Bugs Bunny at 50 : Warner hopes to top the licensing fees that it got from ‘Batman.’

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Bugs Bunny is about to give Batman a run for the money.

No, there is no Bugs Bunny motion picture in the works. But Warner Bros. executives say that movie or not, plenty is up, Doc.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 14, 1989 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday July 14, 1989 Home Edition Business Part 4 Page 2 Column 6 Financial Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Dan Romanelli is president of worldwide merchandising at Warner Bros. His title was incorrectly stated in an article on Bugs Bunny’s 50th Birthday in Thursday’s Times.
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 7, 1989 Home Edition Business Part 4 Page 2 Column 3 Financial Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Bugs Bunny--An article about plans by Warner Bros. to license Bugs Bunny merchandise that appeared in the Times Business section on July 13 incorrectly identified one of the principal sponsors of the promotion. The candy company that will be a major sponsor is Jacobs Suchard Inc., maker of Brach’s candy.

In November, the licensing division of Warner Bros.--the brains behind the current Batman merchandising mania--will begin a yearlong 50th birthday bash for the Wascally Wabbit.

Harebrained? Well, Warner officials quietly hope that sales of commemorative Bugs Bunny merchandise could equal--or even surpass--the many millions of dollars that Batman collectibles continue to pour into retail coffers.


An estimated 100 licensees will create everything from specially made car mats to thermal underwear embossed with the “Happy 50th Birthday Bugs” logo. Many of these companies are already Looney Tunes licensees, including one that makes--with no apologies to Mickey Mouse--a Bugs Bunny watch.

“When we think of the family jewels at Warner Bros., we first think of Bugs Bunny,” said Dan Romanelli, president of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros., and also president of Warner’s licensing division, LCA Entertainment. “He’s our most important star.”

Earlier this week, Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, died at age 81. Blanc, of course, was a centerpiece to the planned celebration. Blanc’s son, Noel, who has been a longtime understudy to his father, will attend scheduled festivities, including a Hollywood party and parade. But there are still some unexpected kinks.

The father and son recently filmed a yet-to-be-aired TV commercial for Oldsmobile. It was scheduled to be part of the familiar “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” ad campaign. The ad has Mel and Noel riding in an Oldsmobile along with several of Warner Bros.’ animated characters whose voices Mel created--including Bugs Bunny.

On Wednesday, the Blanc family gave Oldsmobile permission to go ahead with plans to air the commercial this fall. But Oldsmobile officials gathered in Detroit with Leo Burnett ad agency executives Wednesday to discuss whether the ad should be re-shot--or at least re-edited.

Warner Bros. executives are trying to come to grips with a situation none anticipated two years ago when planning began for the Bugs bash. “We’re all deeply saddened,” said Romanelli. “He was to be a part of all the festivities.”


Still, Warner officials hope that some of the wounds will heal before Thanksgiving Day, when the promotional campaign is scheduled to kick off with a six-story, $300,000 Bugs Bunny balloon in the Macy’s parade in New York City. Throughout 1990, classic Bugs Bunny cartoons will be shown before many Warner Bros. feature films. And the Bugs Bunny 50th Birthday logo will appear next year on everything from home videos to records and cassette tapes sold by Warner.

But Warner isn’t the only company with millions of dollars riding on Bugs. Six Flags Corp., which owns and operates theme parks nationwide, has signed on as a corporate sponsor, and so has the giant candy maker Brock’s. Promotional tie-ins are also being negotiated with major soft drink and snack food companies. And retail chains ranging from Macy’s to Sears, Roebuck & Co., have already committed to selling gobs of the commemorative merchandise.

“This has not been a tough sell,” said Romanelli. “Everyone knows Bugs.”

Do they ever. In a recent national study, when people were asked to name their favorite cartoon and comic book characters, Bugs Bunny ranked second only to Mickey Mouse, said Steven Levitt, president of the Port Washington, N.Y., research firm, Marketing Evaluation. In fact, Bugs was ranked dead even with Snoopy--and placed slightly higher than Garfield.

“There’ll be a lot of money pumped into Bugs,” said Levitt, “but I don’t think it will be anything like what they’re ramming down people’s throats with Batman.”

People Know Bugs

Then, again, maybe they won’t have to. Bugs Bunny is not only the longest-running Saturday morning children’s program in TV history, but, remarkably, it is also rated the No. 1 kids show on Saturday mornings, according to Nielsen Television Index. “A hell of a lot of people know who Bugs Bunny is,” said Gary Frazier, associate professor of marketing at USC. “If a lot of money is put behind him, regardless of the occasion, it will almost certainly be successful.”

At the same, however, Frazier said that without some sort of splashy movie behind Bugs Bunny, the event will probably not have the impact of the current Batmania. “Without a movie to heighten the enthusiasm to buy the products,” he said, “there is a potential danger.”


But Mickey Mouse didn’t have a new movie last year, and his 60th birthday celebration was a big moneymaker. Some executives are even wondering if Bugs Bunny’s 50th birthday could have the kind of financial impact for Warner that Mickey’s had for Disney last year. According to some estimates--which Disney would not confirm--last year’s Mickey Mouse festivities resulted in nearly $100 million in additional sales of Mickey Mouse merchandise.

“It was successful beyond our greatest expectations,” said Steve McBeth, senior vice president of consumer products at Walt Disney Co. He said Disney had more than 200 licensees that made commemorative merchandise for Mickey’s 60th. But McBeth declined to comment on Warner’s plans for Bugs Bunny, other than to say, “We wish them well.”

The business of cashing in on the birthdays of cartoon and comic strip characters seems to have picked up steam in recent years. The Batman movie coincided with the 50th anniversary of that comic book character. And it cost King Features Syndicate a lot of spinach to throw Popeye a huge 60th birthday party at F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in Manhattan last year. And when the Barbie doll turned 30 recently, toy maker Mattel wasted no time in coming up with a new “Superstar Barbie” doll, which comes decked in a pink ball gown.

Of course, some companies really stretch these birthday celebrations. For example, the Laurel and Hardy comedy team formed 61 years ago. But Larry Harmon Pictures Corp. has already announced plans for next year’s “Laurel and Hardy’s 100th Birthday Celebration.” How did they figure that? Well, it seems that Stan Laurel--not the comedy team--was born in 1890.

“What can I say?” said Jerry Bigney, vice president of marketing at Larry Harmon Pictures. “If I had to wait for the 100th birthday of the team, that would be another 39 years. And who has that much time to spare?”