Just like in the movies, but in kids' hands
LOS ANGELES — When Cindi Dale helped her 10-year- old son use his allowance money to buy a Lothlorien bow, an elegantly detailed replica of the elvish bow from the film "Lord of the Rings" (LOTR), she had two goals. A lifelong Tolkien fan, she was happy to get a piece of memorabilia for herself and a beautiful, handmade artifact for her son. But when he gathered with friends - also film fans with new mementos of their own - she realized she'd unintentionally purchased something else: a weapon.
She describes how the boys, who range in age up to their midteens, had used their gift and allowance money to buy other "prop replicas" from the same movie websites her son used. And now they were gathering in backyards to play with them. One day, she says, the boys arrived with swords - not lightweight plastic toys but accurate replicas of the heavy, finely crafted weapons brandished by Tolkien elf queen Arwen and of the Green Dragon sword from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Within minutes, blades were flashing through the air. Ms. Dale rushed to break it up. "Someone was going to get hurt," she says. "These are not toys."
But they are available in some places that toys are sold and through Internet marketers who actively target young fans. Hasbro recently sponsored a "Win the Sword of Aragorn" contest online, pitching 1,000 of LOTR's "authentic props," including the ax of Gimli and the bow of Legolas, to teens age 13 and older. A Google search for "Lord of the Rings" swords produces 634,000 websites awash in items ranging from a child's nightgown modeled on Arwen's robes and child-size rubber Hobbit's feet to swords, bows, and other prop replicas from LOTR and other films.
An adult niche market for memorabilia weaponry has always existed. But the popularity of film memorabilia - including big-ticket items - with a general audience is leading to an unintentional result: adult weapons wielded by enthusiastic but underage fans.
This phenomenon is fueled by several trends. Teens and even preteens have an unprecedented level of discretionary cash to spend. Many also have less supervision. And some parents, dissatisfied with throwaway plastic toys, see high-end "specialty memorabilia" as worth the money.
"These weapons are quite beautifully made," says Dale. "They hardly even seem like weapons, so it's not about attacking but having this beautiful instrument."
While every weapon-heavy film in recent memory ("Troy," "Alexander," all the martial arts films) has spun off a sword or two, "Lord of the Rings" has the most in movie history, one for nearly every significant character, good or evil.
The popularity of the prop replicas has taken the company by surprise. "We were only going to do a couple of the swords [from the film] and maybe one or two pieces of jewelry," says David Imhoff, senior executive vice president of worldwide licensing for New Line Cinema, parent company of "Lord of the Rings." One reason for the popularity of the swords, he says, is their appeal to people far outside the traditional world of sword collectors. "People who never in a million years thought of buying a sword," he adds, "are buying these." Mr. Imhoff says the company has tried to set a high standard for its merchandise. "We felt we had an obligation to raise the bar for the merchandise, so that it would reflect highly on the source material and the pictures," he adds. The approach is paying off. At a billion dollars to date, the LOTR merchandise sales stand second only to sales of "Star Wars" items.
This unexpected surge in the sales of film-licensed merchandise stands in contrast to the overall toy market, which has been shrinking in recent years. In contrast, according to the Toy Industry Association, high-end specialty toys are virtually the only expanding segment of the market, representing 10 to 12 percent of overall toy sales. With fewer marquee brands selling well, manufacturers are rushing to cash in on those that do, says toy expert Kenn Viselman. "If you're a manufacturer," he says, "you are trying to find a way to cut your piece of that brand."
The baby-boom parents of many of today's teens, who have more disposable income than their own parents did, are particularly attracted to these items, says demographer Ann Fishman. "If everyone in [that] generation doesn't mind spending a lot for good quality or for that wonderful feeling of having something special," she says, "that's how you end up with $300 prop replicas that can hurt your child."
The prop replicas are legal, says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer programs director for the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). "But the question is, does the marketing of this product imply that it's a toy?" he says. "If it's clearly [for adults], it has no business being marketed to children. Is the company making clear that it's a real sword with sharp edges?" He points out that the Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) has banned items that turned out to be dangerous even when consumers used them as expected. He cites blunt-nose lawn darts that were banned 20 years ago. "They weren't sharp," says Mr. Mierzwinski, "but they were deadly."
The CPSC is interested in items that can harm vulnerable populations, particularly minors under the age of 16, says CPSC spokesman Ken Giles. It takes only a single incident for the CPSC to investigate. The agency will become involved even if the item is being misused, he says, if there is a reasonable expectation that it could happen again and there is action the agency could take to prevent it. He points to the recent example of high-velocity BB guns, a favorite among teens. After the CPSC took action, "[these guns] now have to have a label that says 'Warning: not a toy, not for children under 16.' "
Hasbro did not provide a spokesman to explain the company's marketing approach.
The thousands of fan websites, meanwhile, provide little if any parental guidance or impediments to underage buying.
The first site in the Google search, Blades by Brown ("You've held the book, now hold the steel"), has an 18 and older disclaimer found by clicking off the main Web page into its ordering-policy section. New Line licenses two sword manufacturers. Imhoff says the company intends to take up this issue with its licensees "immediately."
Cindi Dale says it will take consciousness raising on all sides. Her son's eagerness to buy the bow is just the logical extension of a process that began years ago with movie merchandise.
"They were lured into the whole idea during their preschool years," she says. But she and her husband see this as a parenting moment, she adds. "It does create the opportunity for an extended dialogue about where all these things fit in our lives."