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Bull market for R-rated bear?

'Ted' targets pic's tie-ins to alternative retailers

When it comes to movie merchandise, retailers like to play it safe, stocking shelves with products tied to summer tentpoles like “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” with characters recognized by most consumers.

But stores are ready to make room for a foul-mouthed teddy bear from Boston.

With “Ted” nearing $200 million domestically and expanding overseas, Universal, which distributes the comedy, and the film’s producer, Media Rights Capital, are rolling out a line of licensed products for the Seth MacFarlane film. That includes a talking plush bear, voiced by MacFarlane, that spouts a dozen phrases like, “How about a Brewstoyevski,” “Come here, you bastard” and, “Stick your finger in the loop of my tag,” as well as cell phone covers, mugs, hats and slogan-covered T-shirts, some too vulgar to publish.

The products are unusual for an R-rated film. Retailers generally shy away from adult-oriented fare, especially if a film doesn’t boast existing brand awareness. Moviegoers may know MacFarlane from “Family Guy,” “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show,” but “Ted” was based on an original idea by MacFarlane.

Most of the “Ted” merchandise will roll out beginning in October, and continue through December, timed with the homevideo push for the film. Partners likely will include major retailers like Best Buy and Transworld to promote the pic’s products as well as the disc.

Burbank-based Striker Entertainment, which launched the successful line of products for Summit Entertainment’s “Twilight” franchise and last year’s “The Hunger Games” for Lionsgate, is heading the “Ted” licensing campaign for MRC. Striker spent a month working closely with MacFarlane and Commonwealth Toys to design four sizes of plush bears. The largest is a 24-inch version priced at $59.99. Smallest is sized for keychains. And they all talk.

With a film about a talking toy bear, it wasn’t much of a stretch to determine the centerpiece tie-in. MacFarlane approved every element of the bear’s design, from the color, the shape of his nose, even the type of material used.

“Seth has a very high level of quality expectation,” says Russell Binder, president of Striker. “Everybody wanted this to be right. I salute rights holders who aren’t willing to put out a product unless they’re satisfied. Even though you could sell a bunch of them, (and) you’ve got the marketplace demanding product, do it the right way.”

While Striker isn’t new to the stuffed-animal biz — it also handles the consumer products license for Rovio’s successful “Angry Birds” franchise, which has resulted in plush versions of the pigs and birds in the game — “Ted” is hardly as family friendly.

“Because of the nature of the property, and its R-rating, it’s a very tough property to put into channels where there are kids,” Binder says. “It’s considered a bit too risque. It’s hard for a kid not to press a bear’s hand and hear him talk.”

That essentially eliminates chains like Walmart, Target and Toys R Us.

Instead, Striker is turning to teen- and young-adult skewing mall-based retailers such as Hot Topic, FYE and Spencer Gifts, as well as Urban Outfitters and Amazon.com.

Online retailers, in particular, “have become a huge place for us to reach the right customer,” Binder says.

In that regard, one key partner has been online tchotchke licenser CafePress, which has quickly become a source for studios looking for “a quick solution to get product into fans’ hands,” Binder says, given the company’s digital print-on-demand process.

For “Ted,” CafePress put considerable resources behind promoting the pic and pre-selling the plush bears, in addition to other products like mugs, cell phone covers, aprons and T-shirts. The site is taking pre-orders for the bear. Other retailers will start carrying the foul-mouthed toy by mid-August.

Additional partners include Concept One, which is making headwear and accessories, Rippled Junction (apparel) and toymaker Funko (bobble heads and Pop! figures). Still others are making calendars and posters, while Striker is also looking to identify ways to make “Ted” tie-ins relevant year-round, especially during the holidays.

Separately, Universal developed a “Talking Ted” app for Apple- and Google-powered devices, in which the toy bear smokes, drinks beer and can be recorded saying tame lines like “I love you,” with the finished video posted on Facebook or Twitter. While there’s a free version that has been downloaded more than 5 million times, the studio is charging 99¢ for an uncensored version that features more phrases.

Such digital deals are becoming more commonplace as younger consumers increasingly turn to their tablets and smartphones to play games. The time and money they’re spending on those devices is impacting the business as a whole, Binder says, which is altering the kinds of consumer products that wind up on store shelves. “There’s not a toy company out there that’s not trying to marry physical and digital experiences to engage with kids,” Binder says. “It’s hard to do just television today or just a movie. (The strategy) requires different access to different media.” For skittish retailers, box office returns prove an effective decision-making model.

“When the movie came out and crushed opening weekend, all of a sudden retailers came out of hibernation, if you will,” Binder says. “When it hit, that’s when the appetite turned into orders.”

As a result, most product deals are generally done after the fact, Binder says. “There’s rarely a pre-movie effort to put deals together. There’s always the intention for something to have merchandising potential. But given how conservative retailers are today and the amount of well-known brand properties there are coming out on a regular basis, there’s not the desire to support a property until it comes out and works. We can do as many licensing deals as possible, but if it doesn’t get supported at retail, there’s no point.”

Striker treated “Ted” differently, however, locking down some deals before the film’s bow. For some products, that’s necessary, given manufacturing challenges, particularly overseas. “You can’t make product and turn it around in two weeks,” Binder says. “You have to design it, get it approved, produce it and ship it. That takes time.”

Universal has scored in the past with other R-rated fare, producing bowling bags and White Russian cocktail-mixing kits for “The Big Lebowski,” as well as online games and apps for “Scarface,” including a version of “Mafia Wars.”

Binder also has brokered merchandise deals around Lionsgate’s “Saw” franchise, “Kick-Ass” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” in the past, including collectible vinyl figures.

“Ted” marks “the first plush bear in my career,” Binder says.

The marketing maven may want to get used to it. Universal and MRC are pressing MacFarlane to move forward with a “Ted” sequel, but the multihyphenate is juggling animated franchises “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” for Fox.

As he gets retailers excited for more “Ted” product, Binder also is working on licensing deals for Lionsgate’s “The Expendables 2,” out next month, as well as its “Hunger Games” sequel; “I, Frankenstein”; the “Twilight” finale from Summit, as well as its sci-fier “Ender’s Game” and zombie pic “Warm Bodies”; Legendary’s Entertainment’s “Pacific Rim”; and AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

Binder and his team were drawn to “Ted” because it looked like fun, and was a different kind of property from what they normally do, he says. They also were interested in a challenge: “What we expect to be merchandisable in an R-rated space is not that obvious,” Binder explains.

With a vulgar toy bear as the most obvious tie-in, Striker had little elso to base its efforts around for “Ted.”Only “The Hangover,” with its wolf pack-branded products and image of a baby wearing sunglasses, and “Napoleon Dynamite” seemed to offer similar campaigns.

But Binder , who’s a fan of MacFarlane, didn’t need a lot of convincing after learning who was behind the project. “The challeng
e was getting the people (namely licensing partners and retailer) to support it in a meaningful way for a theatrical release. The bulk of this business,” he explains, “is wait and see.”

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