Licensing Show has little to buzz about from H’wood

It's not child's play

NEW YORK — “Charlie’s Angels” and “Spiderman,” from Sony, plus “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Jurassic Park 3” from Universal are among the few big studio titles with big buzz in Gotham as the Licensing Show — the giant licensing and merchandising industry confab — prepares to unspool Tuesday.

Two literary pics, Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (based on the bestselling book and now franchise) and New Line Cinema’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (from the J.R.R. Tolkein series) are also making noise. New Line just named Marvel’s toy biz unit master licensee for “Lord of the Rings.” Royalties for top properties are running about 14%.

Paramount will be shopping vidgame-turned-pic “Tomb Raider,” and Artisan Entertainment’s new consumer products arm will be out with “Blair Witch 2,” a sequel to the most profitable film in history.

Burned and selective

That might seem like slim pickings, especially considering the strong movie lineup this summer and fall. The fact is, most movies do not translate well into merchandise, and studios and licensees, both badly burned in the recent past, are being a lot more selective.

Dolls, key chains and T-shirts spawned by film and TV have it hard. Competition is fierce, shelf space limited and financial risks enormous. The toy industry took a bath when “Godzilla” and “Babe: Pig in the City” — hot items at Licensing Show two years ago — underperformed (in the first case) or downright stumbled (in the latter) at the box office — and at Wal-Mart.

Even “Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace,” which dominated Licensing Show in 1999 and brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandise sales, fell short of lofty expectations.

Fast start or nothing

One problem is that Hollywood action figures have about a week to prove themselves on retail shelves before being shoved aside to make room for the next big property, much the way films disappear from movie screens with lightening speed and TV series are dropped after an episode or two if they don’t perform.

“Licensing is all about wanting a piece of something. You’ve got to have the time and place for that property to be nurtured,” says Andrea Hein, Viacom’s president of consumer products.

A licensee is happiest if a property possesses an established name or surefire base, like “Harry Potter’s” millions of readers or “Jurassic Park’s” army of fans.

“Manufacturers and retailers have a much higher comfort level with properties that have had an opportunity to develop an audience, and that tends to favor TV and publishing,” says Charles Riotta, president of licensing trade group LIMA.

But no name is foolproof. The teens and “tweens” that the “Charlie’s Angels” merchandise is aimed at have probably never seen the TV show. Repositioning that property “for the new millennium” is indeed the challenge, acknowledges Peter Dang, exec VP of Sony Pictures Consumer Products.

He and others say there’s loads of business to be done at Licensing Show beyond the big Hollywood pics, from Saban Entertainment’s “Digimon” to Viacom’s “Sabrina” and “South Park” to Nickelodeon’s “Jimmy Neutron.”

And, as competitive as the environment is, studios wish one another well since any major merchandising flop spooks licensees and retailers and hurts them all.

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