Talk in animated feature film circles has turned to the perceived glut of CGI family flicks flooding the market. To be sure, 2006 was a watershed year, with more CGI toons hitting U.S. theaters than ever before – 16 were eligible for the best animated feature Oscar in 2007. And while the competition at the box office heats up, studio consumer products pros are faced with the task of convincing retailers and consumers that their films and related merch merit attention in an environment already plagued by shrinking sales margins and shelf space.
The past year saw the once flop-proof CGI genre produce its fair share of box-office disappointments – including Disney’s The Wild and Warner Bros.’ Ant Bully, which respectively racked up just US$37 million and US$28 million in domestic ticket sales. The biggest domestic earner, Disney/Pixar’s Cars (US$244 million), marked the joint-venture’s lowest take since 1998′s A Bug’s Life, and DreamWorks Animation is likely to write down costs on Flushed Away; it grossed US$129 million worldwide, but its associated costs ran around US$143 million.
Turning to the ancillary market, studio licensing execs are not insensitive to the idea that consumers may be suffering from animation fatigue, and that parents, in particular, might be having difficulty distinguishing a toy based on one wise-cracking talking animal from another. DreamWorks Consumer Products head of licensing and retail marketing Rick Rekedal, for one, believes the market fallout has already started, noting fewer CGI releases are set for 2007 and even fewer still are based on original material.
But all players continue to formulate plans on how to best navigate these choppy CP waters. For example, with Fox’s 2008 release Horton Hears a Who, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is attempting to remain above the fray by not licensing movie-specific product at all. ‘Merchandise will be based on our classic Horton book program because it’s timeless and has a longer shelf life,’ says Susan Brandt, EVP of licensing and marketing. The program will also be limited to one mass retailer for apparel, toys, health & beauty and a targeted book and gift line.
For its part, undisputed movie licensing champ Disney Consumer Products hasn’t drifted into comfortable complacency. Mary Beech, DCP VP and GM of animation marketing, says it’s a more competitive environment, and she has noticed that retailers are asking to see CGI films at earlier stages in their development. Accordingly, the House of Mouse has upped its game in product innovation, involving filmmakers/artists in merch development to make its film-based product stand out in the crowd.
Product has to be authentic and true to the story, Beech explains. ‘Toys are easy, but with something like melamine plates and cups, it’s a bit harder.’ For Ratatouille, bowing this summer, her team went the extra mile to create melamine that looks like plates found in French cafés to reflect the movie’s Parisian culinary setting. Additionally, items as mundane as T-shirts have been given an extra dimension with a scratch-and-sniff feature; one style will smell like fresh-baked pastries, for example. The creators who’ve worked on Ratatouille also have a hand in making product. One of the film’s animators illustrated the tie-in book Too Many Cooks, and Beech says it’s standard practice to pair creators with experts in each product category to see what innovations they can come up with.