Costume designers want their share

Pros lobby for a piece of the action figure pie

If you happen upon any members of the Costume Designers Guild at Comic-Con this year, don’t mention the “M” word. “There’s a huge, very lucrative thing called ‘merchandising,’ and it’s shared between a very small group of people — and we’re not in it,” grumbles Oscar-winning costume designer James Acheson (“Spider-Man”).

Hellboy figurines, X-Men lunchboxes, Jack Sparrow Halloween costumes — as well as videogames, posters, trading cards and McDonald’s Happy Meal toys — are the lifeblood of a movie-merchandizing industry valued in the billions of dollars. But thanks to the “work for hire” nature of costume designers’ contracts with studios, they won’t see a penny of it.

Greg Anzalone of Sideshow Collectibles, a California-based high-end toy and collectibles studio, hears their frustration. “We do believe costume designers should be better recognized for their work,” he says, referencing Sideshow’s book “Dressing a Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars.”

But recognition isn’t enough, insist costume designers, who don’t understand why it is they see nada for their work, while music supervisors, actors and theater stage designers receive royalty checks when studios license the fruits of their labor.

“When you create a property, the studio owns the likeness, and they can do with it what they like,” says Bif Bang Pow partner Jason Labowitz, whose “Big Lebowski” bobbleheads and figures feature the characters’ signature attire.

Labowitz likens the costumes’ recognition factor to Neca’s “Shaun of the Dead” figures: “The short-sleeve shirt and the tie — it’s what he wears through the whole movie, and I don’t think anyone’s getting credit for that.”

There are exceptions. Michael Runnels, VP of business affairs at ICM, says his client Joanna Johnston presented her idea for a “Polar Express” pajama line to Warner Bros. and had her name on the inside label of an official “War of the Worlds” jacket. But such deals are few and far between.

Lost potential earnings aside, designers believe excluding them from the merchandise design process often results in substandard products. “A costume designer understands the character’s aesthetic better than anyone,” says Deena Appel, who conceived “Austin Powers'” signature look and serves as spokeswoman for the Costume Designers Guild. “We should have the opportunity to help make the products better — and get paid for it.”

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