Bringing back the property that sizzled, then fizzled

An established trend in the licensing world in the past few years is bringing back a retro property. Wherever you look, old properties such as Universal Studios' upcoming Rocky and Bullwinkle flick are being introduced to new audiences, because those in...
June 1, 2000

An established trend in the licensing world in the past few years is bringing back a retro property. Wherever you look, old properties such as Universal Studios’ upcoming Rocky and Bullwinkle flick are being introduced to new audiences, because those in the industry are betting on the retail success of the beaten path of nostalgia rather than taking risks on fresh ideas.

These properties can succeed on two levels-with the parents who grew up with them, and with kids, who see them as brand new. But what about those other properties that are straddling the line between truly retro (brought back from the dead decades later) and properties that were hot five or 10 years ago and have faded, but not yet disappeared. Most licensing agents agree that given today’s fragmented and intensely competitive retail scene, hauling out old properties is still less risky than introducing completely new projects with no audience familiarity.

With properties that are faded but still not old enough to be considered retro, and in some cases, even ‘uncool,’ agents and licensees are still betting on older siblings or young parents to help revive them, while reinventing properties to make them hip again. ‘I think there’s nostalgia, awareness, Q-score, as opposed to nothing. There are so many pitches, if [retailers] can click into something that’s been done, it’s better,’ says Gary Richardson, CEO of Northampton, Massachusetts-based Mirage Licensing, which recently reassumed all licensing responsibility for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from Jericho, New York-based Surge Licensing.

Arguably, strategy the second time around has to be even more thought-out, especially in the case of a property like Ninja Turtles, which has not had TV air time since 1997. A licensing company must consider how to best target the dual demo (parents and kids) that most of these properties are hoping to hit.

The Turtle property was created in 1984 as a self-published comic by Eastman and Laird. In 1987, a master toy license was granted to Playmates Toys. Meanwhile, Murakami, Wolf, Swenson Films was hired by Playmates to produce a five-part animated miniseries based on the property. The show was picked up by CBS and aired from 1988 to 1994. TMNT movies produced by Golden Harvest Films and distributed by New Rhine Cinema hit theaters in 1990, 1991 and 1993. In 1996, Fox Kids Network and Saban Entertainment gained rights to the series and developed a live-action series that aired from 1997 to 1999 called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.

Because the Ninja Turtles have since done what Ninjas do best-disappear from view-Mirage Licensing is faced with reevaluating the green team to develop a strategic relaunch plan.

The key for Mirage is to appeal to two demos. The first are those who read the original comic, which was darker than the TV series. This will mean ‘making it edgy. A way to attract them is to come back and do a kick-ass video game,’ says Richardson.

Snaring the second demo, kids two to 11, will probably mean producing a new TV series that’s either 3-D or CGI with a whole new look. He compares the revamp of the Ninja Turtles to the second coming of Batman or Power Rangers in new series where the characters were recreated in different, sometimes darker forms. To get over the ‘been-there, done-that’ stigma with the licensing community and retailers, Mirage Licensing’s main goal will be to shop around a new TV series and show that it’s a new beast. To its benefit, he says when the Turtles fizzled, not a lot of merch was left over in the stores, so it should not cause problems for retailers. Richardson says an animated series is best, since merch based on the live-action series didn’t do as well. Richardson says most of the current licensees are producing nostalgia items like collectible action figures or niche products like International Home Foods’ Turtles Pasta or PEZ dispensers.

The new line by Playmates is expected to be more kid- than collector-driven. As well, this time around, the program will probably focus less on things dedicated to young kids like sheets and pillowcases, and focus more on ‘things that are considered cool’ such as T-shirts or high-end collectible toys and video games. Richardson says this may include changing both the look and the personalities of the Turtles, and that new platforms might include the Internet or a feature film.

Playmates continues to work with Mirage as the master toy licensee, and currently, there are about two dozen other existing licensees for the property, which has generated over US$4 billion in merchandising and entertainment revenues in the past 15 years. Although the U.S. remains the Turtles’ strongest market, following the live-action series, the property enjoyed success in the European markets of Germany, Italy and Western Europe.

A second property trying to balance between retro and new is Vancouver-based Mainframe Entertainment’s ReBoot. Two MOWs will air on YTV in spring and fall 2001, and American Champion Entertainment Marketing Group was recently chosen by Mainframe to manage worldwide licensing and merch rights for the property.

The 39-episode series began in fall 1994, airing on YTV and ABC for two seasons until 1996, when it went into syndication. It started airing on Cartoon Network in March 1999, and the series has had regular air time in repeats on YTV since 1996. Although some merch was produced in 1995 by master toy licensee Irwin and 100 other licensees (including Electronic Arts and Polygram Home Video), Helen Chapman, Mainframe’s director of merchandising and licensing, says the initial merchandise program wasn’t as successful as hoped because the series didn’t have enough eps (and thus Q-score) and there was a gap between the 1996 season, when it finished airing on ABC, to March 1999, when the Cartoon Network began airing ReBoot. ‘It’s never been properly exposed in the American market.’

This time around, there is a built-in fan base because of the show’s continuous air time on Toonami and solid ratings, says Joy Tashijan, president and CEO of ACEMG. The marketing approach is two-tiered, to appeal to both kids and die-hard collectors. Because of the show’s then-groundbreaking CGI animation, she feels product will appeal to those who are animation fans. As well, the story arc of the MOWs is leaving a segue for either a feature film or another set of series, says Chapman.

Tashijan plans to build on the Toonami block for the launch of new ReBoot merch. Airing between Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, ReBoot will have a built-in chunk of retail alongside master toy licensee Irwin’s Dragon Ball and Moon merch in stores. Action figures and play environments by Irwin will launch Q4 with a build-up to 2001 Toy Fair. Other deals include ES Originals for footwear and Romar for backpacks. Socks, pajamas, T-shirts and publishing deals for trading cards and posters are forthcoming.

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