- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

NEW YORK — During a recent trip to the Big Apple, I took a $2.6 billion trip down merchandising memory lane with a stop by the 2003 Licensing International Show.

Billed as the place to see the hottest properties and biggest names in the entertainment industry, the three-day event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center had 19,000 business suits mingling with corporations loaded with entities available to be exploited on anything from candy bars to shoes to automobiles.

“Nostalgia” was the buzzword for this year’s show with film studios, comic-strip syndicators, cartoon networks and publishers hoping that the deals being developed will capture a new generation of fans and their dollars.

“There are a lot of retro properties being exhibited here, which kind of goes along with the movie trend in which most of the films coming out now are based on characters that have been around for years and years,” said Charles Riotta, president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandiser’s Association.

“And not only in films but properties with plenty of equity built up in them like Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears and Masters of the Universe. Already well-known in the marketplace, they appeal to the parents of today’s kids who knew them when they were children.”

One of the bigger licensers, Sony Pictures, is banking on the return of a 1950s Japanese superhero to capture the imagination of consumers.

Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy became a cultural icon in his native land after debuting in comic-book form in 1951. His cartoon hit American shores in 1963, and the jet-powered boy robot returns this fall in a new animated show on the Kids WB, true to its anime roots.

“It was natural for the most recognizable brand in the world [Sony] to get involved with the most recognized anime character ever created,” said Al Ovadia, executive vice president of Sony Pictures Consumer Products.

“Typical Saturday morning shows are just too soft for the 7- to 9-year-olds conditioned to just consume enormous amounts of information. They watch them, but I don’t think they become part of their world. With Astro Boy, its a 26-episode arc delivering epic storytelling through many characters, and kids will want to know about all of them.”

Sony also has another Spider-Man film coming out next year as well as a new Spider-Man cartoon on MTV that appeared last night — which translates into more cash slinging in stores based on a 41-year-old property.

“I am twice as excited about Spider-Man as I was the first time,” Mr. Ovadia said. “There will be twice as much action as there was in the first film, and [the character] Doc Ock presents a very visually exciting adversary. We have about 375 separate licensing agreements, and the response from retail has been significant. You will see a much broader selection of products for the next film.”

Of the 250 product lines from last year’s film, Mr. Ovadia definitely had a favorite.

“I think the coolest thing that was made was a life-size Spider-Man figure created by a company called Idea Planet out of Dallas, and it was done in conjunction with a Blockbuster promotion with the DVD release where they gave away a chance to win the figure,” he said.

While on the topic of Marvel characters, at the Marvel Enterprises booth, Bill Jemas, president of publishing and new media, was seen hanging with a feral friend — and even had a few words on why his classic core of superheroes and publishing initiatives work well in the licensing industry.

“We sell our business partners a story. We give them the kernel of an idea about how heroic messages that Marvel delivers will resonate with their customer base and kids will get excited by it,” he said.

“The hardest thing to do in this business is be edgy enough to get kids interested, but friendly enough for moms. There is a real tension between a kid wanting to grow up faster than a mom wants to let them grow up, and what Marvel is good at is easing that tension by creating stories that will not disappoint the kids and works well for mom.”

He also anecdotally explained why Marvel needs a presence at the Licensing International Show.

“We wanted to do preschool comics, but we can’t sell preschool comics to comic-book shops because there are no preschoolers there. But we knew if we did good enough content, we could get preschool kids to graduate to Ultimate Spider-Man and the bigger books. So we created a cute 22-page book that had a very, very junior version of all of the Marvel heroes, and sold 1 million copies to our Spidey and Friends business partners,” Mr. Jemas said.

“We could never get a start in the preschool business on our dime and expertise, but we are dealing with some of the best preschool companies in the world to help us get the comic books in the hands of preschoolers and their moms. We need these people to help us grow. That is why this show is so important.”

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