Mouse leads movement into lucrative world of merchandising

NEW YORK – Broadway has been slow to follow film and TV into the lucrative world of merchandising, but with bric-a-brac king Disney and marketing whiz Livent setting up shop in Times Square, other legit producers might be forced to think beyond T-shirt carts and stacks of CDs.

While most Broadway producers don’t have the luxury of retail space that both Disney and Livent have set aside in their newly remodeled theaters, merchandising instincts, at least, seem to be expanding.

Bigger piece of the pie

Traditionally, Broadway producers have sold licensing rights to merchandisers, who then manufacture the T-shirts, caps and other goods sold in theaters and, occasionally, retail outlets. In return, producers received a portion (often as low as 10%) of the profits. Now, producers are demanding a bigger piece of the pie.

“I think there’s a growing savvy among Broadway producers that there are revenue possibilities out there,” says Randi Grossman Amick, whose company, Show Property NY, creates merchandise for “Rent” and a few other Broadway shows. “And as long as you don’t cheapen the image of your show, it’s OK.”

A handful of Broadway producers are following the Disney model of a private line of merchandise that eliminates middle-man licensees. Livent’s newly remodeled Ford Center for the Performing Arts, directly across 42nd Street from Disney’s New Amsterdam, includes a small store (diminutive by Disney standards, but voluminous compared with the typical lobby sales counter) that is already stocked with “Ragtime” merchandise, even though the musical doesn’t open until Jan. 18. A “Ragtime” boutique in Manhattan’s flagship Bloomingdale’s department store offers a range of items from clothing to cosmetics.

Marketing tool

Dodger Prods. (“Titanic,” “The King and I,” among many others) has been creating its own merchandise for about four years. “We find (merchandising) immensely valuable as a marketing tool,” Dodger partner Michael David says. “And by removing the middleman and doing it ourselves, we also create a revenue stream.”

But in scope and, literally, size, no Broadway producer can match Disney’s merchandising acumen. The 18,000-square-foot Disney Store in Times Square has a portal opening directly onto the New Amsterdam lobby; “Lion King” audiences are ushered through the store as they exit the theater.

A recent Wednesday matinee performance of “Lion King” saw nearly a third of the 1,700-odd audience pausing in the store’s sizable back room, which is devoted exclusively to merchandise tied to “Lion” and Disney’s other Broadway production, “Beauty and the Beast.” A cordoned maze leading up to the cash registers was quickly jammed with dozens of theatergoers.

Exceeding expectations

A Disney spokeswoman said the store, which opened a year and a half ago while the shuttered New Amsterdam was under renovation, has been exceeding expectations since “Lion King’s” opening Nov. 13. Disney will not dis-close figures on the performance of its stores.

“What Disney is doing is akin to Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Cafe and the other theme restaurants, who have private label merchandise (that customers buy) to show you’ve been there,” said Marty Brockstein, editor of the trade publication the Licensing Letter.

T-shirts, programs and cast albums have long been sold in theater lobbies, but it was “Cats” back in the early 1980s that brought a new sophistication to Broadway merchandising. London advertising agency Dewynters emblazoned countless slick, well-made products with the now ubiquitous cat-eye logo, and, as the worldwide marketer and merchandiser of all subsequent musicals by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh, continued the formula with “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon.”

“The real limitation we face is the size of the theaters,” says Michael Storey, commercial director for Dewynters. “We’re talking about theaters built a long time ago, and they simply don’t have much selling space.”

Central Broadway store?

It has been rumored that the League of American Theaters & Producers hopes to create a central Broadway store somewhere in Times Square where merchandise, and possibly tickets, for all shows would be sold. A League spokeswoman says such plans have been considered but are not in active development.

Says Licensing Letter’s Brockstein: “I think everybody would love to be Disney and love to have a great big store next to their theater. But that’s not going to happen.”

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