Movie Article

Playing for Keeps

A look at movie merchandising -- The action figures associated with summer’s big hits including ''Waterworld'' and ''Mortal Kombat''

Three words strike fear in the hearts of fast-food vendors and toy-store owners: Last Action Hero. The mega-budgeted film crashed and burned two years ago, but to this day the Arnold Schwarzenegger dolls and the Burger King cups are still gathering dust — a painful reminder of a movie-merchandising campaign gone bad. Could it happen again? Is barbecued meat greasy? Mix a bumper crop of kid-oriented films — Batman Forever, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Casper, Pocahontas, Congo, Mortal Kombat, and glub, glub, Waterworld — with a record number of toy and fast-food-chain tie-ins, and the summer of '95 is set for a movie-product showdown.

''It's a war out there,'' says Steve Ross, senior VP of worldwide promotions for Twentieth Century Fox, which has an estimated $30 million in corporate promotional deals attached to Rangers. ''Essentially, we're using entertainment to drive more sales,'' he adds. ''We sell more movie tickets and they sell more Jell-O.'' (There's a flavor for each of the Power folk, like Yellow Ranger Lemon.) It's a formula that seems to work: In 1994, retail sales for licensed entertainment product topped $17 billion.

Oddly, a film's success doesn't guarantee that stuff will fly off the shelves. Though Disney's $313 million-grossing The Lion King exceeded $1 billion in total merchandise sales last year, Universal's The Flintstones, which grossed a robust $130 million, saw rocky toy sales. ''Kids were confused by the live-action versus the animated Freds and Wilmas,'' says Christopher Byrne, editor of Market Focus: Toys. ''The movie did okay, but the toys just never took off.'' With that in mind, here's the conventional wisdom on the '95 playing field.

WaterBoy
Oscar-winning director Kevin Costner has been reduced to a pint-size action figure — doesn't that say it all? Costner may have allowed his likeness to be used in Kenner's Waterworld toy line, but don't look for this campaign to help Universal mop up the millions. Says one studio source, ''I don't think there's any question that the bad press scared away some licensees.''
Fast-food tie-in: None

Casper Friendly
No fraidy cats here. MCA/Universal's repositioning of TV's friendly spirit as a ''ghost with a '90s attitude'' has scared up big business at the box office ($55 million) and stores. Likely to boost sales even more will be the return of Casper the series to the syndicated airwaves this fall, which could drive this toy line well into the film's video release. Disappearing off shelves: Mischief Makers dolls.
Fast-food tie-in: Pizza Hut

At Bat
To date, Batman merchandise is headed toward $3 billion in sales (the original film was released in 1989). So it's no surprise that industry observers are predicting Batman Forever merch will be the summer's runaway hit. In fact, the new line is already selling out, says Alan Saffron, owner of the Los Angeles-based toy store Puzzle Zoo. Expected to be on every kid's wish list: the Riddler/Jim Carrey action figure. Also available are dolls even a Republican could love: Batman and Robin figures minus their breastplate nipples.
Fast-food tie-in: McDonald's

Poca Loco
The Lion King's a tough act to follow, but with a reported $125 million in corporate tie-ins for Pocahontas, Disney is trying to top itself. Toy experts are guarded, though, because the movie's feminine appeal may exclude boys. Then again, Little Mermaid is one of the company's top licensed figures (Mickey is still No. 1).
Fast-food tie-in: Burger King.

Almighty
Or are they? Though sales of Power Ranger product indicate the franchise is a force to be reckoned with (last year, totaled $1 billion worldwide), there's a growing perception that the Mighty Morphins have peaked. ''The feeling in the industry is that the movie is a year too late,'' says Byrne. ''The core audience is getting older and the new audience wants something new.''
Fast-food tie-in: McDonald's Happy Meal

Congo Line
Wanna buy a monkey? Well, not as much as folks seem to want to buy a friendly ghost. ''It's not another Casper,'' says Jay Demircift of Puzzle Zoo. ''The Amy dolls are moving the most,'' he adds, because they're ''soft and cuddly.'' It's too early to tell, however, whether Congo's unexpected $25 million opening weekend will accelerate the sale of gorillas, Pop-Tents, and board games.
Fast-food tie-in: Taco Bell

Kombat Fatigue
The butt-kicking fighters are ''not the kind of product that corporate America wants to embrace,'' says Danny Simon of the merchandising agency The Licensing Group. But hopes are that fans of the megasuccessful videogame will now develop an interest in the Kombat toys as well as the movie.
Fast-food tie-in: None.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Wells

Originally posted Jun 23, 1995 Published in issue #280 Jun 23, 1995 Order article reprints
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