HOT FLICKS FILL SUPPORTING ROLE FOR SA, STORES
Byline: ANNE D’INNOCENZIO
NEW YORK — Led by a roaring response to “The Lion King” and an avalanche of merchandise from “The Flintstones,” the licensing business has given apparel sales a much-needed jolt.
At a time of consumer skittishness, some retailers and manufacturers are turning to Hollywood for help — and they’re getting it.
Major motion picture studios, heartened by a renewed consumer interest in licensed goods, are increasing their marketing efforts for products linked to their films.
Last year, Universal Pictures unleashed a flood of dinosaur-related products to promote “Jurassic Park.” That was big, but the 1994-95 season is expected to be even bigger, with a slew of licensed merchandise promoting the latest hot properties.
This summer, a couple of blockbusters
— “The Flintstones” from MCA/Universal and Walt Disney’s “The Lion King” — have inundated stores with merchandise. A marketing blitz surrounding potential hot properties like Warner Bros.’ “Batman Forever” and Paramount’s”Congo” are in the offing for next summer.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Lion Corp. is gearing up for “Tank Girl,” based on a British comic book series that centers on a hard-edged, iconoclastic young woman. The movie is due out in 1995.
“We are in the middle of signing deals,” said NancyJane Goldston, vice president of licensing and merchandising at MGM. “We’re getting a lot of interest in a lot of categories, including T-shirts, sweatshirts and boxer shorts.”
Goldston, who said it was too early to reveal the names of any of the apparel companies with which she is negotiating, added that “Tank Girl” appeals to the seven-year-old and up.
Warner Bros. is hoping the new Batman movie, “Batman Forever,” will be more successful than the previous one, “Batman Returns,” which some critics said was too sinister for children.
“This one will be more palatable,” Michael Peikoff, vice president of worldwide publicity for Warner Bros. Consumer Products. “We are positioning Batman as a classic superhero, and we are carefully marketing it.”
Paramount Licensing Group is ready to beat the drums for “Congo,” based on Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel. The movie is being shot in Africa and Costa Rica, with a gaggle of gorillas and lots of special effects.
“I think you are going to see a lot of gorilla-theme apparel,” said Michael Kiperman, chief executive officer of Gotham Apparel. “We are coming into the year of the ape. There is a real trend toward jungle prints.”
All of this activity, say industry sources, is bolstering the licensed merchandise business, whose sales began rebounding in 1993 after a two-year decline.
After two years of falling volume, sales of licensed goods in the U.S. and Canada increased 7.1 percent to about $66.6 billion in 1993, according to The Licensing Letter, an industry newsletter. In 1992 those sales were off 2 percent, and in 1991 they had fallen 4.5 percent from the previous year.
Retail sales of licensed goods worldwide hit a record level of $97.8 billion in 1993.
“The consumer appetite for licensed goods, especially for apparel, is voracious now,” said Doug Mangino, vice president, divisional merchandise management, at Walt Disney Co.
“The Lion King,” he said, is “the biggest launch we’ve done, and it marks the biggest assortment of apparel, including adult apparel, for any Disney movie.”
Since opening on June 24, the movie has grossed $150 million, and industry experts predict that the merchandising bonanza — which features more than 1,000 products, including adult and children’s apparel, tooth brushes and lunchboxes — will ring up sales of $1 billion in sales by yearend. Walt Disney officials said they are gearing up for “Pocahontas,” due out next summer, but they would not elaborate on any marketing plans.
“In the past, retailers were nervous about Hollywood goods. They just wanted to concentrate on standard characters,” said Jeff Silver, vice president of Jerry Leigh Entertainment Apparel Co., Los Angeles. The company produces licensed adult apparel, including T-shirts, leggings and sweatshirts featuring “The Lion King” characters for department stores and mass chains. “It has all changed. It used to be a fan-driven business, and now it is a brand-driven one.”
“The Flintstones,” which opened May 27, has also created a lot of hype at the retail level — although, according to sources, merchandising sales have dipped a bit below expectations. Macy’s showcased towels and home furnishings featuring Flintstones characters in the windows of its flagship store, while Venture Stores featured Stone Age kiosks that displayed T-shirts and sweatshirts. Kmart Stores and J.C. Penney also had in-store displays of Flintstones merchandise.
“Licensing has proven to be a very acceptable way of marketing products,” noted Lois Sloane, executive vice president of worldwide licensing and merchandising for Turner Home Entertainment, which with MCA and Universal, is overseeing licensing deals for “The Flintstones.” She is also the president of the Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association. “Before, we used to go out to retailers and hand out Xeroxes,” she said.”Now we’re making powerful presentations, and we’re becoming more market-oriented.”
“You are giving the consumer in a bad economic climate a fun, whimsical thing to buy,” said Kiperman of Gotham Apparel. Under license, Gatham produced T-shirts, coverups and sweatshirts for the mass stores and department chains. Kiperman added that since shipping the products in October 1993, his firm has sold more than a million items of Flintstone-inspired apparel.
“Women are particularly reacting well to the products,” he said.
Also boosting the licensing business is demand for sophisticated logo apparel, expanding well beyond T-shirts, caps and sweatshirts.
“Licensed merchandise used to be logos just slapped on apparel,” said Peikoff of Warner Bros. The spruced-up green and blue logo, which broke at the Licensing Trade Show here last month, will work well with sleepwear, neckties and upscale clothing, he said.
“We may be looking for high-end designer elements in the line,” he added.
“We started seeing a demand for sophisticated merchandise about a year ago,” said Mangino of Walt Disney, which tried — but failed — to peddle upscale clothing for the movie “Aladdin” two years ago. “It really worked for ‘Lion King.”‘
“The fashion category is going to become more and more important in Hollywood licensed products, ” said Terry Melville, a former fashion director at Macy’s who now acts as a consultant assisting major motion picture companies to develop upscale licensed products. Melville was in charge of organizing, through a licensing arrangement with Columbia Pictures, a huge merchandising promotion for the movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” in 1992. The upscale line of home furnishings and clothing — designed by Byron Lars, Anna Sui and other young designers — was sold at Fred Hayman’s, Bullock’s, Macy’s and other stores. She said she’s working on a similar merchandising project, but would not offer details.
“‘Dracula’ really inspired a Victorian trend, with ruffled shirts, vests and top hats,” noted Benny Lin, fashion director of Macy’s East. While retail officials said Macy’s did well with its Flintstone merchandise — including its adult T-shirts and beach towels — neither that movie nor other current productions have been particularly influential on the fashion front.
Some people, however, are trying with “The Flintstones.”
Damien Miano, owner of the trendy Miano/Viel Salon here, is offering his customers five hairstyles inspired by the Flintstones.
“I think people are really into the primitive look,” claimed Miano, whose styles include hair with rawhide dog bones and lots of crude hair knots.
Still, betting on the wrong movie can be a costly business. Apparel firms and retailers point to plenty of blockbuster movies whose licensed merchandise failed to ring up sales. For example, Disney’s “Dick Tracy,” Paramount’s “Addams Family,” and MCA/Universal’s “Hook” did well at the box office but fared poorly with merchandise, according to sources.
Betting on sequels to highly successful films can also be risky. An example is the Signal Artwear division of Signal Apparel Inc. of Wabash, Ind. The company was the sole apparel licensee for “Batman Returns,” the sequel to the highly successful 1989 film “Batman.” Signal was stuck with a number of adult T-shirts and sweatshirts after the movie failed to reap strong sales at the box office.
And strong sales at the box office do not necessarily translate to strong sales of merchandise.
“You could be working with a great movie, but there is no guarantee that the merchandise is going to sell. The clothing has to be graphically perfect,” noted Kiperman of Gotham Apparel, which tested more than 200 designs for its Flintstone apparel line. “Women are very choosy. We found out as we were testing that they didn’t go for just Fred on the shirt but wanted Bamm-Bamm and Pebbles as well.”
Michele D. Houlihan, merchandise and license manager at Fada Industries Inc. and AKS Timewear — which makes watches under the Futura and Gitano labels — recalls the dismal sales of watches promoting the cartoon based on the Seventies movie “The Attack of the Killer Tomato”
“We created watch cases that resembled the killer tomato,” she said. “It just didn’t work.”
Such risks have made some apparel firms turn away from the Hollywood licensing arena.
After failing to score with licensed merchandise based on “Aladdin,” Donnkenny Inc., an apparel firm here, is putting its Hollywood licensing plans on hold.
“I guess it was the [“Aladdin”] experience that made us become more cautious,” noted Ed Creevy, chief financial officer at the apparel firm, which just didn’t do as well as expected with its Aladdin T-shirts and sweatshirts for adults. The clothing was sold to department stores.
“Basically, we didn’t have enough lead time to produce the goods and to get them to the stores,” said Creevy.
“We listen to everyone, but we’re just not interested in getting involved,” said Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller. “There is just too much saturation in the marketplace. Hot is dangerous because the faster it gets hot, the faster it gets cold.”
Some retailers are also playing it cautious.
“We stick to family-oriented movies when it comes to licensed goods,” said a spokeswoman at J.C. Penney, where merchandise based on “The Flintstones” and “The Lion King” has been doing well. “We pick and choose movies and pretty much stay with Disney films.”