Sony Pictures Consumer Products isn’t afraid to cross the streams in working with retailers and filmmakers to develop ‘Ghostbusters’ merchandise.
By Tim O’Connor
It seems like every tentpole movie today releases along with a licensing blitz that touches everything from fashion to high-end collectibles. Historically, Sony Pictures Consumer Products begins planning merchandise for movies two years in advance, but for the “Ghostbusters” reboot, which releases on July 15, the company began planting the seeds when it celebrated the original’s film’s 25th anniversary in 2009.
Despite two major films and three animated spin-off series, the “Ghostbusters” franchise had gone dormant by the early 2000s. Even Hi-C discontinued the popular “Ghostbusters”-themed Ecto-Cooler flavor by 1997. Fan interest around the 25th anniversary provided Sony with an opportunity to revitalize the franchise with the Blu-ray release of the original movie. “We launched a licensing program based on the classic property and celebrated the 25th anniversary by launching a successful console video game,” says Mark Caplan, senior vice president of Sony’s Global Consumer Products.
The positive reception to 2009’s “Ghostbusters: The Video Game,” voiced by the original cast and featuring a story written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, renewed Sony’s interest in the property. “It was a great experience for us. It showed there was a tremendous fan base already built in,” Caplan says. The success of the video game and Matty Collector toy line led to a revival in “Ghostbusters” products such as comic books and T-shirts.
The fans that once wore their toy proton packs to school in the ‘80s were suddenly introducing “Ghostbusters” to their own kids through the Blu-ray release and game. The next generation was discovering the appeal of the paranormal exterminators through merchandise. That spark eventually helped lead to the decision to reboot the series with the 2016 film, Caplan says. “In the last seven years, we’ve built a groundswell of merchandise,” he says.
The heavy focus on a handful of valuable properties such as “Ghostbusters” represents a different approach for the Consumer Products division from in the past. Caplan has been spearheading that new strategy since becoming the senior vice president of Sony Global Consumer Products in October. The 15-year Sony veteran is now working with agents in each of the company’s territories managing licensing efforts globally.
Sony distributes 15 to 20 movies each year, and not all have merchandising potential. Under Caplan, the Consumer Products division is putting its resources toward supporting the most popular brands. A genre franchise such as “Underworld” may still see a freemium phone game or licensed clothing, but the big product push is reserved for movies with built-in fanbases and cross-sectional appeal. “We found that really to stay focused is the best thing for our company and our group,” Caplan says. “It gives us a lot more upside in terms of developing a long-term franchise, as is the case with ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Smurfs.’”
Generating revenue is not Caplan’s only goal. Sony Pictures Consumer Products is tasked with developing products capable of turning a movie into a long-term brand with potential for spinoff media such as comic books and animated television shows. “‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Hotel Transylvania’ and ‘Smurfs’ allows us the opportunity to build the properties into franchises alongside of the plans the studio has for them,” Caplan says.
“In an off-year where there’s not a movie we have a lot of flexibility to do merchandising for our classic properties,” Caplan adds. That franchise-building shows retailers that Sony is committed to reinforcing its message to consumers and gives stores more confidence in buying Sony licensed products.
Supporting a Franchise
Like many longtime ‘Ghostbusters’ fans, Caplan understands the appeal of the movies is about more than the characters. It’s the logo, the iconic Ecto-1 vehicle and the Ray Parker Jr. theme song. Incorporating those aspects – and the things that will make the 2016 movie fun – into the next wave of merchandise required collaboration between Caplan’s team, product designers and filmmakers.
Product development began early in the filmmaking process. Key partners such as Mattel were given drafts of the script and later flown out to Boston, where filming is taking place. They sat down with prop designers to work out how to transfer material from the movie into merchandise that could be found on store shelves. NKOK, for example, is developing an RC car based on a scene in the movie. “We were able to tap into what is obviously fun and what works for a play pattern for the kids and the collectors who are going to buy the toys,” Caplan says.
In the lead off to the movie’s release, Sony Pictures Consumer Products is working to ensure it has items available at every price range, from $9.99 action figures aimed at children to high-end replica proton packs for adult collectors. Apparel companies such as Hybrid and FAB NY are adapting scenes from the movie into T-shirts and backpacks. IDW is continuing its work on the “Ghostbusters” comic series while Simon & Schuster is developing a junior novelization and a “Guide to Ghostbusting” book that will give the franchise a presence in stores like Barnes & Noble.
“Ghostbusters” is also returning to video games. Already, the “Ghostbusters” sets are on sale for “Lego Dimensions,” a toys-to-life game featuring the classic building blocks and a new full-fledged “Ghostbusters” video game from Activision will release alongside the movie on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Caplan’s goal is to not only have products in the mass-market stores, but also mid-tier and specialty shops. “If it’s a program that makes sense for that particular retailer, we’re trying to build it around the type of product they sell,” Caplan says.
If Sony can execute its plan, the products themselves will help feed each other. A store like Walmart might sell multiple “Ghostbusters”-themed merchandise in various categories. A parent who picks up a Slimer onesie might also grab a pencil case from the school supplies section or a copy of the Blu-ray from the movies department. “We’re collaborating with our home entertainment group to support the new film release and drive both licensing and home video sales,” Caplan explains.
Ultimately, supporting those retail partnerships hinges on offering merchandise that can entertain fans old and new alike. By combining a beloved property like “Ghostbusters” with a team that understands its appeal, Sony is positioned to do just that. “Retailers are inspired by what we’ve presented to them and our partners,” Caplan says.