Merchandising for R-Rated Films Has Some Bugs


Everyone is familiar with the onslaught of merchandise that surrounds every animated film from Walt Disney Co. Disney invented the formula of turning a hit film into millions of dollars’ worth of figurines, games and plush animals.

But toys tied to an R-rated film? “Starship Troopers,” due out Nov. 7 from Sony, will be one of only a handful of R-rated films that have tried to spin off a merchandising franchise. But the film’s hook seems like a natural for merchandise: giant alien bugs that eat humans.

Bugs are big. If you have a son between the ages of 4 and 10, you probably already know that store shelves are lined with Beetleborgs, Real Squish Bugs and Beast Wars plastic toys of varying degrees of hideousness.


These toys don’t come near the bone-crushing blood and guts depicted in “Starship Troopers,” however. The movie’s bugs have been turned into a toy line sold by chains such as Toys R Us.

Will parents want their first- grader playing with bug toys linked to a violent, R-rated film?

San Francisco-based Galoob Toys is betting that enough parents will bite to make a modest success.

“If successful, this picture could turn into a franchise: a cartoon show, a second picture. If that happens, our small risk will pay off,” said Gary Niles, executive vice president in charge of marketing and property acquisition at Galoob.

Unlike the “Star Wars” line--which Galoob recently bought from Lucasfilm for tens of millions of dollars--”Starship” is a modest line of 12 products, including small action figures and vehicles. Several years ago, Galoob had a successful line of toys linked to the science fiction film “Alien.” Excluding “Terminator 2,” “Alien” is probably the only R-rated film to have done a substantial business in toys.

“Your goals are generally going to be a lot lower [for toys tied to an R-rated picture],” said Jim Silver, publisher of Toy Book, an industry newsletter. “It’s not going to be a ‘Batman.’ It’s going to be maybe a single, not a home run.”

“Starship” is hampered in part by the reluctance of some major retail chains to support R-rated movies. Niles says Wal-Mart and Dayton-Hudson’s Target stores--which combined may account for as much as 20% of action-figure sales--didn’t buy the toys. But Toys R Us and Kay-Bee Toys did.

If anything, say Hollywood licensing executives, it’s only become harder to convince retailers to carry a property like “Starship.”

In fact, Galoob announced Wednesday that it planned to cut back on acquiring further action properties like “Starship,” in order to concentrate on its very profitable “Star Wars” line. Niles said, though, that if “Starship” is successful, Galoob will continue to make those toys.

“I think retailers have become more conservative. But they’re also pressed for profit,” says Larry Kasanoff, who worked on “Terminator 2” with director James Cameron and has since been involved with such films as “Mortal Kombat.”

“To pull it off,” Kasanoff continues, “the movie has to be perceived as a blockbuster. You show them a potential bonanza, and people come on board.”

Peter Dang, head of Sony consumer products, was still at Saban Entertainment when the Galoob deal was cut in early 1996. Last year, Sony executives were insisting that “Starship” would have a very broad merchandising program. Now, Dang admits, “when you have an adult film, it’s not going to be as wide [a merchandising program]. There are stores that won’t support an R film.”

Although Dang isn’t the ultimate arbiter of what rating a film aims for, he is now brought in by the studio very early in a film’s development.

“On anything that has franchising or merchandising potential, I’ll analyze it for them,” Dang says. “We want to focus on wide programs, on pictures like ‘Godzilla’ [due out from Sony next May]. Why beat your head against the wall with something where you can’t hang your hat on a merchandising hook?”

Still, Sony executives and Kasanoff say it’s an open secret that children do go to R-rated films.

“No one wants to admit it, but it happens,” Kasanoff says. “When ‘T2’ opened, I saw kids skateboard up to the ticket window to buy tickets.”

Those skateboarders certainly accounted for much of the film’s huge box-office and merchandising success: Kasanoff estimates that “Terminator 2” generated $1.2 billion in retail sales. Of that, he says, $400 million was from toys and video games, which tend to be violent anyway and aren’t aimed at very young children.

Whether “Starship” toys will fly is an open question because the toys just hit shelves within the last three weeks. Meanwhile, Sony and Galoob are keeping a lid on their expectations.

“This wasn’t a bet-all proposition,” Galoob’s Niles says.