From ''The Shadow'' t-shirts to ''Lion King'' sneakers, movie characters are covering all their bases

By EW Staff
Updated July 22, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Digging into her McDonald’s Happy Meal, your daughter finds coupons for Mattel’s Yabba-Dabba-Doo Fred and Dyno-Drilling Barney action figures. On her Fruity Pebbles cereal box, she reads an ad for Flintstones beach balls, on sale at Toys ”R” Us. Her Nestle’s Crunch bar offers a $3 rebate if she buys The Lion King soundtrack. At the mall’s Payless Shoesource, she ogles Lion King sneakers.

It’s a jungle out there — merchandise-wise. More ferociously than ever, movie marketers are in cross-promotional cahoots with burger chains, retailers, toymakers, apparel designers, and famous-name food and drink companies. The intention is to virtually force parents-and kids-to buy, buy, buy products tied in to big kid-appeal movies.

This summer, the hottest and heaviest movie-merchandising season ever, more than 100 licensees are hawking more than 1,000 items based on Universal’s Flintstones film. That’s just for starters: No fewer than 50 firms are selling clothes, cups, toy cars, and other paraphernalia inspired by Universal’s The Shadow. And Disney’s program is grandest of all, featuring 400-square-foot Lion King shops inside some Toys ”R” Us stores.

Although no one knows exactly how much movie-based merchandise is sold each year, executive editor Karen Raugust of The Licensing Letter, an industry journal, estimates that retail sales from entertainment licensing, which includes movies, TV, and theater, totaled $15.8 billion last year. In fact, entertainment last year represented the fastest-growing segment of the $66.6 billion licensing business in the U.S.

Below, some answers to questions that might arise as your wanna-buy kids clamor for ever more of this merchandise:

Will I pay more for licensed toys? Yes. Companies that sell movie-licensed merchandise pay licensers — typically the film’s distributor — 6 to 10 percent of the product’s total sales. ”These licensing fees are reflected in the retail price,” says Roger Goddu, executive vice president of Toys ”R” Us. But you might expect that movie tie-ins would need less advertising, since consumers already know the famous franchises. Not so. ”We advertise The Flintstones and Lion King toys as intensively as we do Barbie and Hot Wheels,” says Mark DiCamillo, a director of marketing at Mattel, which owns the licenses for those two movies. When you buy the toys, you pay for that heavy sales pitch.

Do I get high quality for the higher price? Generally, yes. A licensee typically is one of the largest, most reputable companies in its industry. In the toy business, these firms are Mattel, Hasbro, Kenner, Tyco, and Playmates. All comply with rigorous safety and quality standards set by the Toy Manufacturers of America, a trade organization, as well as the federal government.

What about knockoffs? You can buy a phony Fred or a sham Simba (from The Lion King) for 25 percent less than the real thing. Trouble is, your astute child will likely notice that his Fred looks less like John Goodman than the $30 Talking Fred owned by the kid next door. Sales of knockoff goods, sometimes making up 10 percent of merchandise sales from a hit film, drive Hollywood nuts because they sap potential royalties and damage the franchise’s image. This summer, imitation Lion King toys are labeled King Lion, Lion Safari, and Lion King of the Jungle. Sometimes the fakes are made of cheap materials that may not hold up. ”Disney is most frequently knocked off,” says Debra Keene-Carter, vice president of marketing at Leisure Concepts, a licensing agency based in New York City. ”If it doesn’t say ‘copyright Disney’ [on the label], you’re getting a fake.”

How can I pick a toy my child will love? Subject it to a screen test. Movie marketers’ first criterion is that the film must be a hit. It should be yours, too. Toy companies also assess ”play value” — how much fun the product is, based on the movie’s action or the characters’ on-screen charm. The Flintstones passes that test because its comedy is physical, something kids can relate to.

Can I expect any of these toys to become collectibles? Historically, many toys have appreciated in value: A mint-condition James Bond doll that sold for $5 in the mid-’60s can go for $200 in 1994. ”The problem today is mass production,” says Shay Reynolds, copublisher of Collectors’ Showcase magazine. That is, when millions of kids own Mattel’s Talking Fred doll, that toy isn’t so special anymore. Besides, worrying about appreciation defeats the pleasure of playing, doesn’t it? Christopher Byrne, editor in chief of Market Focus: Toys, a trade magazine, figures, ”If your kid says, ‘Mommy, buy this Talking Fred for me because it’ll be worth a lot of money when I’m grown,’ a mother should say, ‘Why don’t we put you into zero-coupon bonds instead?’ Come on, it’s a toy. Enjoy it now.”