Return of the retro rascals

Classic character revival fueled by demand from strong branding franchises

HOLLYWOOD — Although it might seem at first glance as though most of the entertainment-based merchandise aimed at children these days is tied in to the latest super-hero or animated feature film franchise, in fact, classic European literary properties are making major headway both in the U.S. and around the world.

With baby-boomer parents happy to purchase products based on books they remember from their childhood, several classic characters are on the verge of evolving into franchises themselves, with some set to star in feature films in the near future.

From Babar (1935), to Curious George (1941), and Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine (1939), these enduring characters live in feature films, on television, in multimedia and in an increasing array of mostly upscale merchandise. And parental nostalgia isn’t the only reason these characters are enjoying a resurgence, say licensers.

Creative Wonders software, based in Redwood City, Calif., for instance, routinely looks for recognizable names with which to launch new CD-ROMs. “The strategy was to use very strong branded franchises — characters with an immediate familiarity and comfort level,” explains Matthew Park, product manager for Creative Wonders, which produces the Madeleine CD-ROM series. “It’s like getting a movie star — there’s an immediate fan base, with no education necessary.”

For retailers, reliability ranks right next to consumer familiarity. “We’re seeing a resurgence in classic characters because toy companies and licensees are desperate for product that can stay on the shelves for long periods of time,” says Toper Taylor, senior VP of Canadian animation house, Nelvana, which licenses Babar products and produces TV shows based on Babar, Little Bear, the Busy World of Richard Scarry and Pippi Longstocking.

“Stores have been burned by movie titles that are basically flashes in the pan,” Taylor adds. “They have only the eight weeks following the movie to sell about 80% of the merchandise.

“Once you discount a property, it’s over,” Taylor continues. “The notion of finding a classic property that is evergreen, where you can basically dribble product into the marketplace, is terrific.”

Nelvana’s animated “Babar” show will air on HBO seven days a week starting in October, paired with the “Pippi Longstocking” series. According to Taylor, “Babar” is being re-launched as a merchandising and media property in conjunction with an animated feature film, coproduced with France’s Ellipse Animation, which should be completed next summer for a Christmas 1998 release. The regal French elephant is being re-designed with a look which harks back to the original book illustrations, with a more pastel color palette.

Taylor points out that it is now possible to launch a consistent licensing program for such characters internationally, because classic products like Babar tend to have an upscale appeal and thus are usually licensed to top-quality manufacturers. “The more you can appeal to a parent, the higher volume there is of gift-giving and collectibles,” he explains.

Ellipse senior VP of children’s programs Robert Rea says that there is a shortage of films for younger children in the European market, so he thinks the time is right for a Babar feature. “It’s something the whole family can do together,” he says, “Parents are happy to share something from their own childhood.”

Hollywood mademoiselle

In the same way that Babar’s resurgence will be driven by an animated film, director Daisy von Scherer Mayer (“Party Girl”) is starting filming this month on a live-action feature version of “Madeleine” for Sony Pictures, due for a summer ’98 release.

At the same time, Madeleine licenser DIC plans to take the character beyond its current high-end licensing program (which includes Ravensburger puzzles and Schylling China tea seats) into mass market merchandising in the next year, according to Joy Tashjian, DIC president of worldwide merchandising and sales. DIC’s cartoon version of the character currently airs on the Disney Channel five days a week.

“We’re going to stay true to its classic nature,” says Tashjian of the Madeleine licensing program. “You really need to be respectful of its history, and keep the character in its foundation and in its primary background.”

Taking a classic character and giving it a contemporary application without losing its original pedigree is a delicate balancing act, Tashjian says, especially at the prices demanded by mass merchants these days. Making the signature piece of merchandise for the character — the Madeleine soft doll — at a lower price is particularly challenging, she adds. But Tashjian thinks classic characters have particular advantages in the marketplace when trendy, new characters go through fallow periods.

“Parents go back to buying classic properties because they think they have a long-term play value, especially when there is a deficiency in a strong new character,” Tashjian says. “The marketing is dramatically different than with a new trendier type of character. It’s a different audience — the character is not driven by the television series; it’s driven by the publishing. Kids know it through their mothers and grandmothers.”

For multimedia products based on Madeleine, it is important that the character comes across as a positive role model for girls, according to Creative Wonders’ Park, who calls such a trend an important theme this year in software merchandise. Launching this fall are new grade-level titles based on the story of the French schoolgirl, with a preschool-kindergarten package and a first- and second-grade set. “There is consumer demand for curriculum-based titles, and we’re the only one for girls,” explains Park.

Monkey business

The impish, troublesome monkey, Curious George, has been a much-loved icon for several generations of kids, despite his rather politically incorrect beginnings as a captive zoo animal from Africa. Producer Ron Howard, for one, acquired rights to the silly simian’s story after reading the books to his own kids, and his Imagine Entertainment is producing a “Curious George” feature film. Set for a possible 1999 release, the film will be a live action/computer animated combo.

Universal Studios Consumer Products acquired licensing rights to Curious George this year from publisher Houghton Mifflin, taking over existing “upstairs” licensees, such as Schylling for tin toys and Gund plush stuffed animals. A mass marketing program is also due for launch soon.

Cynthia Cleveland, Universal’s president of licensing and merchandising, explains that “people feel good about literature-based properties. A parent knows the character without having to learn about it. There’s certainly a business to be had in appealing to people’s memories.”

Selected literary classics at a glance:

Madeleine: DIC TV series on Disney Channel five days a week;

CD-ROM: seven titles from Creative Wonders;

Feature film: for release from Sony Pictures summer 1998.

U.S. licenser: DIC

Babar: Nelvana TV series on HBO, seven days a week; Feature film: Nelvana animated pic, for likely release around Christmas, 1998.

U.S. licensor: Nelvana/Clifford Ross Co.

Curious George: Houghton Mifflin Interactive CD-ROM; Feature film: Imagine/Universal pic, for release 1999.

U.S. licensor: Universal Consumer Products.

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