There is a web of licensee/retailer uncertainty hanging over the window of exposure for developing film properties. It is a long-standing and well-founded web, littered with the merch remnants of feature film failures.
Licensors, wisely recognizing that it can’t simply be swept away, are now seeking to use it as adhesive backing on an industry band-aid designed to quell concerns and stretch out property shelf life. Strategies run the gamut from initiating non-movie-related merch programs a year in advance of the release to developing TV series focused on taking up where the film’s final credits leave off.
For upcoming Spider-Man: The Movie, the folks at Marvel are finessing around the issue by negotiating new non-movie licenses and providing in-house publishing support through a new Spider-Man comic series (see ‘A Marvel of mutant reincarnation,’ page 28). DreamWorks’ film Evolution will evolve into an animated series slated to air this fall on Fox in North America and M6 in France. Net giants Nickelodeon and Warner Bros. are set to employ similar tactics with original kid properties. Nick will follow up the holiday release of Jimmy Neutron with a TV series in 2002, and Time Warner is pledging long-term support for the upcoming Warner Bros. flick Osmosis Jones by following the film with the launch of an animated TV series on Kids’ WB!
Yet in attempting to balance the risk-reward scales for retailers and licensees, do licensors find themselves on the weighty end of the risk ratio? The currently en vogue cautious approach may seem a sound business model, but with so much safety being built into programs, is there room left for edginess? Do licensors lose the ability to make a big splash with films-the kind that sends positive ripples coursing throughout all tiers of retail?
While many industry pundits predict Warner Bros. upcoming film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will create magic at the box office, a number of retailers are still waiting to exhale on Potter film merch following disappointing holiday 2000 sell-through for the book-based fare. And Manny Francione, divisional merchandise manager for Paramus, New Jersey-based Toys `R’ Us, recently told KidScreen he does not expect a longer-than-average sales window for the film merch, despite continued publishing and another Potter film in the works (see ‘Harry may be hurt by his own hype as some retailers resist Potter spell,’ page 16, February 2001). Hmmm, kind of pokes a hole in the theory that having non-movie product in place in advance of the release, and continued support following it, naturally translates to retailer comfort.
So could Marvel’s strategy become a flyswatter squashing Spider-Man: The Movie in mid-crawl? Not necessarily. An established character in many mediums, the film is merely an addendum to a classic property, something that bodes well for a measured pre-release merch program. According to 4Kids Entertainment’s chairman and CEO Al Kahn, one way to initiate a successful non-movie-based merch program ahead of a film’s release-’so as not to endanger the concept going forward’-might be to limit the distribution to mid-tier or upstairs at a minimal quantity. ‘Certainly there are categories that might have more appeal earlier than later, such as apparel or publishing,’ Kahn reflects. ‘But you have to be careful, and you have to know what your market and audience is before you do it.’ Stationery, for example, might not be the most appealing item on kid shopping lists.
With large studio consumer products divisions and entertainment companies weaving safety netting throughout their licensing programs, will smaller properties become entangled, or slip through the cracks to become break-out hits? Will the ones that succeed need that elusive edginess industry players are constantly grabbing for? ‘Sometimes it’s not so much the edginess I’m concerned with, it’s the point of difference,’ says Kahn.
With safety so high on everyone’s agenda, the risks inherent in creating totally break-through properties and suitably innovative merch seem to have few takers. Yet, it is the novelty and `wow factor’ of never-seen-before premises that put a property over the top, like the original Star Wars. Ironic, that.
Amanda Burgess, Special Reports Editor