Merchandise moving, despite film's low B.O.

Warner Bros.’ promo campaign for “Speed Racer” may not have drawn the masses to the multiplexes, but it’s helping to sell everything from toys to tennis shoes.

Lego, Mattel, Puma and other partners are reveling in strong sales despite the film’s ho-hum, $18.6 million opening.

Studios typically enlist major brands to help tout a pic’s release. In “Speed’s” case, they spent upwards of $80 million in additional marketing coin for pic promos that run through mid-June. But the film largely wound up promoting the partners’ wares instead.

Boys age 4-8 are snatching up playsets made by Lego and Mattel’s Hot Wheels brand, while older fanboys are flocking to Puma stores for limited-edition shoes.

One major reason for the reversal is that Warner’s marketing materials focused heavily on the Mach 5, the gadget-packed car that Speed Racer pilots, rather than the Racer family. Partnerships closely reflected the campaign, with the Mach 5 essentially the only image that could appear on packaging.

The frenetic visuals in the trailers and TV spots also promote the car and the film’s racing sequences, making the pic look like a Hot Wheels movie. “Speed” producer Joel Silver, ironically, is developing such a film.

But cars — especially cars you can’t buy — don’t open movies, unless they’re Herbie the Love Bug or the talking vehicles in Pixar’s “Cars.” What they do sell is toys. And that’s something Warner Bros. will at least benefit from as it collects hefty royalties.

“We’re still going to do very well with ‘Speed Racer,’ ” says Brad Globe, president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, who nonetheless admits, “A giant movie would have made it all a lot bigger.”

Shortening the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time could have helped “Speed” at the B.O. But the studio also needed to educate wider auds on what the property actually was. Based on a Japanese animated TV toon series from the 1960s, “Speed” has generated more cult status than mass appeal.

Universal had to deal with a similar identity issue in 2000 when it rolled out “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” While U.S. moviegoers were familiar with the Dr. Seuss book and annual holiday TV toon, most o’seas auds didn’t know what a Grinch was.

U designed a marketing campaign around introducing the Grinch in foreign markets and it paid off: The pic was the top-grossing film that year.

Still, “Speed” could end up one of the top-selling toy lines of the season, even against merchandise-heavy films like the fourth “Indiana Jones,” “Wall-E” and “The Dark Knight.”

It may not “get to the level that it could have gotten to, like a ‘Cars,’ ‘Jurassic Park’ or ‘Spider-Man,’ says Globe, “But in terms of being a successful program, (“Speed Racer”) may still be the biggest merchandising program of the summer.”

And both Warners and marketers will get a second go-around when the pic bows on DVD.

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