhood,” Ms. Plotkin said. “You forget about your Etch A Sketch, you forget about your Slinky.”


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