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COMPANY TOWN : Grown-Up Gear : Studios Hope to Develop Adults’ Taste for Toon Toys

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Now that all the kids are suited up in “Batman Forever” T-shirts, drinking from “Casper” mugs and playing with “Mighty Morphin Power Ranger” action figures, the major studios are looking for ways to bring their parents into the merchandising fold.

“The competition for the kids market is brutal,” said Neil Newman, vice president of marketing for Viacom consumer products. “In order to grow the business, we must grow the adult segment. If it’s done correctly, there’s a lot of money to be made.”

Along with computer games, high-end merchandise geared to adults and based on vintage and recent entertainment properties, is the main growth area in the licensing market. It already accounts for 9% to 10% of sales, said Karen Raugust, editor of the Licensing Newsletter. “And the market’s still relatively unsaturated,” she said.

The $70-billion annual licensed merchandise windfall (of which entertainment goods account for somewhere between 15% and 20%), is targeting adults with products ranging from $45 for a Sylvester and Tweety beach umbrella to $40,000 for an original Disney animation cel from “The Lion King.”

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There has always been a cadre of collectors for entertainment-related memorabilia (from the original ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” to anything related to “Star Trek”). But since the early ‘90s, the major studios have sought to exploit the baby boom generation’s identification with and nostalgia for movie, TV and music properties on a mass market level.

“There’s a growing core of fans who are looking for higher quality and more distinctive products,” said Dell Furano, president of Sony Signatures, who envisions the adult segment of the market growing to 20% to 25% of total sales over the next decade.

Studios’ licensing divisions welcome the challenge to go in a new direction and develop more sophisticated product lines. “It’s a whole new market,” said Lisa Crane, director of animation art at MCA/Universal. “The more we look, the more we find. For each film Universal produces, we try to figure out if there’s an application to the collectibles market.”

For “Apollo 13,” Universal commissioned an art piece from former astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon. It depicts the explosion aboard the ill-fated capsule and is signed by Apollo 13 astronauts and the film’s stars. A limited edition of 1,000 sold out at $500 apiece.

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Universal also sold $3,000 bronzes of Stan Winston’s dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park, while Viacom offers $2,000 “Star Trek” pewter chess sets. Hand-painted animation cels from classic Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal cartoons sell to collectors for anywhere from $6,000 to $40,000. They are available in Disney and WB stores, at some of the 200 animation art galleries around the country and by auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Last February’s “Lion King” cel auction brought in close to $2 million in revenue.

Collectibles are only part of the market. Character and property identified material is its mainstay--merchandise priced between $50 and $100, Raugust said.

Viacom has offered “Star Trek” merchandise on special QVC broadcasts for four years running, some of which have sold “well into the upper six figures,” Newman said. “Until the Elvis postage stamp we were the largest QVC franchise.”

Mail order has been another successful means of reaching collectors. The Franklin Mint has had a “Star Trek” program for several years. Sales on Franklin’s “Three Stooges” collector plate have been “staggering” Furano said. So much so that Sony is now pursuing nostalgia-driven TV merchandise such as “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Partridge Family” and “Bewitched.”

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As with television properties, music-related merchandise is an area that’s only beginning to be exploited. On the high end the original lyrics from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Our House” sold for $3,500 and Carlos Santana autographed guitars for $1,350. Signed, limited-edition lithographs of classic album covers such as the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” sell for $200 to $250.

At the retail level, several innovative experiments have paid off. Sony set up Barbra Streisand boutiques last year in major department stores, including Bloomingdales and Bullocks during her concert tour. They offered items such as $400 tour jackets and $350 copies of Streisand gold records in the boutiques, as well as at concert arenas and on QVC’s cable shopping network.

Larry Carlat, editor of the licensing trade journal index, credits Warner Bros’ studio stores, which first opened in 1991, with being the first successful attempt to bridge the generation gap for entertainment related products.

After opening four test stores in 1991, Warner now has 115 locations. “Our targeted demo was 20 to 45-year-olds,” said Karine Joret, vice president of marketing for WB retail. That demographic, she said, now accounts for 70% of the chain’s business.

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Although the bulk of sales are still in the $50 to $100 price range--mainly for apparel--the WB stores also contain gallery sections where $275 limited edition Looney Tunes charm bracelets are sold alongside $10,000 duplicates of props from “Batman” films. Warner has commissioned designers like Todd Oldham and Robert Lee Morris to create special film related apparel and jewelry for sale in the stores.

Disney, which already has a chain of retail outlets catering to youngsters, is following WB’s lead with its prototype Walt Disney Gallery, launched last November in the Santa Ana MainPlace Mall. “The distinction is that it’s all adults, while the Disney stores are for children and families,” said Doug Murphy, vice president of the Walt Disney Gallery.

Created by Disney’s Imagineering division, which also creates the rides at the theme parks, the merchandise is all Disney inspired. Besides animation art priced between $65 and $250 and limited edition works priced up to $6,000, the Gallery markets flatware and dinnerware (“at Crate and Barrel” prices Murphy said), porcelain figurines (created by companies such as Lladro), better jewelry and a wide line of stationery products.

The Gallery’s initial core was the collectors, people who attend Disney’s annual collector conventions, which draw approximately 2,200 people. But it has broadened, said Murphy, to encompass anyone for whom the Disney image is a personal statement, “such as a serious criminal lawyer who enjoys owning Mickey Mouse dinnerware.”

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Other studios are getting into the act, according to Carlat. Overseas, Viacom is selling Paramount licensed clothing “Ralph Lauren with a Hollywood flair,” Newman said. MGM/UA has opened its first studio store. Sony is in talks about retail outlets, as is MCA, which already sells moderately priced apparel for adults in its varied theme park stores.

And as they venture where no one has gone before, Viacom will soon launch the ‘Star Trek’ Master Card.


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