Merchandisers Putting Forth Herculean Push

MONDAY, JUNE 23, 1997

The star of “Hercules,” Disney’s latest animated musical, can’t get enough of his own merchandise.

In the film opening Friday, the brawny action hero dons Air Herc sandals, chugs a Herculade sports drink, stamps his name on a Grecian Express credit card and glad-hands shoppers at a glitzy Hercules Store.

It’s all a cute inside joke, but the real “Hercules” goods are no laughing matter to Disney. The company is flooding toy shelves with playthings the studio believes will outsell its disappointing “Hunchback of Notre Dame” wares. One problem: A huge product push from two other big summer releases - Friday’s “Batman and Robin” and July 2’s “Men in Black.”

The stakes are particularly high. Merchandise sales can spell the difference between a movie’s profitability and failure.

“It’s a very serious business,” says Peter Dang, executive vice president for worldwide merchandising at Sony Signatures, the licensing arm of Disney rival Sony Pictures.

“With the growing cost of movies today, (consumer product) is now part of the process. It used to be frosting, gravy. Now it’s a part of the financial equation,” he said.

Disney’s “Hercules” campaign covers close to 100 manufacturers and no less than 6,000 different products, everything from underwear to backpacks to knit tops to pencils to handbags. Lead licensee Mattel Inc. alone is making 10 action figures and seven fashion dolls.

The goods are backed by multimillion-dollar “Hercules” promotions from Choice Hotels International Inc., General Motors Corp., Nestle USA Inc. and Quaker Oats Co.

It’s hard to say whether a proposed boycott of Disney products, theme parks, stores and the company’s subsidiaries by Southern Baptists will have any effect on “Hercules” merchandise sales. The Southern Baptists are protesting what church leaders say are Disney’s “gayfriendly” policies.

But regardless of what Southern Baptists buy or don’t buy, Disney faces stiff competition. Because, just as the summer movie season is considered the most competitive ever, so, too, is the summer merchandise wars.

Sony has about 36 manufacturers cranking out scores of toy, clothing, publishing and interactive products for its “Men in Black.”

Warner Bros.’ “Batman and Robin” is backed by an array of Caped Crusader trinkets and a $125 million partnership with Apple Computer Inc., Taco Bell and Kellogg Co.

“It’s an extraordinarily competitive business - but we think the ‘Batman’ movie this time will be bigger than ever,” says Keith Laakko, leader of Hasbro’s “Batman” team.

Hasbro alone is releasing 37 different action figures linked to the Friday release, ranging from Poison Ivy and Batgirl toys to the Batmobile and a hydroplane that factors in the film.

“Batman” merchandise sales slumped after the sordid 1992 sequel but rebounded with 1995’s “Batman Forever.” Hasbro is hoping the Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) characters will appeal to girls, who typically buy a small percentage of action-movie loot.

But Catwoman merchandise linked to the 1995 sequel didn’t set any sales records, and some national retailers are already discounting “Batman and Robin” merchandise by as much as 33 percent.

“Men in Black” could well be one of the year’s biggest movie hits. Test screenings of the comedy about city-dwelling space aliens have been enthusiastically received, and as Sony’s Dang says, “In a summer of sequels, we’re the only new and interesting piece. We can use that to our advantage.”

Up against the “Hercules” juggernaut and the “Batman” name brand, Sony has labored to convince retailers of the movie’s (and its merchandise’s) appeal. At the national toy show in February, Sony showed store buyers clips of the film and has been banging on doors ever since.

“We had to do a whole lot of solicitation to prove this was a movie that had merit,” Dang says. “At the toy fair there were 50 lines of toys introduced with some sort of film or TV property. If you’re a buyer, what do you choose and how do you choose right?”

Trustworthy names don’t always guarantee results. Retailers who bought hordes of “Hunchback” paraphernalia quickly found the movie and its characters were far less appealing than 1994’s “The Lion King.” While “Hercules” probably will not challenge the latter film’s popularity, Disney executives privately say it should outperform both “Hunchback” and “Pocahontas.”

Toy buyers, like the movie audience, are fickle. Just as an underperforming film disappears from theaters in days, slumping toys will be bumped by whatever other product 10-year-olds suddenly crave.

Adds Sony’s Dang: “If something becomes red-hot, retailers will find room for you.”


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