The executive suites over at Universal Pictures have been largely devoid of cheer over the past year. After a string of misfires, the new regime, headed by Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley, is still getting its footing when it comes to releasing a slate of hits.
The mood’s been much brighter in Stephanie Sperber’s department, however.
As the president of the studio’s partnerships and licensing group, Sperber essentially plays matchmaker for brands that want to tie in with Universal’s movies, homevideo releases, videogames and theme parks.
That usually doesn’t involve stressing over the riskier box office bets but projects that have already proved their merits at the megaplex.
Through last year’s merger of the studio’s consumer products and partnerships groups, Sperber has been able to help grow the licensing business for library fare like “Curious George,” “Jurassic Park,” “Scarface” and the studio’s classic monsters, which include Dracula and Frankenstein, through new forms of products (“The Big Lebowski” bowling bags and White Russian mixing kits are selling briskly) or in new foreign territories (Woody Woodpecker is big in Brazil, for example).
Moving that kind of merchandise helped save the studio’s bottom line during the recession but also put pressure on Sperber and her team during a time of box office drought.
“There was pressure on all departments, but my department is so dependent on broad commercial and family-oriented films (that) when we weren’t making those movies, it was a challenge,” Sperber says. “Our partners wanted to work with us, but we weren’t giving them anything they could sink their teeth into.”
The studio is starting to give Sperber what she needs, thanks to its close partnership with Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, whose first launch was this summer’s “Despicable Me,” which earned $245 million domestically.
Sperber was able to entice Best Buy, IHOP, American Express and Kodak to pony up more than $75 million in marketing coin to promote the 3D-animated film.
“We don’t have a track record with animated films,” says Sperber, “but we proved we can do it. We now have a little bit of wind at our backs.”