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In the Licensing Biz, Nostalgia is the Future


T.L. Stanley


June 18, 2008

Smurfs. Ghostbusters. Princess Bride. Alvin and the Chipmunks. Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. Thor and Captain America. Snow White, Where's Waldo and Happy Days. They all had front-and-center exposure at last week's Licensing International Expo.

Wait, what year is this?

While a sexy new feature film project like The Last Airbender from M. Night Shyamalan and fast-growing virtual worlds may get the industry's heart racing, it's the nostalgia properties that are proving to be the lifeblood of a somewhat anemic business.

Retail sales in the industry fell slightly in '07, dropping to $107.8 billion from $108 billion the prior year, per the Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association in New York. Entertainment character licensing was the only category that didn't decrease, though it rose only 1.1% to $2.71 billion, making up 45% of the licensing total of $5.99 billion.

There are no statistical breakouts of classic vs. new properties, but licensing veterans say that revived oldsters seem to be driving the industry at a time when many thought the retro wave had come and gone. After all, everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to My Little Pony made successful comebacks in the last decade or so. Isn't there a limit to how many '80s properties the market will bear? (Evidence: Trolls tried but fell flat.)

Apparently the trend is far from over and, in fact, appears to be on the upswing.

There's a live-action/animated hybrid feature in the works based on the Smurfs, which has now landed at Sony Pictures Animation and Columbia Pictures, and a videogame and special DVD release of the 25-year-old Ghostbusters. (There's talk of a remake, but the studio hasn't confirmed that).

Princesses that date back to Snow White are part of what's driving Disney's 12% jump to a whopping $30 billion-plus projected global consumer product retail sales this fiscal year, which was the talk of the show.

Superheroes, most of them decades old, are on fire, and the first movie based on the 40-plus-year-old G.I. Joe hits next year. Classic TV shows like Happy Days and The Love Boat will get new products, via a deal between CBS Consumer Products and Hallmark, and Where's Waldo is making a social networking-based comeback, with product, of course.

"Retailers and licensees will still get behind the hot property of the day, but they're being more reactive and chasing those later rather than signing up long in advance," said Tamra Knepfer, svp-consumer products at American Greetings Properties, home to Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake, which just signed a major toy deal with Hasbro. "It's a business response to wanting the tried-and-true that carries less risk."

Most exhumed properties look a bit different. There are tweaks and updates, ranging from new designs and colors to contemporary settings and scripts. But property owners usually take pains to retain the core attributes, and hence protect the nostalgic appeal for boomer parents. Retailers, more risk averse than usual in the current limping economy, are more inclined to give valuable and limited shelf space to known entities than to unproven properties.

"They don't have to worry about TV ratings or movie box office," Knepfer said, "where those life cycles can be short they're here today and gone tomorrow."




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