Kids feature release push: an event in itself

U.S. studios are thinking big when planning release strategies for upcoming movies targeting kids and family, the rationale being that since both parents and kids will attend, an exponentially higher box office is achievable with these films than with other narrow-niche...
October 1, 1998

U.S. studios are thinking big when planning release strategies for upcoming movies targeting kids and family, the rationale being that since both parents and kids will attend, an exponentially higher box office is achievable with these films than with other narrow-niche categories. Thanksgiving blockbusters-to-be The Rugrats Movie and Babe: Pig in the City are prime examples, with prints and advertising budgets dwarfing those of actioners such as Armageddon and even last summer’s mammoth event picture Godzilla. While the majors’ core strategy seems to be ‘the bigger the better,’ independent contenders carefully plot the timing and location of their limited releases (aiming primarily not to lose their shirts), banking on the draw of well-known characters such as Babar to generate word-of-mouth buzz, thus setting the stage for ancillary revenue streams.

‘The Rugrats Movie is as big a release as there is going to be for the holiday season,’ says Albie Hecht, president of film and television entertainment at Nickelodeon, citing not only the 2,000-screen opening, but the mammoth scope of the advertising and promotion campaign behind the movie to substantiate this claim. Hecht also asserted that The Rugrats Movie, budgeted at US$26 million, is the largest event-type family movie in the Paramount’s history. However, the notion that it’s Thanksgiving’s biggest family release is hotly contested by Universal Studios. ‘Babe: Pig in the City will be our widest release of the year,’ says Tim Rothwell, senior VP of sales, merchandising, licensing and retail development for Universal’s consumer products division. ‘All divisions of the company are behind it, and it will be huge.’

Interestingly, the prints and advertising budgets cited for both films was US$100 million-a figure that dwarfs the US$60 million P&A budget for Sony’s mammoth Memorial Day Godzilla release. No specific determination has been made as to what percentage of the staggering P&A expenditures for either film is expected to be offset by ancillary revenue streams such as licensing and merchandising.

It’s no wonder the studios are willing to spend so heavily in the kid and family film genre-this category has consistently demonstrated its ability to break through at the box office. For instance, Twentieth Century Fox’s family feature Dr. Doolittle grossed over US$140 million this summer, beating out big-budget releases like Godzilla and There’s Something About Mary.

Also, production budgets in this category tend to be kinder and gentler. Twentieth Century Fox’s Titanic set the high-water mark at $200 million, whereas Columbia Tri Star’s Madeline is fairly kid-typical at US$15 million.

Both Rothwell and Hecht claim that Disney’s long-standing corner on kids and family blockbusters, while daunting, is not expected to hinder the strength of their franchises. Brand strength was a core focus of both Rugrats and Babe marketers, suggesting that Disney’s lead in the critical awareness area has not gone unaddressed.

At press time, Universal had not finalized the number of screens they’re opening on, but a ‘wide release’ usually denotes anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 screens. The studio has a leg up in garnering screens as its parent company owns a number of theater chains, including Cineplex Odeon.

Universal estimates Babe: Pig in the City’s box office will surpass the original Babe’s US$250 million worldwide. The original’s gross was comprised of 60 million tickets sold domestically and 190 million sold internationally, and marketers anticipate a replay of this strong global performance. Perhaps to avoid head-to-head competition with its porcine rival, the Nickelodeon/

Paramount release was bumped back from Thanksgiving weekend to November 20th-the weekend prior to Babe: Pig in the City’s release.

At the other end of the box office spectrum, independents seeking to minimize losses when competing against the majors often choose a limited release strategy. Budgeted at US$2.6 million, Nelvana’s Babar, King of Elephants has allotted less than US$1 million for promoting its 50-theater, 5-city February release. ‘It’s extra hard to make an impact with the competition spending around US$60 million in P&A,’ says Toper Taylor, president of Nelvana Communications. ‘We’re spending what we need to get the prints out there and to run some ads, create some awareness-to create a basic groundswell.’

While distributors use sophisticated focus group data to determine box office within 20% for wide releases, calculating for smaller films is both less cost-intensive and less precise-the limited release will only be extended to more screens if the movie gets outstanding critical acclaim and if the box office is 80% of capacity. ‘In that case, we would do a gradual roll-out,’ says Taylor. If the film has modest or poor returns, the limited release strategy prevents the studio from taking a substantial financial hit.

Another element the majors factor into their pulling-out-all-the-stops campaigns for Babe: Pig in the City and The Rugrats Movie is numerous partners kicking in to the promotional kitty. Advertisers promoting The Rugrats Movie include Lincoln Mercury, which will spend over US$20 million on U.S. print and TV ads in one of the largest automotive tie-ins ever for its new family vehicle, the 1999 Mercury Villager; Burger King, which will sell premiums along with running a kids’ meal promotion in more than 8,000 restaurants; Motts, which will offer three promotional The Rugrats Movie applesauce flavors; and Kraft, Campbell’s and Coca-Cola will all feature promotions, including special popcorn bags created by Coke, which are expected to become collectors’ items.

A unique feature of some tie-in advertising is that it targets adults and kids with different commercial spots, according to Hecht. For instance, Burger King will run two different spots, one for parents and one for kids. ‘The adult-targeted spots will use [the character of] Angelica, who is older and can talk, for a different emphasis,’ Hecht says.

And then there are the kid-carried, paid-for-by-the-target-audience playground ambassadors-the mobile movie-touting and, in some cases, burping toys. The consumer product launch inspired by The Rugrats Movie includes the ‘Stop My Hiccups Baby Dil’ doll from Mattel, introducing the movie’s new character Baby Dil, along with additional dolls, an activity center and movie storybook.

Evidence of consumer response to the campaign is already strong, according to Hecht: The Rugrats Movie Web site has increased visits to by 100%.

Seventy licensees and a number of major promotional partners reflect Babe: Pig in the City’s scope as an event picture, according to Rothwell. ‘At Universal Studios, as they analyze their slate of movies, only certain movies are what we would classify as `event pictures,’ which all divisions of the company get behind.’ Promotional partners contribute substantially to the film’s P&A total, including Quaker Life, which is branding a special Babe cereal; Dole, which co-brands fruit-related products with Babe; and Discover Card, which extends a `book of values’ to card holders offering coupon discounts on Babe products.

According to Rothwell, the franchise has chosen its partners carefully in order to best extend the prestigious Babe brand, which was given high profile when it won prizes such as an Academy Award, People’s Choice and Golden Globes. For instance, no fast-food partner was chosen-in fact, many fast food offers were declined. ‘Babe is a vegetarian,’ quips a Universal spokesperson. Publishing is a major emphasis of the licensing campaign, with 45 separate book titles coming out of seven publishers to support the film.

Nelvana’s 10-year-long licensing and merchandising program for Babar is a co-venture with The Clifford Ross Company domestically, and the Ellipse division of Canal+ in France. The brand centers around the categories of home video, publishing and toys, all of which have received a boost from the upcoming film release.

A number of new players have signed on since the announcement of the movie, including a European master toy licensee (Ideal Loisins), a French publisher that plans to release over 100 new Babar titles (Hachette), and U.S. pay TV giant HBO has plans to distribute the film and a spin-off TV series.

Unable to compete with the majors in terms of P&A spending, marketers of Babar, King of Elephants stress the power of word-of-mouth to pack in audiences and sell licensed products. ‘If you believe in a property and give it an opportunity to succeed theatrically, you look for positive reviews. This helps to create awareness for the property as a whole, impacting the merchandising, and hopefully creating an opportunity for theater [owners] who are trying to attract the family demo,’ says Taylor.

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