In April 2011, “Hop,” a movie about what happens behind the scenes on Easter Island, will be released. Later in the year, a new version of “The Thing” will be released as well. And although the media platform for both properties is the same, the way in which Universal Partnerships and Licensing promotes each film is different.
“We don’t put a cookie-cutter mold over every property,” said Amy Taylor, executive VP Universal Partnerships and Licensing. “We look at the target audience and the background of the film or property we’re working on, then determine the right program to develop for it.”
For “The Thing,” which has a legacy dating back to the 1960s, the partnerships and licensing division of Universal Pictures will focus solely on the collector market, appealing to an already built-in fan base. A similar approach can be used for items in Universals’ film vault, such as “Scarface” or “The Big Lebowski.”
Beyond the movies that make its parent company popular, Universal Partnerships and Licensing handles global digital licensing, which includes interactive and mobile platforms; film, home entertainment, and brand promotions; and corporate alliances. Day-in and day-out brands like Curious George also fall under its jurisdiction.
“For each property, we start by figuring out what is the right strategy and approach,” said Taylor. “For a property like Curious George, there is an educational component for the TV show, and the target audience is very specific. We look for products that are appropriate not only for a kid audience but also for moms and the gatekeepers that love Curious George.”
A new structure
Licensing is a key business for Universal Pictures, and it’s similar to promotions, retail, and interactive. A few years ago, the studio decided to pull all like organizations into one group. “We looked at all of the touch points where Universal interacts with brands,” said Taylor.
“We pulled them together so that when we develop a program, if a licensee wants to tie together with a promotional partner, or a promotional partner with a retailer, we can help manage the relationship.”
Other companies generally organize by separating promotions, licensing, and interactive into three groups. Although it’s a strategy that works, when one team manages all groups, it’s easier and opens the door for new opportunities. The creativity, brainstorming, and cross promoting can happen at the start, rather than after a deal is done.
Taylor said the benefits of this reorganization came to fruition at the beginning of 2010 with the launch of “Despicable Me,” a feature animation that opened on July 9. Already, the promotional partners have connected with licensees, licensees are communicating with each other, and retail and promotional partners have tied together.
“We have D3 Publisher doing the video game, Little Brown doing the publishing program, Namco Networks doing the mobile game, an apparel program, and an alliance with Hallmark for stationary and social expressions,” said Taylor. With the publishing piece, Universal Promotions and Licensing looked at content specific from the film to develop product.
“There is a book the main character reads to little girls, so we recreated that book in real life,” said Taylor. “It was a unique approach, and retailers reacted well to it.”
Like most in the industry, Universal Partnerships and Licensing is challenged with finding shelf space at the retail level. “Retail shelf space is at a premium, and there are many choices for retailers to look at now,” said Taylor.
What gives Universal Partnership and Licensing an advantage is the way in which it looks at each property from a strategic standpoint: is it a film or a property that will be broad and in every toy aisle? Is it a program that might be more appropriate to look at an exclusive arrangement with a retailer, or is it a program where promotions and tie-ins can be intertwined?
In the case of “Despicable Me,” the first film from Illumination Entertainment to be released by Universal Pictures, Universal Partnership and Licensing developed a relationship with Best Buy using technology as the hook. An application called Best Buy Movie Mode, which can be downloaded from the film’s website, translates the words of the main character’s minions during the 3D end credits and unlocks more content after the film is over.
“We knew up front that both kids and adults like animation,” said Taylor. “We worked with Best Buy, where technology is key, and strategically developed a product that would be fun for all ages.”
When developing any property, Universal Partnerships and Licensing builds a style guide—a look and feel for how the property should be represented in the marketplace. The division developed the first style guide for its Curious George property in 1997, but every year it refreshes the style with new designs focused on the fashion trends of the season.
As it updates the design of a property, the division provides the new artwork to licensees. It also considers a workable idea that might be presented by one of its 200-plus licensees, 25 international agents, or partners. In the case of its Woody Woodpecker property, for example, a Brazilian agent had an idea for the brand that would be more color-appropriate for Brazilian culture.
“We liked his idea, and we worked with him to find a creative vendor that could execute both his vision and what we felt was appropriate for the brand,” said Taylor.
Bringing it together
Summer blockbusters and fourth-quarter holiday films do bring peaks to the workload for Universal Partnerships and Licensing, but for the most part, it’s busy year round. With the new set-up, the division can offer its business partners cross-promotion opportunities with other partners, giving retailers, licensees, and agents what they want: a chance to make the most out of every property.
Beyond “Hop” and “The Thing,” Universal Partnerships and Licensing is developing films based on the properties of toy maker Hasbro. In 2012, it will be launching a film tailored around the character Stretch Armstrong, and in May 2012, it will be launching a feature film based on the popular game Battleship.
“This partnership allows us to create original screenplays,” said Taylor. “We work closely with Hasbro on all of the activities around its films, so it will be doing the licensing, and we’ll be bringing the promotional partners together.”