FILM / Yabba Dabba Dough: The Flintstones: big budget, big star, big critical flop. Big deal. Never mind the quality, feel the merchandising. Jim White on the film as co-star

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As always, we are indebted to the Mirror for the important insights of modern life. For the Royal premiere of the film The Flintstones, the paper served up the big story: how Mandy Smith prepared for the evening. 'Mandy's Yabba Dabba diary' the spread chronicling her night was called.

There it all was, the small change of celebrity - the hair-do at Daniel Galvin; the body scrub with tea-tree oil; the manner in which she mingled so easily with the other dignitaries at the event (Ulrika Jonsson was there). Prominently positioned in the spread was a picture of Prince Charles shaking hands with a woman. As it turned out this was not the Mirror's girl, but Rosie O'Donnell, the star of the film. Mandy, however, was in the cinema at the time.

In the promotional campaign to launch a dollars 65m movie, it is unlikely that the producers shared the Mirror's view that the approbation of the former wife of a Rolling Stone was the critical factor. Nevertheless, in the offices of Universal Pictures they will have been delighted with the spread. Yet more coverage, and not once was it mentioned that even Mandy Smith would have found the plot thin.

It is not unusual, in the hyping of a film, for its quality to be an irrelevance. For The Flintstones, patchy at best, it matters even less than normal. This movie has set a new precedent in the relationship between a Hollywood production and its spin-off: perhaps the first feature in which the film itself takes second place. In Bedrock, it is the merchandise that is king.

'We have been handling the Flintstones brand for years,' said Angela Farrugia, director of licensing at Copyright Promotions, the company charged with the British merchandising campaign. 'We are using the movie as a boost to our overall programme. Fundamentally, if you like, the movie acts as a snapshot, an awareness builder for the overall brand.'

And what a brand it is. Hanna Barbera's original Flintstones - 'the first 30-minute cartoon sitcom in history' John Goodman proudly termed it at a press conference on Monday - has been an international institution for more than a generation. The premise was brilliant: a satire which simultaneously bought into the whole way of American suburban life in the early Sixties. What really made it burn into the memory, though, were the gadgets, those pre-modern ways of solving the problems of the day: the vehicles propelled by foot power, the dinosaurs which performed household chores, the haute couture animal-skin clothing. So when Stephen Spielberg bought the rights to make a live-action version of the cartoon, he not only bought a ready-made gag and 30 years' goodwill, he bought an entire range of merchandise. A very post-modern deal.

True to the original, the gadgets in The Flintstones are central. According to Bruce Cohen, the film's producer, the technology used in bringing to life Dino the dog, the Pigosaurus waste disposal unit and the Bronto quarry digger, was only perfected last year. The effects are stunningly realised, by far the best bit of the film. The most special effect of all, though, is that any five-year-old taken to see the film, and most of their parents, will want a Dino of their own.

At Copyright Promotions, they knew this would happen.

'It is not like Jurassic Park,' said Angela Ferrugia. 'With that, no one really knew what it would look like until they saw it. With The Flintstones, it is an on-going programme. There is no educational process involved.'

What this marketing speak means is that for a year the company has been preparing. Some 88 licences have been issued for nearly 200 products; the licence list was closed six months ago. No one is going to miss out on this. Flintstone pyjamas, Flintstone india rubbers, Flintstone chocolate lollies, Flinstone pasta shapes have been rolling into suppliers, ready for Friday's invasion. In the next 12 months, Ms Ferrugia estimates that between pounds 20m and pounds 30m worth of Flinstonabilia will be sold, much of it retailing at less than 50p. In the same period Manchester United, the seen-everywhere football marketing machine, expects to turn over about a third as much.

'We want to avoid what has happened in the past,' Ms Ferrugia said. 'Having a massive kick when the film is launched, and then nothing thereafter.'

To this end, the British wing of Bedrock Inc has not simply imported the American merchandise. It has built its own campaign, working with existing licensees to develop products that will sell only in this country.

'We felt the market might have been confused by pictures of John Goodman as Fred instead of the cartoon Fred,' said Ms Ferrugia. 'So we have divided the licensing drive into Flintstone Classic and Flintstone the Movie. By far the majority of what we are doing will be Classic, reminding people of the Flintstone heritage.'

Some things, though, are not negotiable. In the film, Fred and family visit Rockdonald's, which means Copyright Promotions have been limited in their choice of fast food franchise to which they might grant a merchandising licence. From this weekend, McDonald's restaurants will be giving away Flintstone gadgets and thus promoting a film in which McDonald's itself is promoted. Which begs the question: which came first, the dinosaur or the egg?

From Friday, The Flintstones will be everywhere. This is coverage which makes the term blanket seem inadequate. If you avoid the film, you won't miss the merchandise, or the cartoon, still drawing an audience of 6 million on BBC 1. Nobody can lose here: the film promotes the merchandise which in turn promotes the film; it becomes a phenomenon; the media (the broadsheets as much as the tabloids) report on the phenomenon, thus promoting the film and starting the cycle once more. A promotional momentum develops in which, in the end, the merchandise promotes itself. No wonder Angela Ferrugia confidently predicted that Flintstone mania will be with us for 20 years or more. Me, I was yabba dabba'd out by the end of this article.

(Photographs omitted)

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