Movie merchandisers anticipate their biggest year


What does an American Indian doll have in common with a light-up key chain, a plastic figurine and glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts?

They're all movie-related products that will line store shelves over the next few weeks as Hollywood studios gear up for the largest summer marketing blitz ever.

At least 300 companies hope to capture a slice of an estimated $500 million in sales of products with film tie-ins -- but could be left holding the bag if the movies fail.

They will gamble that more than 5,000 different types of products will sell in the marketplace, including "Pocahontas" dolls, "Casper" key chains and "Congo" figurines.

If they figure wrong, their merchandise is useless. But the studios and the licensees making their products don't plan on being wrong.

"It's certainly the most active, merchandisable summer that I've seen," said Neil Friedman, MCA/Universal president of lTC merchandising, a veteran of 23 years in the marketing business. "It's the biggest that I have in my memory."

Universal is launching the biggest blitz with four films scheduled for release this summer that have product tie-ins: "Casper," the big-budget "Waterworld," "Apollo 13" and "Babe." But the other studios have their hands full as well.

Disney has "Pocahontas," Warner Bros. has "Batman Forever" and Paramount is trying to generate interest in "Congo," a film based on a Michael Crichton novel.

"Casper" and "Batman" will account for $100 million each in spending on studio marketing campaigns and amounts spent by licensees on product tie-ins. Each will generate an estimated 1,000 products and have lined up a cumulative total of 260 companies to produce the goods.

"Pocahontas" will generate another 1,000 products, but Disney is not releasing figures on the number of companies involved nor the cumulative investment. The number of products coming out, however, is similar to "Batman" and "Casper."

"Pocahontas," "Casper" and "Batman" are expected to have the widest appeal and thus generate the most products. As for other films, entertainment companies say they still have potential.

Even "Apollo 13," which recounts a near-fatal 1970 moon mission cut short by technical problems, has potential to sell hats, rings, T-shirts and pinball machines, Mr. Friedman said. The mission involved three astronauts who were forced to return to Earth after an explosion on board their craft.

"We think of it more as a heroic episode in history," Mr. Friedman said. He added MCA sought the blessing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before licensing products.

Companies say they are clamoring to get a piece of the action because no crop of movies has ever been as promising.

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