Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — Battling an unsteady retail environment, the entertainment and character licensing arena is sticking to the tried-and-true.
Fearful of being stuck with excess inventory, retailers are becoming choosier when it comes to picking untested licensed properties tied in with the latest movies. With some exceptions, they’ve also been snubbing existing fringe or middle-sized character properties in favor of classics like Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Warner Brothers’ Daffy Duck.
Meanwhile, apparel licensees are developing a better rapport with retailers to counter consumer malaise, and are pitching in with fresh fixtures and displays.
Entertainment and motion picture studios such as Warner Bros., Walt Disney Co. and Turner Home Entertainment are homing in on just one or two properties per year, backing them with lots of marketing support.
Capitalizing on its old-time favorite Betty Boop character, King Features will open a Betty Boop Cafe next year on West 57th Street here. The cafe will serve up a menu of “burgers and Betty Boop T-shirts,” according to Ida Golzman, senior director of licensing at King Features.
“Our approach now is to take one property and throw all our resources behind it,” said Peter Van Raalt, vice president of domestic licensing for Turner Entertainment.
Turner is counting on its updated version of “Jonny Quest,” a hot cartoon series back in the Sixties, to be a big hit for next year. Starting in August, Turner will air 65 new half-hours of animation on TBS, TNT and the Cartoon Network. A big part of its licensing program will be in apparel, with plans to develop high tech sneakers, and T-shirts with graphics, each in the futuristic spirit of the series, he said.
“You have to be more sophisticated these days,” said Andrew Leigh, president of Jerry Leigh Entertainment Co., based in Los Angeles, which got burned with some of the licensed merchandise from “Batman Forever.”
Leigh said the movie was hot at the box office, but cool when it came to marketing the licensed merchandise.
Dumping a haphazard approach to licensing, the company, which sells to mass and department stores, has now mapped out a cohesive plan that focuses on four properties: Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Mattel’s Barbie, Warner’s Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, and San Rio, a new Japanese character.
As part of its planning, Jerry Leigh wants to revamp its strategy so that the children’s market accounts for 60 percent of sales, with the remainder in adults. Currently, the mix is 70 percent adults, with the remainder in children’s. The company is helping to push product at retail with new displays and fixtures, while doing monitoring of retail stock levels.
For classic characters with staying power — like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck — the climate has been strong.
Warner’s store on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street here has created a lot of hype surrounding its characters, according to industry observers, and The Walt Disney Store, set to open in early 1996 on Fifth Avenue at 55th Street, is expected to generate similar excitement.
This fall, Disney launched a multi-million-dollar print campaign for its licensed Mickey & Co. line. TV is also on the agenda. Donnkenny, which supplies the bulk of apparel for the licensed Mickey & Co. line, continues to see solid business from characters like Charlie Brown and Lucy of the Peanuts gang, and Garfield the cat.
As part of its strategy to create a powerhouse brand, Donnkenny opened five in-store shops with J.C. Penney, one of Mickey & Co.’s biggest customers. About 500 in-store shops are planned within the next two years.
While the entertainment and character market remains the leading licensed category — accounting for $17.2 billion in sales at retail or a 25 percent share last year — merchandise tied to movies has been difficult.
There hasn’t been a major blockbuster property since Walt Disney’s “Lion King,” which ended its one-year run in popularity in early 1995, generating $1 billion in sales at retail of licensed merchandise. Prior to that, “Mighty Morphins Power Rangers” was also a big hit, hitting similar sales, but its popularity has also waned. One bright spot is Disney’s recently released “Toy Story,” which looks like it’s on the road to being a smash not only at the box office, but in the licensing arena as well. A spokeswoman for Disney Licensing, based in Buena Vista, Calif., said apparel products, particularly children’s wear, have been performing “quite well.”
But many of this year’s other big entertainment vehicles have been disappointing when it came to licensed products. What were expected to be big winners like “Batman Forever” and Disney’s “Pocohontas” just didn’t meet expectations for the licensed merchandise. Paramount’s “Congo” did well at the box office, but its merchandise did not, while Universal Pictures’ “Waterworld” was a washout.
Industry executives say they aren’t bullish about 1996 either, though they believe some of the hot properties will be Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and Universal Pictures’ “Dragon Heart.”
“It is almost like a gambling game,” said Terry Melville, a creative merchandising and promotions consultant. “At the same time, when you get a winner, you will walk to the bank.”
Melville is working on a merchandising program with a new movie called “Bogus,” starring Whoopi Goldberg, Gerard Depardieu and Haley Joel Osmant. Due out next year, the film is being produced by Regency Films and will be distributed by Warner Bros.
“There hasn’t been any one A-property this year,” said Cynthia Money, director of business development at Winterland Co., based in San Francisco, an entertainment, sports and rock ‘n’ roll licensing firm. “We have found that nothing has broken through, and we don’t see anything big any time soon.”
She added that some of the licensed apparel, including sweatshirts and hats, linked with the movie “Pulp Fiction” did well, as well as a few T-shirts linked with “Casper.”
Winterland is putting more emphasis on retail relations, Money said, tripling the number of meetings with stores and doing more creative displays.

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