The anatomy of kid flick licensing and promo appeal

The kid and family feature film business has been heating up over the last five years, seeing the arrival of such newcomers as Nickelodeon Movies and DreamWorks and more releases by smaller players and mid-sized prodcos, including Nelvana....
May 1, 2000

The kid and family feature film business has been heating up over the last five years, seeing the arrival of such newcomers as Nickelodeon Movies and DreamWorks and more releases by smaller players and mid-sized prodcos, including Nelvana.

Julia Pistor, senior VP of Nickelodeon Movies, says the success of the studio’s Snow Day, which opened mid-February, shows that families want family movies year-round, not just in the peak release periods of summer and Christmas. A Nickelodeon and Time magazine millennium study also found that among kids’ top wishes was to spend more time with their parents. Nickelodeon is hoping to release an animated film, a lower-priced, kid-specific picture (such as their first flick Harriet the Spy or Good Burger, both produced for less than US$15 million) and an event family film per year.

In the face of the large number of films for kid and family audiences, recent box-office performances suggest an upswing in the family and kid feature business, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co.

To studios, this increased competition makes the stakes in deciding which films to put a big push behind that much greater. In terms of licensing and merchandising, the film’s genre, the story, the emotional connection to the characters, the competition in the release period, the competition’s demographic for merchandising and which audience the marketing will target are among the variables the studio looks at, says Travis Rutherford, outgoing head of licensing and retail development at DreamWorks Consumer Products.

Due to the lead time needed, both licensing and promotions execs say they begin to evaluate a property’s potential when a film is greenlit or at the script stage. For merchandising, interactive titles generally take 18 months to develop, and products with tooling, primarily toys, need a year to a year and a half. Promotions can require just as much time if manufacturing premiums is involved.

At retail, adds Rutherford, the window of opportunity tends to be limited to the film’s release, with retailers backing off within 90 days, and another opening around the video launch. Film properties generally aren’t translating into yearlong brands, unless they’re based on a pre-existing brand.

Of the studio’s kid/family films, next month’s clay-animated Chicken Run, an Aardman Animations/DreamWorks co-pro, is poised to receive the biggest merchandising push this year. ‘This is the first time this type of animation is coming to the big screen,’ says Rutherford. Because the characters are dimensional, ‘[they] automatically have a personality and a feeling and come to life very quickly.’ While there’s no guessing how chickens will score with kids, Rutherford says the themes of escape and the need to be free, the personality of the characters and the voice talent (Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha and Miranda Richardson) should win them over, and play patterns such as flight, tunneling and digging apply well to toys. Rutherford predicts the main characters-Rocky the rooster and Ginger the chicken-will draw boys and girls. Products will be aimed at ages two up to teens, plus adults.

For Sony Pictures Consumer Products, live-action Charlie’s Angels is stealing the show this year. The star talent on board (including Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Bill Murray) and consumer and retailer awareness of the property based on the 1970s TV show make it a big film for merchandising, says Peter Dang, executive VP of worldwide consumer products. ‘[The Angels are] beautiful, they’re smart and they can kick the bad guy’s butt,’ says Dang, which brings an aspirational element to the property for tween and teen girls, the target for the merchandising program.

While last holiday’s Stuart Little appears in retrospect to be a release that could have received a bigger merchandising push, Dang says the program focused on ‘upstairs’ retailers, including FAO Schwarz, Noodle Kidoodle and Zany Brainy, as part of a strategy of growing Stuart into an evergreen.

‘Stuart was looked upon as a character launch,’ he says. (A holiday 2001 sequel is in the works, and a TV series is being considered.) As well, some consumers were not familiar with the book-based property, and the film was facing heavy competition from Toy Story 2 in the same time period.

‘I would have risked killing the character and the effort if I had gone to mass and it had failed,’ says Dang. A lack of enough footage to illustrate the new concept-creating a talking mouse lead using CGI-to licensees and retailers was also a challenge.

Now that a larger audience has been introduced to the property, the path is paved for a mass-market entry.

A holiday release period for Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas adds to its merchandising potential, says Tim Rothwell, senior VP of merchandising, licensing and retail development at Universal Studios Consumer Products Group. The live-action adaptation meets the criteria of having wide appeal, comes with high brand recognition from its publishing background and offers ‘incredible characters,’ notably the Grinch (played by Jim Carrey), Max the dog and Cindy Lou Who, and ‘unbelievable sets, scenes, costumes and gadgets. It is a merchandising bonanza,’ says Rothwell.

Next month’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle also benefits from high brand recognition from the franchise’s 40-year history. Also making the live-action/CGI film well suited for merchandising is the CG animation of its furry heroes, which Rothwell expects will grab more kid eyeballs, and a cast that boasts Robert De Niro, Rene Russo and Jason Alexander.

While both properties have about 65 licensees, Rothwell expects retailers will buy more product for The Grinch, given its release during the biggest selling season of the year. Product for both films will be targeted at ages four and older, with some Rocky and Bullwinkle items for adults too.

Rothwell is already eyeing The Mummy 2 and Jurassic Park 3-’there’s nothing more merchandisable than dinosaurs,’ says Rothwell-as well as Josie and the Pussycats for next year. The latter will be a live-action film based on the 1970s cartoon series starring a trio of girls in a band who become involved in mysteries. ‘Strong musical overlays’ and the popularity of girl bands today boost its merchandising potential, says Rothwell, who sees the merchandise striking a chord primarily with girls ages six to 12.

On the promotions side, Katie Chin, senior VP of worldwide promotions at 20th Century Fox Licensing & Merchandising, says key components for a big push include ‘a good story with compelling characters,’ staying power, and creative elements that would help partners drive their business and ‘motivate the public to take home a piece of the movie-going experience.’ Animals, creatures and aliens are often easier to work with than human characters. Live action is not necessarily less promotable than animation, and opportunities for live action are continuing to grow, particularly with the melding of live action and CG.

‘The more toyetic the characters are in a particular film, the more opportunities there are for premium development,’ says Chin. ‘However, new technology and new media, particularly Internet programs, are starting to become a very popular form of tie-in.’

Titan A.E. will hit theaters next month with the studio’s biggest promotional push out of its properties with kid appeal this year, thanks to an outer space and futuristic setting, a male teen lead, a heavy music component, a message of hope for the new millennium and a storyline complete with action, adventure, irreverent humor, romance and drama, says Chin. Promotions will be geared to tweens and teens, down to aspirational kids ages six and up.

‘A lot of it’s based on the expectation of the box office-how big partners think a particular movie could be, how broad the audience could be,’ says Brad Globe, head of DreamWorks Consumer Products, also citing the characters, story and tone of a film-such as the comedic The Road to El Dorado versus the much more serious The Prince of Egypt-as other elements considered when deciding promotional opportunities.

While DreamWorks’ Rutherford says El Dorado was not perceived as a merchandising opportunity, ‘we didn’t think there were very many things we were limited to by El Dorado,’ promotions-wise, says Globe. Burger King (which has also signed on for Chicken Run) and Ralph’s Markets were among the partners in a broad promotional program.

Does the level of exposure from licensing and promotions have an impact on the studio’s prints and advertising push behind a film? Licensing and merchandising and promotion execs at the studios emphasize that this support does not affect the level of the studio’s own marketing spends.

‘We don’t let the promotional side influence what we do in terms of marketing our movie,’ says Dreamworks’ Globe. ‘Those [efforts] are value added.’

Still, such support augments the total marketing blitz behind a property. For Chicken Run, total worldwide marketing support is in excess of US$100 million, including efforts by the studio, licensees and promotional partners. And recently there have been some critically acclaimed films whose box-office draw may not have matched potential due to the lack of a similarly-scaled promotional program.

For Gullane Pictures, releasing Thomas and the Magic Railroad as a major film in the U.S. required seeking a distribution partner that would create a marketing campaign equivalent to a campaign of the majors, says Charles Falzon, co-chairman of Gullane and CEO of Catalyst Entertainment. An advantage for the film is that Thomas is well known to kids and their parents as a brand. The film will be launching on 2,000-plus screens across the U.S. in July, and distribution partner Destination Films and Gullane have teamed to bring such promotional partners as Subway on board for a tie-in with its 13,000 outlets in North America. The film will also be supported by a range of licensed products from licensees including Learning Curve, Tomy and Random House.

When it comes to marketing, says Falzon, ‘for me, if you’re not spending at least 50% of the [production] budget on P&A, you’re not in the business.’ Falzon says a QSR tie-in, a merchandising campaign starting before the opening of the film, ‘a really hefty P&A spend’ and strong distribution characterize noteworthy releases today.

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