How to flog a dinosaur to death

Parents, brace yourselves and your wallets. The Lost World isn't the only film this summer that could cost you a lot more than the price of a cinema ticket.
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The Independent Online
Hold on to your wallets - it's going to be a long, hot summer. Never before have so many films costing so much been released in so short a period of time. Fifteen blockbusters with an average budget of pounds 70m will have opened in the UK by August Bank Holiday. Each will be accompanied by a multi-million pound marketing extravaganza of celebrity interviews and openings, monster advertising hoardings and, of course, the merchandise, which is fast becoming as important as the movie itself.

It's no longer enough to produce a blockbuster people merely want to see. "Leverage" is Hollywood's new religion with every appropriate film exploited and cross-promoted vertically, horizontally and inside-out. The search is on for the "killer property" best able to "maximise the value chain" from theatrical release to video rental, TV premiere to video sale and from cinema seat to the supermarket check-out. With the average life span of a medium-sized, stand-alone movie just six weeks in the cinema, the big studios need to build "franchises" to stick in the public's imagination for months, if not years.

Which poses a bit of a problem: just how to keep things fresh when you're up to the second, third or even fourth sequel. Easy. Take Batman and Robin, which opens in the UK next week (27 June). Just slot in the latest heart throb - ER's George Clooney. Create a dastardly new villain - Arnie Schwarzenegger's Mr Ice. Toss in some hi-tech wizardry, inflate the marketing budget and stir vigorously.

The desired effect is a film with merchandising potential. Which Batman, undoubtedly, is. Warner's has struck promotional deals with Kellogg, Mars, KFC and even Barclays Bank. Then there's the CD, new toys, games, books and even a Sainsbury's novelty cake. The idea is to add to the marketing hype surrounding the new film and, if possible, claw back some of the cost of advertising a blockbuster's launch.

It's a simple (if expensive) recipe, but one that Warner's is confident will successfully challenge this summer's other box office leviathan - The Lost World. Yes, the dinosaurs are back, too. And this time they mean even bigger business. When The Lost World hits the UK next month, it will do so with at least as much if not more dinosaur merchandise than its predecessor, Jurassic Park. And, you've guessed it, those nice people at Universal Studios are expecting us to go out and buy it, all over again.

The sad thing is, you probably will. If you're thinking of dusting off toys and T-shirts from the last Batman film in 1995 or from when Jurassic Park opened in 1993, forget it. Kids especially are already fiercely brand- conscious and, like football strips, only the latest design will do. Universal, like Warner's, has taken great pains to ensure this year's merchandise is bigger, better and brighter than before with latest looks and new logos.

It's all about "added value", Universal's UK licensing director Tim Collins explains. He's not joking. Merchandise adds tremendous "value" for studios like Universal. Jurassic Park, the biggest grossing movie ever, generated more through retail sales than at the box office. The first film took $917m in ticket sales; associated merchandise and licensed promotions generated $1bn.

Newspaper reports since the new film opened in the US four weeks ago may have knocked the thinness of its plot, but there's little doubt the effects are better this time round and it does deliver the goods - a roller coaster ride. Add this to the fact that it's Steven Spielberg's first sequel and dinosaurs rather than humans once more star and everyone knows what they're getting. In licensing terms, it's as close as one can come to being a dead cert.

Around 800 merchandisers and licensees will use the film to flog their wares. Leading the assault will be toys. Hasbro, Tyco and Matchbox have signed up to produce a range of dinosaur, human and car models of varying sizes including vinyl hand puppets. There are also video games, books, a comic, a full range of clothing including pyjamas and even skiwear, stationery, mugs, collectable gold and silver coins, drinks and foods including dinosaur-shaped pasta and biscuits. Prices range from pounds 3.99 to between pounds 80 and pounds 90 for a radio-controlled car.

Then there are the promotional tie-ins with Burger King, Kellogg's, Tetley and KP Foods. All are running Lost World promotions on packs with promotional materials marketing their offers and, indirectly, the film in shops throughout the land. Dinosaurs are even being enlisted to persuade children to eat more eggs following a deal with the British Egg Industry Council to carry Lost World branding on packs of 12.

Retailers, such as London toy store Hamleys, are rubbing their hands together in glee. "We will have a large dinosaur display on the ground floor and will stock finger puppets and hand puppets with sound effects as well as sets of figures and vehicles," says marketing manager Eva Saltman. "Success for us will be dictated by how these films perform at the box office. However, The Lost World in particular has already done extremely well in the US, which is always a good sign."

Even so, Universal is taking nothing for granted, Collins insists: "The market has moved on a lot in the last four or five years in terms of consumer expectations and the quality of what we can provide." More toys have moving parts, even sound effects. Others are heat sensitive so change colour when held. While much Jurassic Park merchandising was about slapping on a logo, Lost World merchandise is more sophisticated, he claims.

Hardly surprising, then, if as this year's box office giants take aim, parents rather than heroes are taking cover. For as mums and dads throughout the land will shortly discover: any old hero or last year's dinosaur just won't don