For this edition of our exclusive six-part series LIMA Hall of Fame member and industry guru Gary Caplan sat down with George Leon, executive VP of worldwide consumer marketing at Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment. While busy overseeing promo plans for big ’07 releases like Spider-Man 3, Leon took some time to talk about the changing nature of licensing, promotions and product integration and divulge his love of reading and super heroes.
Gary Caplan: Thanks very much for taking the time out to talk to me. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.
George Leon: Thank you. I enjoy the company and the breakfast, too.
GC: George, let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a bit about your background. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to college?
GL: My parents emigrated from Cuba and I’m part of the first generation born and raised in California. Much to my parents’ dismay, I couldn’t find my direction in life and was kicked out of a lot of different colleges. I finally graduated from University of the Pacific, a small private school.
GC: What was your first job out of school?
GL: I was a certified Spanish interpreter in L.A. for the court systems and the medical profession.
GC: So how did you get into the licensing and merchandising business?
GL: Completely by accident. I needed a new job and I decided to send my resumé to every single classified ad posted in the L.A. Times, thinking that it was a numbers game and eventually something would fall open and I’d make it work. I got a call from a gentleman by the name of Larry Harmon. At that time I didn’t know who he was. And after the very first interview, I was hooked on the business. I ended up licensing for Larry Harmon Pictures.
GC: You’ve worked with and for a lot of great people. What boss do you remember most and what did that boss teach you?
GL: I can honestly say that I’ve learned from every single boss. There are a few that really stick out. One, who you recently interviewed, was Elie Dekel. He was my boss at Saban when we were doing all the Fox Kids stuff. He helped me finesse my skills. What was also interesting is that he gave me more than just the tools to work here, he also taught me about teamwork. My next boss was Geoffrey Ammer (former president of worldwide marketing for Columbia/Tristar) and he taught me how to manage people, and that is a skill that you just don’t pick up overnight. You really do need a mentor – so those two in particular really helped me out.
GC: Let’s talk about your work at Sony just a little bit. What departments report to you?
GL: I head up a very unique division; it’s called consumer marketing. Within consumer marketing we have a bunch of different arms. The first is promotions for roughly 30 theatrical releases a year, both domestically and internationally. Then there’s product placement, or brand integration. So we work on all 30 films and we supply all the goods to production. And most recently, the consumer products group was added and it encompasses all retail, licensing and merchandising activity. But of course I’ve got an incredible staff. You can’t run all these different divisions on your own. Julie Boylan heads up our licensing and merchandising group, Mary Goss Robino heads up our global promotions and Kathi Talutis heads up product placement.
GC: George, you’ve been involved in licensing and merchandising for quite a while now. I think the promotions side of the business is a little bit different. And I’m sure that promotions, like licensing, has changed a lot over the years. In your mind, what are the most important differences you see in promotions today compared to when you first started in the business?
GL: When I first started, I had a licensing background and all of sudden I landed a promotions job. At that time, I was told ‘Oh, promotions is just like licensing – just add three zeros behind it.’ Now it’s completely different. We have different objectives. Promotions used to be a revenue-generating division; it was all about the licensing and promotional fees. Now it’s really all about the backend marketing support that we’re looking for. The fee is nominal and not the objective driving negotiations.
GC: What is your first objective then?
GL: To market whatever we are representing. In my case specifically it is theatrical movies. I am part of the theatrical marketing team and run consumer marketing. It is my job to get my marketing movie message out to places we actually can’t buy our way into.
GC: You must talk to a lot of promotional partners in the course of a day. What do you look for when picking a promotional partner?
GL: The right idea. For example, we successfully opened Talladega Nights this past summer. Our gimmick, if you will, was to turn Will Ferrell into the lead character Ricky Bobby and make him into a realistic race car driver. And when you deal in that NASCAR world, it is about sponsorships. So we literally went after NASCAR sponsors, companies already talking to that consumer to really help us get that gimmick.
GC: And were promotions, in your opinion, part of the reason for the success of Talladega Nights?
GL: One hundred percent. It was one of the key elements that really had consumers connect with the character.
GC: Do the promotional ideas emanate from you and your staff or from your partners?
GL: It’s a combination of the two. Sometimes it’s about understanding what the objective behind the marketing of the film is to find the right promotional partners. It’s also about understanding how that partner connects with the consumer. For example, and I’ll stay on Talladega Nights, Sprint Nextel was an existing NASCAR sponsor, but had a big summer campaign that it wanted to launch about digital content and digital assets. So getting Will Ferrell to do all Sprint’s commercial spots and digital content was a natural fit for the company. So Sprint reached its objectives for getting its message out and we reached our objectives because we wanted Ricky Bobby to be known as a racer.
GC: Are there any good books written about promotions?
GL: No, but stand by.
GC: Stand by? Are you working on one?
GL: [laughing] Yes, of course. And you’re working on a licensing book right now?
GC: I’m thinking about it. If I can get people like you to help me, I just may do that in the next couple of years. It’s been a dream of mine to write one for a long time.
GL: I’ll stand in line for it.
GC: Thanks. Let’s discuss product placement. That’s an area a lot of people don’t understand. It’s changed over the last several years. Isn’t there even a new word for it now?
GL: Yes, product placement is called branding integration, just as our arm is called brand integration and not product placement. I think that industry has evolved and become much more professional. It isn’t about slipping cash under the table to get product into a movie. We were literally stepping over dollars to pick up quarters. When a movie costs north of US$150 million, what does a US$50,000 fee do for you? It doesn’t do anything. You can’t buy your way into movies anymore. The way that you can get your brand into our movie is to give us backend marketing support. That’s what we like.
GC: I’ve heard it said that there are too many licensed products for the shelf space available at retail. Can the same thing be said of promotions or is the opposite true?
GL: I think the same thing can be said about promotions. I think that, just like licensing, there is a lot of content out there, with very few players to actually take part of that content. So, yes, I think that it’s being consolidated to the majors at the moment.
GC: Let’s get back to the more personal questions. When you were growing up, who was your favorite character?
GL: The Six Million Dollar Man, without a doubt. I had the lunch box, the Dynamite magazine – you name it, I had it.
GC: Any favorite characters today?
GL: I’m a licensing junkie. I love super heroes. Spider-Man has also helped me. I’ve been big fan of not only Marvel comics, but DC comics. So, I continue in that kind of geek environment of super heroes.
GC: Any books that have made a lasting impression?
GL: Oh yes, I am a rabid reader. I love it; it’s my addiction. I think my favorite book this year has been Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; it’s incredible. I just read the Marie Arana book called Cellophane, which I loved. I was in Costa Rica on vacation and it’s a book about a family from Peru who create a cellophane company. I literally have four books on my counter right now.
GC: Excellent, I like to read, too.
GL: It’s the only way I can get by with all my travels. I always have a new book. Plane time is my only time that I can get my books read.
GC: Back to business. When it comes to licensing, it has been said by many that the retailer, the gatekeeper, holds the key. Would you agree with that?
GL: Yes. I think understanding the retail formula, understanding their needs, only helps. Julie [Boylan], who heads up consumer products, comes from retail, so she has an incredible understanding of it. In fact, all of our up and coming employees that we’re hiring now come from a retail background. You have to understand the retailers’ business if you want to be in the licensing business.
GC: In your opinion, is it a tough time for licensing, merchandising or promotions?
GL: I think it’s a tough time, especially when you look at the sheer magnitude of products and content out there. But it’s also a very exciting time for our industry, because some have to rise to the top.
GC: George, on a personal note, I’ve always admired your calmness, your sense of humor, your willingness to help others and your upbeat attitude. How do you manage that in such a tough business?
GL: You have to really have a sense of humor for this business and you can’t take it all seriously. How do I do it? I have no idea. I just really enjoy life. If my job is going to take 10 to 12 hours of my life everyday, I better make those the best. I enjoy the people who I work with and our partners and licensees. And I have to create a very healthy environment for my group. I think I have to fill it up with joy.
GC: Success also breeds joy.
GL: I think that success leads to joy. I also think it can work the opposite way. If people see you as joyous, they want to be part of it and they’re willing to put into it as much as you’re willing to put into it.
GC: Your studio is coming off a really good year. How do you think you can keep the momentum going and make your department better and better every year?
GL: I think it’s by strategizing and really creating a hierarchy of what’s important and what isn’t when it comes to licensing and promotions and really focus in on what those ideas are and let the other stuff go away. Like we did with Talladega Nights, understand what your marketing idea is, go after it through your promotions. For licensing, ask what is the best route to do it? Well, if you’re going to create a race car driver and there is an audience out there to buy licensed goods, work with NASCAR to get it done. I think sometimes we have a tendency to over-complicate our work. Sometimes you need to just take a step back and look at the easiest route first and then work backwards.
GC: Last question. What’s your favorite part of your job?
GL: The constant change. I deal with anywhere between 15 and 30 movies a year, and each one of them is completely different. Last year, for example we had the Da Vinci Code while working on movies like Open Season and Marie Antionette at the same time. We had three different movies, three different ideas, three sets of goals to find the right fit with consumer products and with consumer promotions.
GC: George, it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you today. Congratulations with all that you have accomplished during your last few years in the business. Are you buying breakfast, or am I?
GL: I’m buying breakfast, of course! It is my pleasure.
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.