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Learning from Licensing -- What Sells

Attending New York's L!censing show can be like looking into a crystal ball. Eric Lurio relates what he's learned on detecting the winners and losers...

Remember that old expression, "Let's hoist that up the flagpole and see who salutes?" The expression is generally used when someone has some semblance of an idea. Well, every year in the middle of June, the Javits Center in New York City turns into that proverbial flagpole.

Imagine, a trade show which just markets ideas. Okay, Coca-Cola isn't exactly an idea, but Foolbert Sturgon: Supersecret Weasel is. Not necessarily a good one, either, but some people in New Jersey were actually enamored of it enough to buy a booth and print up some nifty flyers. The same goes for The Endangerables (you have now seen the worst title of all time), Baloonatics, and a dozen other characters of which you've never heard.

The Endangerables. © Creative Entertainment Group.

Stars and Unknowns

This is the Licensing show, where hundreds of companies present the future of entertainment. Disney isn't here and never has been, but everyone else has at one time or another. Big and small. Good and bad. Star Wars had a booth for ten years until Lucas announced he was going to make a new one. Turner had a huge exhibit promoting a live-action Jetsons movie, just before they went out of business. Filmation was here flogging stuff years after it went belly up as well. Sony was trying to promote an animated feature based on Harold and the Purple Crayon.. Nickelodeon announced The Rugrats Movie here. Fox announced Anastasia and Ferngully. Paramount announced The Thief of Always.

This was the only place anyone outside the studio will have ever seen any art from The Incredible Mr. Limpet remake and a second Strawberry Shortcake feature. It makes one's heart leap with joy to remember that. Bits and pieces of popular culture come here first and leave here last. Ms. Shortcake and "Those [other] Characters from Cleveland" were flogged here ages after they vanished from the minds of kids. You can also see stuff here that you would never see anywhere else on this side of the Atlantic. Sprinkletails was a popular TV show in Europe east of France, but nobody over here will ever hear of it again. Probably just as well...

This is a perfect spot for a little industrial espionage. If you study a bit and ask the right questions you can find out all sorts of information about what's ahead for the next two years. Tomb Raider: The Movie was flogged heavily last year, despite the fact that nobody knew who was going to play Laura Croft. Come to think of it, we still don't. Polygram had a Thunderbirds the Movie booth. Imagine that!

The Thief of Always. © Paramount Pictures.

The Vital Signs

After faithfully attending the show for a decade and a half (except when I was taking my 'round the world jaunt in '89), I've learned what it is to look for in an unknown property and what pitfalls licensees can land in:

First off, there are titles. If something has a bad title, it probably stinks. This is because someone in the organization should have the good sense to know if something sounds dumb. Take The Endangerables for example. Even if the artwork looks good, the fact that the title sounds so stupid will drive away pretty much anyone. Did they try to stop the naming of The Endagerables? NO! Another example is Vistavision's Guardians 4 Good Sense. Who do they fight? The Vanguard of Stupidity? Remember, "Guardians of ANYTHING" sounds dumb and derivative.

Second, the dreaded teddy. Ever since Theodore Roosevelt refused to kill a cub and thus inspired the first fuzzy doll, Teddy bear derivatives have been a mainstay of the kiddy market. This means that for every Care Bears, you've got six hundred others which are even more banal and saccharine than you-know-who. Some of these even manage to get enough capital to make an animated pilot. This happened with Little Flying Bears, which may have been shown in Canada. I have seen a Smurfs ripoff with bears grown from acorns. That anyone would spend the money to present something that obviously dumb is sad.

Third, there's imports. Imports don't do that well, even if they're good. Monica's Gang is an excellent strip. Everyone in Brazil loves it. But they've been trying to crack the American market for years with no success. So why do they keep coming back? Well, at Licensing you've got lots of foreigners who come to get licenses for back home. A French manufacturer will travel six thousand miles round trip to get the license for a character from Gaumont, which is based in France. Lots of British companies send people here to make deals for British properties. Hey, it works...

Guardians 4 Good Sense. © Vista International.

Fourth, nostalgia doesn't always work that well. Larry Harmon created Bozo the Clown who was very popular back in the days before man first walked on the Moon, but nobody remembers him any more. However, he comes back every year. Marilyn Monroe, of course, makes a fortune. So does Elvis. But with cartoons it's different. Rocky and Bullwinkle have been bouncing around from company to company for years. Last year, Rainbow Brite tried to make a comeback. I haven't seen any of her stuff on the shelves for years. Who the heck remembers Winky Dink under the age of forty? But remember, this is a gambling casino disguised as a trade show, if it worked once...

The Little Flying Bears. © Cine Group of Canada.

Finally, there's movie and TV tie-ins. These are a real gamble. Disney is never here, but Hunchback of Notre Dame is THE horror story of the industry. Just the other day, I saw a Hunchback of Notre Dame note pad still on sale, with three years worth of dust on it. If the mighty Mouse couldn't do it, then what's to become of poor Morgan Creek, who had a huge booth to promote The King and I? Is it worth the effort to bet on that? Subway, a chain of sandwich shops, thought so, but then again they also bought the license for Cats Don't Dance. I don't think we'll see another tie-in there any time soon.

Another problem for licensees can be a lack of support from the filmmaker. The licensing divisions of most of these companies can be trusted. Warner Consumer Products (WCP) is here every year primarily to be nice to their customers. They're as big as Disney, but they come anyway. For the standard characters, that's great, but Warner Bros. the movie company and the WB! network don't seem to see it that way. A few years back they were trying to sell Calamity Jane. People trust WCP, but WB TV canceled the damn thing after three airings, leaving licensees in the lurch.

The best thing about the show is all the free stuff. The giveaways aren't as plentiful as they used to be, but a one-sheet will suffice to some extent for my collection. They also serve free beer on the first night...

Eric Lurio is a New York-based cartoonist and writer who has written extensively on animation for several years. His articles have appeared in Animation Magazine, Animation Blast, Animation Planet and Animefantastique. He also has a regular column in Animato!