In the second installment of our series that aims to probe the greatest minds working in licensing and merchandising today, LIMA Hall of Fame member and industry pioneer Gary Caplan sat down with Elie Dekel. As he preps plans celebrating the upcoming 400th episode of The Simpsons and readies program plans for Emmy winner 24′s film debut, the executive VP of licensing & merchandising at Twentieth Century Fox took some time out to chat about his empathy with Homer, the current state of the biz and points in between.
Gary Caplan: Elie, thanks for sitting down with me today. It’s been such a joy working with you over the years. Would you tell me something about your key responsibilities and what departments report to you at Fox?
Elie Dekel: Thanks for having me, Gary. At Fox I’m responsible for our licensing and marketing business; it covers all of our television properties, film properties and increasingly we are growing the portfolio to include numerous brands under Fox and News Corp. umbrella such as Fuel TV, a dedicated television channel for action sports.
GC: What was your first job in the licensing and promotions business?
ED: In 1990 I joined Saban Entertainment, which was a producer and distributor at the time. It didn’t really have a marketing and promotions department, so I started that and fortunately had a very long and exciting and productive run.
GC: What was it like working for Haim Saban?
ED: It was an education every day. He challenged me to live up to sometimes unreal expectations, but he also taught me that if you don’t aim high you don’t really reach those lofty goals. I learned that anything is possible in our business.
GC: Is that what you remember most?
ED: Gary, it’s a combination of things. I was proud of the fact that we as a company continued to develop our business in ways that were untested and unproven. We always tried to defy convention and break some rules, and then along came a few hits in succession.
GC: Such as?
ED: Like the first X-Men animated series. It was marketing and promotions success for us and a licensing success for Marvel. Shortly after that we launched Power Rangers.
GC: Tell me about Power Rangers and how much that meant to you and your career.
ED: Haim believed so much in its ability to succeed. He kept refreshing his pitch, kept re-cutting the trail and rethinking the concept. Finally Margaret Loesch at Fox Kids took the risk of putting it on the air. It was so different and new. In fact, I developed an ad campaign for the launch of the series that said ‘The Power Rangers are coming and children’s television will never be the same’…and we believed it. It did break a lot of rules and it set the bar high for ratings, licensing and promotions.
GC: In our business it seems like everybody wants to talk about how much the licensing and promotions business has changed over the years. How would you describe it today, and what are the key differences between then and now that stand out in your mind?
ED: We have all talked a lot about consolidation of retail and that is sort of a given at this point. We’ve got to stop complaining and work within that. I think if there are other changes on the way – they relate to the fact that there are more opportunities in the licensing marketplace then ever before. But because there is such a broad choice from retailer and licensee perspectives, it creates greater competition for licensors and so it becomes important for us to choose our initiatives wisely. Just because something is on air does not automatically mean it will be a licensing success. We have to be more disciplined in identifying opportunities that really are different and unique and that really connect with an audience. More and more we are finding properties are connecting with audiences that are smaller but, at the same time, those audiences are more passionate and connected. As a result we find there are more specific niche opportunities and far fewer broad, all-encompassing ones. What do you think Gary?
GC: I wonder what comes first, the properties or the product? That is something that has been going around in my mind for many years.
ED: Well I think it’s always the property. There are a few rare exceptions, where perhaps a product helps a property come to light or can drive a licensing program. I’ll give you an example, we had a small independent film a couple of years ago called Napoleon Dynamite. It appealed on a really unique level to a specific audience. There was a t-shirt worn by the lead character that said ‘Vote for Pedro’. We merchandised that t-shirt with Hot Topic on an exclusive basis to start, and it seemed it was a flashpoint for an entire licensing program. But that product could not have existed if the film wasn’t working on its own merits.
GC: When it comes to studio licensing what do you think the primary role for a studio licensor is?
ED: It depends. There are probably two or three fundamentals that we can’t get away from. One is helping our entertainment initiatives connect strongly with the consumer…From an industry and licensee perspective, my most important responsibility is helping our licensees succeed. If we can’t do everything in our power to help the licensees make a good product then we aren’t living up to our full potential. Ultimately it is not always up to us. The consumer always makes the final decision.
GC: Along those lines, you have very good people who devote their time to calling on retailers. What are they telling you about retailer attitudes right now?
ED: I think we are seeing an evolution of the understanding of retailing from a licensing perspective. Retailers respect the fact that strong licenses, particularly from an entertainment standpoint, can help bring people into stores and help sell products. But they also realize that not every entertainment brand lends itself to good products and not every product needs to have a license to sell well. I find that retailers have become much more selective and sophisticated in their approach to selecting what they support, and to some degree they have become more skeptical. So the degree to which retailers support and commit to a license now has to rise to a higher standard to fit into that retailer’s plans. I think we all have realized we can’t expect that the audience will always be there. We now have to make sure the audience is there before we go out and merchandise a product.
GC: I agree with that. The old rules of licensing will have to change a bit to refocus on the realities of the marketplace that you just described.
ED: I’ll give you an example. We have a film property coming to market called Eragon. It was a very successful book property and two books of a planned trilogy are in the market. We have embraced this literary franchise and are producing films based on these epic stories. We, as a studio, decided to look at this with a long-term view…We really wanted to make sure that all aspects of the program were based on an established proven audience. We know we have an established audience of readers; we now have to move those readers and everyone else to go see these films. The first film has a very focused licensing program that speaks mostly to those readers. We really look at Eragon movies two and three as a place to grow that licensing program.
GC: As you know I’m a huge fan of The Simpsons. I live my life around watching The Simpsons and 24. I want to be Jack Bauer when I grow up.
ED: I say you are the Jack Bauer of licensing. You’re always there and sometimes you cause trouble but more often than not you solve the problem and we all look up to you.
GC: Thanks, Elie. I love that! But back to The Simpsons. What character do you associate with most?
ED: For a long time I saw myself as Bart, a little bit of a troublemaker…youthful at heart. Lately I’m finding I’m more like Homer than I care to admit. The waistline is growing, my needs are becoming perhaps more simple and selfish, and, with my lovely wife Tracy, I’m trying to manage a house of young people (daughter Talia, son Noah and step-daughter Skylar) and a family that is so important to me. That is one of the things about The Simpsons that is inescapable, despite the humour and the craziness of a given story, every story ends up with the ultimate truth about the importance of family. What do you think?
GC: I agree. I used to think of myself as Homer when I looked in the mirror. But honestly, I live my life as a combination of Lisa and Marge. I love Lisa’s principles, her honesty, sense of commitment, fair play and stick-to-itiveness, every quality I like. Also she is a really good jazz baritone saxaphone player…Outside of work, what hobbies do you have?
ED: Apart from spending time with the family, I play guitar, something I picked up late in life and I haven’t been able to stop since I started. I love cars and all they represent and when I have the time I take one of my cars to a racetrack and drive it the way it is meant to be driven, so driving is a hobby.
GC: Is there anything about our business that keeps you up at night, anything that you would like to see change?
ED: If anything keeps me up at night it would be the very difficult task of reaching consumers in an environment where choice is greater than ever before. How do we apply ourselves and our properties in the work we do collaborating with licensees and retailers to stand out in a crowded environment, to deliver something that is special and unique. It forces us to be creative; innovative and collaborative, which are all guiding principles for Fox. Rather than dwell on the difficulty, I try to focus my thinking and the thinking of the team on how we get past those challenges. I would suggest that we need to be patient in this business. A licensing program can and should succeed over a long period of time, which means we don’t always launch day and date. It is important to be responsive to the market place as opposed to predictive of the market place.
GC: Last question, how do you feel about the future of our business?
ED: I’m really encouraged. I feel that because of the emergence of technology and how consumer behavior is adapting to that, we have more ways than ever before of speaking to our audiences in a direct and personal way. We can reach consumers through every device that they carry. A cell phone, computer, TV, Tivo, ipod, there are so many ways to reach our audience and our customers now and as a result it opens up so many more great opportunities. Of course, it also becomes much more challenging and complicated, but I am excited by that.
GC: I am too. Elie, it has been a real pleasure and thanks for your time today.
Gary Caplan is known in industry circles as ‘The Godfather of Licensing’ and is president of Gary Caplan Inc., a Studio City, California-based consultancy specializing in the marketing and management of licensing programs. For further information, check out www.garycaplaninc.com.