Universal learns lessons

When the sea of bad ink about Waterworld receded last summer, the movie had earned a respectable $93 million domestically. But the news wasn't nearly as good on the merchandising front....
July 1, 1996

When the sea of bad ink about Waterworld receded last summer, the movie had earned a respectable $93 million domestically. But the news wasn’t nearly as good on the merchandising front.

‘From the box office standpoint, we feel the movie performed quite well,’ says John Dumbacher, vice president of licensing, Universal Studios Consumer Products Group. ‘From the merchandising perspective, we had major players like Kenner, but the publicity around the movie certainly didn’t help the development of a merchandising line.’

By the time the negative stories began to swirl in the press, Universal’s merchandising was already in place, the result of more than a year’s planning. In retrospect, Dumbacher says, maybe the action figures were a mistake. ‘If we look at it, maybe it wasn’t the most toyetic movie,’ he admits.

By contrast, the studio’s special effects-heavy Casper was a hit with kids, both at the box office and toy stores. Garnering $91 million at the box office, the movie spawned an animated series, with the merchandise continuing to sell through the fourth quarter.

Like his competitors, Dumbacher begins planning campaigns early in the development stage, anywhere from 18 months to two years before the theatrical or television debut.

‘Really, that’s to allow manufacturers to get their programs in place and ultimately have their merchandise in stores for the movie’s release,’ he says. Getting an early start is key, but identifying the character or element with the most merchandising potential is essential. ‘You have to translate that into a product so they can relive the entertainment experience, then keep it alive with new entertainment.’

That’s tough for a movie like the early summer hit Twister since the star is a force of nature, and far easier for movies like Jurassic Park, Flipper or Dragonheart, which have dinosaurs, dolphins and dragons to offer. ‘That’s kind of the trick of this business you really have to understand the essence of the product. We’re not unlike Procter & Gamble with soap,’ he says.

And in today’s ancillary-driven marketplace, studio executives are taking a long-term approach with properties that once would have been one-shot deals. ‘More and more as we look at managing these properties, we’re not only looking at the event launch,’ Dumbacher says. ‘I have meetings with studio executives and words they like to use are ‘franchise’ and ‘brand marketing.’ ‘ Interactive games, clothing lines, animated children’s shows and direct-to-video releases all ‘keep those properties in front of the customer’s mind,’ he says. ‘In the licensing business, there’s one game, and the name of that game is exposure.’

And it’s not enough to flood the market with merchandise, either a little innovation g’es a long way to increasing sales. In Casper’s case, designing glow-in-the-dark toys gave the merchandise an edge. ‘To a large degree, the battles in licensing, in so far as whose property wins out, are clearly made at retail. Excitement at retail clearly sets one product from the second level,’ he says.

‘Partnership is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but it’s really important for retailers, manufacturers and studios to work together. It’s no longer just a matter of getting a license and slapping a logo on it.’

Known for its innovative promotions, Universal has its merchandising sights set on 1997 when the sequel to Jurassic Park, complete with new dinosaurs, will hit theaters. At the same time, the studio plans to relaunch its animated dinosaur series The Land Before Time for the wee set.

‘We’re calling it the year of the dinosaur,’ says Dumbacher. ‘Back in 1993, there was a strong pent-up demand for dinosaur programming for young kids that we didn’t fulfill.’

In the meantime, the studio has targeted teens for the initial phase of its merchandising campaign for the classic cartoon Rocky & Bullwinkle.

Rollout campaigns are possible with classic properties, he notes, because the properties are not tied to a specific event, like a theatrical release. Event campaigns are a lot trickier to manage.

And sometimes, the best laid plans are for naught, as was the case last year with Apollo 13. Originally slated for a fall release, the movie was bumped up to summer, where it performed exceedingly well. But the early release meant some planned merchandise wasn’t ready. ‘We had to refocus our plans and accelerate product,’ he says. In the end, he notes, ‘our business is run by the entertainment side.’

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