Disney screened the first 30 minutes of its new Pixar film “Lightyear” at CinemaCon in Las Vegas on Wednesday, but the biggest buzz among attendees wasn’t for the title character at the center of the “Toy Story” origin story.
That distinction went to a small robotic cat named Sox.
The ginger and white mechanical feline is a personal companion presented as a gift to Buzz Lightyear after a mission goes awry. A therapy device, of sorts, Sox is designed to do anything Buzz requires, including monitoring his mental health and providing nightly sleep sounds.
General audiences got a tease of Sox in early trailers for “Lightyear,” which hits theaters June 17. But the prolonged exposure CinemaCon participants got to the little robotic cat solidified the consensus that it is destined to be the next hot toy.
Like many of Disney’s and Pixar’s animal and robotic companions, Sox has a distinct personality and adds moments of levity during times of peril. During the preview at CinemaCon, his reactions were the ones that elicited the most raucous laughter from the crowd.
“Sox the cat is gonna steal the entire movie,” wrote Fandango’s managing editor Erik Davis on Twitter following the preview. “Disney is gonna sell so many Sox the cat toys.”
Sox, which is voiced by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn, has a dry sense of humor and blunt vocal delivery that is reminiscent of “Rogue One’s” K-2SO and an innocence and caring nature like Baymax from “Big Hero 6.” He’s also got a data probe in his tail a la R2-D2 that comes in handy when Buzz finds himself in a pickle.
Audiences leaving Caesar’s Palace’s Colosseum after the Disney presentation could be heard gushing about the new character. In meetings later in the week, exhibitors and box office analysts told CNBC that Sox was a clear standout in the much-anticipated animated feature, with many imitating the cat or reciting his lines seen in the footage.
“No spoilers. Just know that everyone will want a [Sox] toy as soon as this film comes out,” tweeted John Rocha, a film reviewer for The Outlaw Nation, an outlet that offers diverse perspectives on the world of entertainment. “So start buying them right now or as soon as they become available.”
Disney has had significant success in turning sidekicks into major toy sellers. In recent years Grogu from “The Mandalorian” and Olaf from “Frozen” have dominated toy shelves, apparel lines and housewares. Legacy characters like R2-D2 from “Star Wars” and Mushu from “Mulan” continue to sell.
“I reviewed a list of the 50 top movie characters and 17 of them were animals, 24 were human or human-like, and nine were an assortment of monsters and robots,” said Richard Gottlieb, CEO of Global Toy Experts. “It interested me that being cute and fuzzy alone is not a guarantor of success. The character, whether an animal or a monster, has to be relatable as human.”
Mattel, which holds the master toy license for the Toy Story franchise, has created several plush and action figure versions of Sox, but its hero item for the toy line is an $80 animatronic interactive version of the character.
“Sox has been top of mind from the initial moment we saw the ‘Lightyear’ film,” said PJ Lewis, executive lead for Mattel’s action figure and plush division. “We knew he was much more than a sidekick and offered multiple ways to drive product innovation for the ‘Lightyear’ line. Plus, we have a few cat people on the team who were smitten.”
In addition to Mattel’s product, Sox can be found in the toy aisle as a Funko Pop and a Lego figurine as well as in the candy aisle as a Pez dispenser.
Studios and toy companies are keenly aware of how consumers of various ages can quickly embrace characters from movies and television. When these characters prove successful in the toy and apparel market, they are often transitioned into houseware items like tea towels, spatulas and plates, as well as other products like jewelry, bandages, greeting cards and pet toys.
It’s a lucrative business. Global sales revenue generated by licensed merchandise reached nearly $300 billion in 2019, according to data from Licensing International’s annual overview of the industry, conducted by Brandar Consulting. The entertainment and character sector accounts for $128.4 billion, or about 44% of global sales.
And Sox is well positioned to become the next hot toy that drives revenue to Disney, said Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
“A star was born at CinemaCon this week,” he said.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Fandango.
(With inputs from CNBC)