Even before the licensing business had a name for itself, Jean-Michel Biard was in the droits dérivés game. This year, as his Paris-based company, V.I.P. Licensing, celebrates its 30th anniversary, Biard reflects on the evolution of the French licensing market.
here are few people in the international licensing business who can claim to have worked on as wide or as prestigious a range of properties as has Jean-Michel Biard, the president of Paris-based V.I.P. Licensing.
Since 1964, when he first entered the business, Biard’s credits have included Batman, Superman, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, The Magic Roundabout, The Pink Panther, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, The Muppets, Barbie, The Flintstones, Peanuts, Zorro, Nintendo and The Ninja Turtles, to name but a few.
Long-standing partners, such as Debra Fletcher, director of international licensing at United Media, describe him as ‘one of our top agents in the world. He is very well connected, very attentive to detail and passionate about what he does. We have been working with V.I.P. on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts since 1991, and he has been a champion for the cause.’
Biard, who was the first non-American member of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA), has been in licensing so long that there was not even a name for the sector when he started out. ‘I joined French Television (ORTF) in 1964 when it restructured its commercial activities into three parts. It had advertising, sales and a third department, which no one had a name for.’
This department, which served to exploit secondary rights (droits dérivés), had two animation properties: the television series Nounours and The Magic Roundabout. Biard recalls: ‘Those two series delivered so much money through licensing that we had to add more and more people.’
The Magic Roundabout was an immediate success in Europe. Biard sold it to the BBC in the U.K. on the understanding that it would be broadcast at 5:55 p.m., just before the national news. He then helped the BBC set up its first ever licensing division in 1967.
Biard left the television business in 1968 to form V.I.P., and from day one, decided ‘not to put all my eggs in the same basket.’
In addition to the licensing division, he launched a sales promotion agency called Extension 21, which United Media’s Fletcher regards as a real asset. ‘It is great to work with a full-service agency that can see a project through from conception to execution.’ More recently, Biard has formed a television arm called V.I.P. Television, in order to create ‘a vertical structure within the group,’ he says. Its role is primarily to invest in original French television properties.
At the end of the 1960s, only Disney had established a foothold in the emerging French market, recalls Biard. During the 1970s, however, V.I.P. became involved with all of the other major U.S. studios as they entered the market. ‘We signed up Hanna-Barbera in 1970, and went on to add every studio in the next 10 years,’ says Biard, reeling off name after name: The Licensing Corporation of America (a division of Warner) in 1970, Paramount in 1973, Columbia in 1978, Fox and MGM in 1981. It was, says Biard, ‘a very Hollywood-oriented approach.’
As the French market matured, this representation of multiple studios became impractical. ‘Today, we concentrate on working with MGM. Corporations have got so big that you spend too much of your time reporting to management,’ he says.
Not only that, but increased competition between properties began to breed unrealistic expectation, says Biard. ‘People would come to me with something that they thought was the greatest movie in the world, and I would have to tell them that it would not sell in France. Even with big movies like Godzilla, you cannot be sure of a hit.’
Today, Biard runs a company with 25 staff members. He has adopted a focused approach that centers on building ‘long-term relationships with stable, classic characters, whatever age group they are aimed at.’ He is no longer interested in fast-burn properties.
One of the most interesting examples of this approach is a character that was first described in a 1985 V.I.P. newsletter as ‘le plus célèbre des héros de télévision’ (the most celebrated television hero). It was, of course, Zorro, which, 13 years later, promises to be V.I.P.’s biggest property of the year with the summer launch of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie The Mask of Zorro. With properties such as Nounours and Ninja Turtles also set to make comebacks on television this year, Biard’s portfolio reinforces his attraction to established characters.
According to Biard, U.S. characters have continued to dominate the French market throughout his career in licensing. However, he stresses that there are examples of French properties that have also made inroads into the domestic market.
The first major wave of activity in the domestic market surrounding French properties came in the mid-1970s with the multi-media development of characters such as Astérix, Tin Tin, Babar and The Smurfs (the latter went on to be the first major European property to take the U.S. by storm). A key factor in the popularity of these characters lay in the strength of the French comic and book publishing business, says Biard.
Today, Biard claims to be seeing a revival of domestic properties’ potential, as the result of the growing strength of the French animation business. ‘Financial support for producers from the CNC [Centre National de la Cinématographie] means the country is emerging as a major player in European animation,’ says Biard. ‘And we are getting more and more involved in French properties at V.I.P.’ Examples include Calamity Jane and Nounours.
This revival is borne out by the claims of Xavier Blondaz-Gerard, a former employee of Biard who now heads Gaumont Multimedia’s licensing activities in France. Key properties to emerge from Gaumont include spin-offs of Luc Besson movies (Nikita, The Fifth Element), and animation series such as Space Goofs. This year’s big property will be animated series The Magician, which begins transmission on FR3 in September.
According to Blondaz-Gerard, ‘Disney controls 50 to 60% of the market, which makes it very tough. But there is a lot of interest among domestic licensees in the activities of French studios. We get them involved at the beginning of the process and explain how our properties are developing. In the case of The Magician, we have just held a major presentation before 150 key people in the licensing business.’
Biard welcomes the development of new French animation, but is cautious about its impact on his own business. ‘I am trying to avoid working with properties that are only based on television,’ he says, citing uncertainty about scheduling as a key factor in his thinking.
‘With so many new channels, the amount of programming has increased enormously. As a result, the problem for the last three to four years has been the perpetual changing of airing time. I remember working on a licensing campaign for the Indiana Jones television series in which we had to change all the packaging when TF1 postponed its broadcast by 18 months. That sort of thing makes licensees lose confidence.’
Having said that, Biard is not turning his back on French television properties. He has the licensing rights to Canal+’s Calamity Jane in France, and has begun looking for potential investments. ‘We are putting a bit of money up front as a co-producer on projects that are already basically financed. In return, we get worldwide licensing rights.’ This strategy is approached with great care, however. ‘We are constantly in touch with producers about their properties, but always warn them that only one in 10 is going to work.’
V.I.P.’s recent successes in the licensing market demonstrate the advantages of long brand heritage and exposure across different media. He cites Peanuts, Zorro, Goosebumps and Dilbert as some of his most lucrative properties at present.
Goosebumps (known in France as Chair de poule) is a classic example of V.I.P.’s approach in more ways than one. According to Biard, ensuring the success of a licensing campaign requires clear communication between the various players involved in its marketing. ‘After we signed a deal for Goosebumps with Parachute, we called FR2 and suggested that we get everyone together to discuss the overall strategy,’ says Biard. ‘As a result, we met with Hasbro, Saban, Fox Video, FR2 and Bayard Publishing. Between us, we spent a lot of money on a big launch, which achieved a lot of TV and press coverage.’
Biard’s plans for growth are primarily concerned with establishing control over as much of the marketing process as possible. However, he has no plans to expand his operation throughout Europe. ‘We have been there before,’ he says, ‘with offices in territories like Germany. But it is very difficult. There is no such thing as Europe. Every country works in a different way, whether you are talking about style guides or the popularity of characters. Every European territory has between three and six of its own local properties.’
Instead, Biard is keen to participate in the successful expansion of French businesses outside their domestic market. As retailers, toy and stationery manufacturers expand into new international markets, Biard is eager to help them establish a licensing blueprint from their French headquarters.
Although Biard self-deprecatingly describes himself as ‘the dinosaur of the business,’ he continues to adapt in order to survive. At this year’s Licensing 98 International in June, he met a wide range of emerging players and snapped up the French rights to the U.S. market’s latest hot property, the television series South Park. He was also busy developing ideas with core clients such as MGM and Crayola.
‘Licensing has been my whole life, and although we have to work harder, I find it more interesting now than ever before because it is more of a partnership approach. The design and creativity in licensing and promotions are very good now.’
His main criticism of the business is the need to ‘sell yourself twice-once to the licensee and once to licensors, who start arguing with you about what is good for the brand in a market that they don’t know anything about. That is why I like to build up long-term relationships based on trust. I am not interested in people who want to auction off their rights. Either they think my company can do the job or they don’t.’ Judging by Biard’s track record, you would have to be pretty sure of yourself to doubt the advice of French licensing’s best-known V.I.P.
Career at a glance
1964: Joins French Television (ORTF) to head new licensing division.
1967: Sells The Magic Roundabout to the BBC. Helps launch BBC licensing division in the same year.
1968: Forms his own company, V.I.P. Licensing. Also launches a sales promotion agency called Extension 21.
1970: Picks up the first of many U.S. clients: Warner. During the next decade, works for all the main studios. In 1981, begins working with MGM, which is now his only major U.S. studio client.
1985: Starts working with Zorro property.
1989: Starts working with the leading U.S. independent licensing firm United Media. Subsequently works on properties such as Peanuts, Dilbert and The National Geographic Society.
1994: Founding member of licensing society PELI (Pan-European Licensing International).
1997: Launches major licensing campaign alongside Snoopy broadcasts on Canal J. Also begins investing in original French properties through new subsidiary V.I.P. Television. Picks up the licensing rights to Goosebumps from Parachute.
1998: 30th anniversary of the company’s launch. Key adviser to international business publisher and exhibitor Miller Freeman on the launch of a new Paris-based licensing exhibition.