These haven’t exactly been the best of times for family fare at the box office. The few kid-friendly films that made it into multiplexes this summer performed modestly at best. Faced with its weakest animated feature in years, Disney resorted to squabbling with Paramount over box-office bragging rights the first weekend Harriet the Spy went head-to-head with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
But it’s another story altogether in the video arena. At the same time as these movies were struggling at theaters, one video supplier after another announced new family lines.
First came word about impending launches from Paramount Home Video and HBO Video. Then news that New Line Home Video will go for the family crowd when it releases The Adventures of Pinocchio at a sell-through price during the fourth quarter.
Everybody, it seems, is getting into the kidvid game. Why? In a word, sell-through. The sell-through arena continues to grow by leaps and bounds, especially in the kidvid sector.
‘The engine for growth in sell-through is children’s product,’ says Blake Thomas, senior marketing vice president for MGM/UA Home Video, which recently snapped up the long-dormant rights to Pee-wee’s Playhouse with an eye to this demographic.
As the Walt Disney Company has long known, kidvid is the ultimate niche market. The usual rules do not apply here: A box-office flop without stars can turn into a multimillion-unit seller with the help of television. In many cases, TV exposure is more potent than theatrical.
‘It used to be that you didn’t even want to tell people it was going to air,’ says Wendy Moss, senior marketing vice president for Sony Wonder, which releases a wide array of children’s titles. ‘Now it’s become such an important part of the marketing process.’
According to HBO Video president Henry McGee, HBO decided to get into the kidvid game after watching rival suppliers reap riches from children’s programming on its sister cable division.
‘We think there’s a world of opportunity for HBO that we’ve left untapped,’ says McGee.
Similarly, Paramount’s launch comes in the wake of its marketing partnership with its sister cable division Nickelodeon. According to executive marketing vice president Jack Kanne, the new Nickelodeon line is a ‘tent pole’ for a number of family projects in the works for a while.
‘It’s just a matter of a critical mass of product coming together,’ Kanne says. ‘We’ve been working on a lot of these products for a long time.’
It’s no coincidence the HBO and Paramount launches tie into established properties with a built-in audience. When it comes to kidvid, brand marketing and franchise building are the names of the game.
‘The more successful children’s video products are [those] that have branding,’ says Craig Relyea, marketing vice president for MCA/Universal Home Video, which has several ongoing children’s product lines, including the Timmy the Tooth and The Land Before Time series.
‘Branding really helps break through the clutter, and that’s the name of the game at retail,’ says Laura S. Smith, director of children’s marketing for PolyGram Video, home to Bananas in Pajamas and Wishbone the Dog, two relatively new series.
‘From PolyGram’s point of view, branding is absolutely, absolutely important. It’s very important not to have a one-off product. That d’esn’t make sense.
‘In order to compete at retail, you have to have a line of tapes that commands shelf space,’ she says.
Branding, Relyea points out, also gives studios more cross-promotion opportunities. MCA/Universal regularly cross-promotes titles targeted to the same demographic, such as the The Land Before Time and Wee Sing series.
Likewise, Paramount designed a rebate campaign incorporating each of its new family oriented sub-brands. The Oz Kids Collection will have a $2 mail-in rebate, while the Paramount Family Favorites collection will have a $3 mail-in rebate.
Nickelodeon titles will also sport a $2 mail-in rebate. ‘I think that’s something to establish this thing and give customers added value,’ says Kanne.
When designing its launch, HBO Video decided to avoid the preschool crowd in favor of slightly older youngsters from ages four to nine.
‘We plan to steer clear of the preschool category because that is a particularly crowded area,’ says marketing vice president Cynthia Rhea.
‘Preschool has killer competition these days,’ adds HBO Video’s McGee. ‘And if you get much above nine, kids go to things that aren’t made for them anyway.’
Despite the growing competition at the retail level, most studio executives say they are committed to kidvid. Quite simply, the market is there. And with a constantly changing demographic base, kidvid is unlikely to fall out of fashion.
‘Even though the children’s video market is becoming increasingly crowded, it will always be important for PolyGram because parents will never stop caring about children’s programming,’ Smith says. ‘Other genres, like fitness, will come and go, but children’s programming will not.’