After celebrating its 10th anniversary on PBS at Licensing 99, the Thomas & Friends franchise is aiming for a broader market. Recent deals, such as an exclusive link from the Thomas Web site to a branded page on eToys, a licensed CD-ROM title, priced at US$19.99, which will be released for kids five and up by Hasbro Interactive this October, and a Random House deal calling for a whopping 75 new titles, show the engine steaming into more products aimed at the mass market.
The Random House deal was made possible when The Britt Allcroft Company acquired worldwide publishing rights for the Railway series of books from London-based Reed Elsevier for about US$22 million in April `98. Britt then licensed worldwide rights to Egmont, and subsequently granted North American publishing rights to Random House last May. Britt’s VP of licensing, David Jacobs, is particularly happy about Random’s plans to inundate both specialty and mass with the books. ‘The uniqueness of the Random House deal is the breadth of this new publishing relationship, and the fact that it’s a relationship that extends not just to traditional trade publishing, but also the mass market,’ he says. ‘We partnered with Random to segment the lines in a way that we haven’t been able to do in the past, and that’s very exciting.’
In fact, Jacobs says that the key to expanding the stable of Thomas merchandise lies in segmented lines. Growing the property into mass outlets is fine, he notes, as long as Wal Mart’s cut-rate Thomas merchandise isn’t competing with the 3,000 independent retailers, The Great Train Store, The Learning Smiths, Noodle Kidoodle and Zany Brainy, which established the property.
A recent deal extending Britt’s licensing agreement with Chicago-based Learning Curve until 2007, and allowing the upstairs toy manufacturer to expand into categories beyond the wooden train set it now produces, backs up this commitment to specialty.
Jacobs says the timing is right for expansion because Thomas & the Magic Railroad, a new feature film budgeted at US$14 million and slated to be distributed in the U.K. and the U.S. by Destination Films next summer, will ‘provide a spike of awareness and focus.’ Jacobs says he will keep the momentum going with a seven-week Subway QSR promotion supported by TV advertising next summer, new licensing partners, stepped up ‘Day out with Thomas’ live promotions and a holiday 2000 release of the feature on video.