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Sony Banks on Godzilla Becoming a Monster Hit

Hundreds of millions of dollars are riding on whether Sony Pictures can breathe new fire into “Godzilla.”

What Sony and some 75 toy, fast-food, video game and T-shirt companies as well as other corporate partners are betting is that the Hollywood studio can transform the classic lumbering monster into a terrifying, computer-enhanced franchise that scares up sales for years to come.

More important, a full six months before the film opens, Sony is already viewing “Godzilla” as a critical catalyst to finally getting its marketing, consumer products and filmmaking units to work seamlessly to fully exploit a hit movie beyond the box office.

Companies like Walt Disney Co. regularly do it with such films as “The Lion King,” as does Warner Bros. with “Batman” and “Lethal Weapon.” Despite the theatrical success of films like “Men in Black” and “Jumanji,” Sony has never been able to fully cash in on merchandising, interactive games, publishing and other business opportunities that can generate profit in the hundreds of millions for a studio.

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Movie franchises like “Batman,” “Jurassic Park,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Lethal Weapon” and the James Bond series not only can provide hefty profits in themselves, but they have an added value to a studio because they can be revisited every two or three years. New installments can predictably goose a company’s profit. They can also add global value to film libraries by giving companies greater leverage in negotiating future deals.

Developing franchises is Sony Pictures President John Calley’s top priority a year after arriving at the studio amid a management shake-up.

“The thing they offer us is the opportunity not to have to reinvent the wheel every year,” said Calley, noting that the studio hopes to count on two or three franchises a year to “ease the burden” of putting movies together from scratch.

But, unlike Warner or Disney, which has milked billions of dollars from its never-ending stream of animated movies, Sony has never had the infrastructure, the know-how or the commitment of resources by top management to compete in the franchise arena.

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By the time “Godzilla” hits theaters May 20, Sony will have invested $125 million to produce the movie and at least an additional $50 million to market it worldwide--leading some in Hollywood to believe that number will probably be even higher. The studio’s promotional partners, led by such major companies as Taco Bell, Hershey, Duracell, Electronic Arts and toy maker Trendmasters, are kicking in more than $150 million in tie-ins linked to the monster.

As for the movie itself, Sony has put its faith in Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the team behind the 1996 summer blockbuster “Independence Day,” to turn “Godzilla” into the kind of special-effects extravaganza that makes the old guy-in-a-rubber-suit versions look like Barney. Since leveling Tokyo in the original 1954 classic starring Raymond Burr, Godzilla evolved into a campy horror genre, battling such enemies as “King Kong,” “The Thing” and “The Smog Monster.”

The Japanese producer and distributor of those movies, Toho Studios, has licensed to Sony the worldwide rights (with the exception of Japan) to “Godzilla” and two sequels, for which the studio paid dearly.

“The present version has survived 20 incarnations,” says Calley. “What we’re going to do is a lot more flamboyant, a lot more astonishing.”

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That’s about as specific as anyone at Sony will get in revealing what Godzilla will look like. In fact, it was Devlin and Emmerich’s idea to keep the creature’s physical identity under tight wraps until the movie debuts, with numerous people affiliated with the movie having to sign confidentiality agreements.

“You will not see Godzilla on a toy shelf or in a quick-service restaurant before the movie opens,” promises Sony Worldwide marketing chief Bob Levin. Part of the planning has even involved coordinating the movement of trucks delivering the merchandise the day the movie debuts.

All this means that Peter Dang, who heads up Sony’s consumer products/licensing division, had to go out and sell retailers and licensees on the concept without letting them peek at the full-figure Godzilla, which goes counter to their business.

“The retailers were concerned,” Dang recalls. “They said, ‘Do you guys realize that 40% of all merchandise is sold before the damn movie ever comes out?’ We said, ‘Yes, we’ll make up for that.’ ” Dang and his colleagues at Sony know they’re taking a big risk.

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“If it doesn’t work, next year there will be someone else here talking to you,” Dang joked.

Levin said that although he was initially “crazed” by the top-secret strategy, “what was a huge hurdle to get over in the beginning turned into a pretty magnificent marketing idea.”

Sony missed the boat on maximizing profit on such hits as “Jumanji” and this summer’s “Men in Black.” A toy line for “Men in Black"--developed almost as an afterthought just a few months before the movie opened--ran up against reluctant buyers. By contrast, Sony’s planning for “Godzilla” started more than a year in advance of its planned release.

The studio beefed up its Sony Signatures unit, doubling its overhead and adding 10 key executives to the 5-year-old consumer products/licensing and merchandising group. The division now reports to marketing as part of the studio’s coordinated effort to cross-promote its product across all its divisions, including music. The company also sent an executive on the road to regularly service retailers, something that had not been done before.

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Not wanting to repeat its mistakes of the past, Sony has stepped up its aggressiveness in marketing its potential franchises, as evidenced by the early trailers, big corporate tie-ins and far-reaching business plan that looks to other offshoots, including an animated TV series, an interactive game and publishing opportunities, to support a film like “Godzilla.”

Sony formally introduced “Godzilla” to the promotional and licensing world early this year at a meeting held at the Beverly Hilton in March, when Devlin and Emmerich laid out the basic premise of their movie.

The studio had to move quickly to simultaneously lock in its key promotional partner and master toy licensee, because they make their commitments 12 to 18 months in advance of a movie’s opening.

“It takes so much time to engineer something like this,” says Dang, executive vice president of consumer products for Sony Signatures, referring to securing “the four legs of licensing"--that is toys, apparel, publishing and interactive.

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On Sept. 18, Sony held an all-day summit at the Beverly Hills Hotel (which would later be duplicated in cities around the world including Hong Kong, Paris, London, Munich, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Sydney, Australia) with all its promotional partners and 75 licensees to discuss the creative and media strategies behind the movie.

“The normal movie business is skirmishes,” Levin says. “This is a full-fledged D-day warfare.”

Sony is hoping to go beyond movies that are simply sequels to produce franchises that can sell merchandise, videos, video games and other items after the movie has long left the multiplexes. The difference between a movie sequel like “Lethal Weapon” and a franchise like “Batman,” explains Calley, is that “a franchise connotes a much more vertical capacity to be exploited.” He adds that the TV metaphor is the soap opera.

“They have continuing characters and relatively similar story lines,” Calley says. “We seem culturally disposed towards certain kinds of reiterative material.”

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Some of the other potential franchises Sony has in its sights are “Stuart Little,” “Ghostbusters” and such TV-inspired series as “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Charlie’s Angels.” The studio still hopes to parlay “Men in Black” and “Jumanji,” which have sequels in development, into franchises, as well as “Starship Troopers,” which opens this weekend, and “Zorro,” due out next year.

Franchise is by no means a new concept in Hollywood. The old “Andy Hardy” movies were franchises of sorts, as were the old “Godzilla” films, for that matter.

Calley himself began developing franchises as an executive at Warner Bros. in the 1970s, where one of the first was the “Dirty Harry” series that also made Clint Eastwood’s day by vaulting him to the top ranks of stardom. (Ironically, Calley notes, Eastwood wasn’t the original Harry Callahan. Frank Sinatra was going to play the detective, but because of various factors, among them a sore thumb that prevented him from holding the character’s trademark Magnum revolver, he bailed.)

Before joining Sony, Calley helped relaunch the Bond franchise at United Artists after a seven-year hiatus with “GoldenEye,” which became the most successful film in the series, and is currently embroiled in a public fight with his former studio over whether Sony has the right to develop a new Bond franchise based on rights it just purchased.

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Monster Franchising

Godzilla nearly 20 film appearances:

Film name: Date

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“Godzilla”: 1954

“Gigantis the Fire Monster”: 1955

“King Kong vs. Godzilla”: 1962

“Godzilla vs. the Thing”: 1964

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“Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster”: 1964

“Monster Zero”: 1965

“Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster”: 1966

“Son of Godzilla”: 1967

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“Destroy All Monsters!”: 1968

“Godzilla’s Revenge”: 1969

“Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster”: 1971

“Godzilla on Monster Island”: 1972

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“Godzilla vs. Megalon”: 1973

“Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster”: 1974

“Terror of Mechagodzilla”: 1975

“Godzilla 1985": 1985

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“Godzilla vs. Biollante”: 1989

“Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah”: 1991

“Godzilla vs. Mothra”: 1992

Source: Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s and Video Viewer’s Companion

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