Tie-in products lassoing sales

KIDDIE MOVIES MADE TO MARKET

December 22, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Licensing Letter and PlaythingsNew York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Once upon a time, an ice cream sundae was the perfect way to cap an evening at the movies with the kids. Nowadays, though, the first stop after the curtains close may be the nearest shopping mall.

Just in time for the holidays, Hollywood is serving up a slew of films bound to whet the appetites of toy-hungry tots. From Walt Disney's "Aladdin" to Twentieth Century Fox's "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York," the movies represent the latest in a sophisticated sales strategy: total marketing.

Toys and other licensed goods, which once appeared only after box office sales started to soar, now are developed as the movie is shot. Sometimes, they're even written into a script to guarantee big sales among children, who influence up to $50 billion in household spending each year.

"It used to be that it was only the event movies -- like "Star Wars" and "E.T." -- that they focused on. Now, suddenly, when you make a movie, everyone's got board games, mugs and toys in mind," said Pat Broeske, a movie merchandising writer for the trade magazine Entertainment Weekly.

The result: Revenues generated by toys, books, clothing and other licensed products can dwarf box office receipts. "Aladdin," for example, is expected to generate $200 million at the box office -- and close to another $1 billion from licensed products and videos. And that's before an "Aladdin" television series under development hits the airwaves in the fall of 1994.

That's a big boost for movie studios -- and for the nation's toy makers.

Consumer advocacy groups, however, criticize the new movies, especially for targeting children at the holiday season. "This highly coordinated, intense drive to maximize profits in all areas, especially when it relates to children, is disturbing," said Jeff Chester, spokesman for the Center for Media Education, a nonprofit Washington foundation.

The new emphasis on tie-ins began with the original 1989 "Batman" movie, which grossed about $250 million at the box office during its six-month run in 1989 but posted $500 million in product sales over two years.

The success of "Batman" became the pattern for this season's hits: Toy companies buy licenses early in the movie's development. Then, small, cheap toys are given away through promotions at fast-food restaurants. When the movie is released, more expensive products come out on the market.

And because of the popularity of videocassettes, which children can watch over and over and over, the stream of new toys does not end when a movie leaves first-run theaters. Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," for example, has not only sold more than 15 million videos in its first six weeks but also has launched a new series of games.

Of course, even the most sophisticated marketing strategy cannot save a dud -- "Dick Tracy" radio watches and "Hook" board games still haunt some discount toy shops.

But this season, marketers have hit a mother lode with "Aladdin" and "Home Alone 2."

"Home Alone 2," which has grossed $100 million at the box office since its Nov. 20 release, has come in for special attention because Twentieth Century Fox had a toymaker develop clever toys for the film's hero to use. The young star spends the movie bashing two nasty, nitwitted crooks with help from a variety of gizmos that he pulls from his backpack, all of which -- backpack included -- are for sale.

But its tie-in potential can't touch "Aladdin," which seems to be a sure-fire box office and toy store hit, said Stacy Botwinick, managing editor of "Playthings," a leading toy industry newsletter. "Toy makers don't want to go out on a limb, and a Disney animated children's movie is a good bet."

"Aladdin" represents Disney's most sophisticated marketing campaign, says Pam Bishop, marketing manager for Walt Disney Licensing.

In theaters since Nov. 20, the movie has already grossed $50 million at the box office and spawned hundreds of products.

But product licensing analysts estimate that Disney's last blockbuster, "The Little Mermaid," grossed $1 billion in product sales, with Ariel the mermaid becoming Disney's top character behind Mickey Mouse. And revenues from "Aladdin" tie-ins probably will far exceed its box office receipts.

"With ['Aladdin's'] success, it makes our dreams come true here. Our job is so easy when the film does well," Ms. Bishop said. The studio won't release figures for sales of "Aladdin" products, but she said they were "sensational."

Mr. Chester, from the Washington foundation, says the movies' emphasis on consuming is yet another assault on the holiday spirit. "This is supposed to be about family and peace, not dragging Mommy and Daddy to the store and screaming until you get what you saw in the movies."

But this year, Mommy and Daddy might be wishing for their own movie-related gifts.

Don't forget, "Malcolm X" and "Dracula" have given birth to hundreds of their own products, from high-brow books to Vampire Red lipstick and X air freshener.

THE GENIE'S MAGIC

INCOME forecast for Walt Disney's Aladdin"

BOX OFFICE: $50 million to date,$200 million total

TOYS,GAMES AND OTHER PRODUCTS:$750 million

VIDEO SALES AND RENTALS:$225 million

TOTAL:$ 1.1 billion

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