With a pair of Oscars to their credit, cult-like status in their native United Kingdom and new audiences growing steadily in every market where they appear on television or in video release, Wallace and Gromit are now ready to take on the Far East.
The two quirky characters, developed by England’s Nick Park, are about to make their move into Japan now that BBC Worldwide, the international commercial arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation, has signed a licensing agreement with Tokyo-based Sony.
If Wallace and Gromit’s international performance to date is anything to go by, the Japanese market should be easy pickings.
Even though the characters appear in only three half-hour shows and had their first airing in the U.K. over four years ago, Wallace and Gromit are developing a major-studio-like presence.
According to an independent study recently commissioned by BBC Worldwide France, they are spontaneously recognized by 35 percent of the French public, despite the fact that the first showing of Wallace and Gromit, on pay-TV station Canal+, was three years ago. When France 2 aired the show last Christmas, it earned a 22.8 percent audience share.
And in the United States, a three-episode video release through CBS/Fox Video was one of last year’s surprise sell-through hits, with some 1.4 million units sold.
‘Their humor has a universal appeal. It works at all levels. There is slapstick for the kids, and there is quirkiness and the adventurous spirit of the characters for the adults,’ says Rob Wijeratne, international licensing manager for BBC Licensing.
Equally important is the detail and quality of animation, he says. Each half-hour took a year to produce, at the rate of two to three seconds of animation per day.
‘Each time you watch a show, you see something new and different. That’s partly what keeps people coming back. In England, the characters are so well recognized that they have almost become a part of the British psyche. It is now a kind of Christmas tradition,’ says Wijeratne.
Wallace and Gromit’s first show, The Wrong Trousers, aired on British television on December 26, 1993, and drew an audience of 3.3 million. When it aired again at Easter, the audience had grown to 8.3 million.
The first licensing program began with an exclusive arrangement through the Boots drugstore chain that same spring. The products, including toiletries, figurines and watches, were specifically designed as adult gift items.
As the characters’ popularity grew, helped considerably by a 1994 Oscar for The Wrong Trousers, merchandising appeal also expanded. T-shirts, sold through HMV and Virgin music stores, are consistently among the top 10 in those outlets, says Wijeratne.
‘The characters have a particular appeal among young college students and teens. Wallace and Gromit are great inventors. They are creative and innovative and they have wonderful adventures. All ages can identify with that.
‘We’ve also made sure that the products reflect the high quality and exclusivity of the animation. The products have to reflect the characters themselves.’
By Christmas 1995, when the second episode, A Close Shave, was broadcast over BBC2, almost 11 million viewers tuned in. Shortly afterwards, Wallace and Gromit began appearing on promotions for products such as Kellogg’s cereal, Typhoo Tea and Winchester Cheese.
BBC’s licensing strategy was to build a franchise among young adults before moving into the childen’s market, says Wijeratne.
‘We felt that it would be more effective to start it out as a high-quality gift item and then bring it down to the kids market, rather than the other way around.’
Wallace and Gromit characters expanded into the children’s apparel market this Christmas. In the U.K., there are now some 400 licensed products available through 65 licensees. Licensing programs have been extended to Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., where there are 15 licensees.
‘People simply love and empathize with these characters,’ says Wijeratne. ‘They buy these products because they want to be involved in their world. The response from viewers says it all.’