Retro licensing: Consumers clamoring for classics

They may not have the glamor of the latest Hollywood release nor generate the excitement of a hot new series, but dusted off classic properties can be surprisingly profitable....
August 1, 1999

They may not have the glamor of the latest Hollywood release nor generate the excitement of a hot new series, but dusted off classic properties can be surprisingly profitable.

Universal has seen licensing programs for classics Curious George, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Woody Woodpecker and Alvin and the Chipmunks grow by four or five times in two years. Sony Pictures Consumer Products is ramping up a new U.S. program for classic TV series Bewitched and has seen sales for I Dream of Jeannie merchandise increase substantially over the past eight months. Viacom Consumer Products has seen the number of licensees attached to its classic programs almost triple over the last two years.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener of all is the discovery by Universal’s research department that last year, toy sales for classic programs were about four times those for new releases and other event-driven programs.

‘I think we’re seeing a resurgence in classic licensing, and I think that comes from retailers looking for a healthier mix between event-driven properties and classic-driven properties,’ says Tim Rothwell, senior VP of licensing and retail at Universal Studios Consumer Products Group. He notes that part of the appeal is the ‘gradual growth plane’ seen in sales for classic merchandise, which helps to smooth the ‘big spikes’ in sales associated with the release of blockbuster movies. ‘Classic licensing is something you can count on,’ he adds. ‘Because it has been proven over time, there’s less risk involved.’

Pam Newton, VP of licensing and marketing at Viacom Consumer Products, has not only seen a similar rise in classic sales, but says it’s an increase fed by grassroots consumer demand rather than a big push from the studios. Three years ago, Viacom grouped its most popular classic shows into programs such as Legends of the West (Gunsmoke, Wild Wild West, Rawhide and Have Gun Will Travel), The Comedy Program (Taxi, Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons) and the Americana Program (Happy Days, The Andy Griffith Show, Laverne and Shirley and The Twilight Zone). The grouping enabled licensees to sign one contract for united licensing programs spanning several shows, and was part of the reason classic licensing took off. Nevertheless, Newton says it was increased consumer demand that prompted the programs’ establishment in the first place.

Rothwell says consumer demand is increasing because properties are appealing to a new generation of kids while retaining their nostalgic appeal with parents and grandparents. Peter Dang, executive VP of worldwide consumer products at the recently renamed Sony Pictures Consumer Products, agrees. ‘Part of the reason why retro is so popular is that you have two groups of consumers: you have the baby boomers, and then you have their children, who are discovering the properties for the first time. So if a little girl says `I want an I Dream of Jeannie doll,’ mom knows exactly what she’s talking about.’

Dang adds that teens are into some of the retro classics too, but rather than reexperiencing the original appeal as the younger kids do, or feeling the nostalgia adults feel, teens are attracted to properties with a camp sensibility. ‘It’s just kind of in,’ he says. ‘Just look at the popularity of Austin Powers-the whole thing has become campy-chic.’

Sony plans to take advantage of this demand by launching a national, syndicated, one-hour block of retro shows, including Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, under the Screen Gems banner this fall. At about the same time, Dang will introduce an extensive line of Bewitched merchandise to the U.S., following a successful two-year run of the program in Japan. Dang says merchandise such as furry and plastic purses, scarves, hats, apparel and accessories have ‘been very popular along the Ginza,’ and he will probably retain Japanese manufacturers such as Bandai’s Tokyo-based Yutaka company to provide North American retailers with the product. Girls ages six to teen will be the primary target, with nostalgic moms a secondary target.

Rothwell says that future retro plans at Universal include The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (see story page 20), coming out next summer, and more features along the lines of this year’s release The Mummy. The studio is currently choosing from a slate of classic Universal Monsters (including Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Creature From the Black Lagoon and the Phantom of the Opera) for the stars of future movies. Later this year, Universal will also be launching a specialty program for Sitting Ducks, based on the classic illustrated book by Michael Bedard first published in 1949. A Sitting Ducks TV series is also in development.

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