- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

NEW YORK — he nation’s merchants of moviedom, fresh from a sales bonanza last year for everything “Star Wars,” are hoping that this summer’s blockbuster films will have at least the same power to move an avalanche of merchandise, from inflatable Superman suits to pirate swords with sound effects.

Among the coming summer films that have released the most merchandise are Disney-Pixar’s “Cars,” Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and Warner Bros.’ “Superman Returns.” Sony Pictures’ “The Da Vinci Code,” based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, also has some games and apparel, though the bulk of related merchandise sales is coming from all the book spinoffs, including religious and art books.

“Last year, it was all about ‘Star Wars,’” said Ernie Speranza, chief marketing officer at KB Toys Inc. This summer, he’s betting that three movies — “Cars,” “Superman” and the “Pirates” movie — “will be better than one.”

“Cars” is supported by such items as tracksets, racing car beds and animated talking cars; “Pirates” is backed by items including action figures, swords with sound effects and T-shirts with skull motifs; with “Superman Returns,” shoppers will find radio-controlled 16-inch superheroes that soar up to 300 feet, inflatable Superman suits, as well as trendy fashion items like jewel-encrusted shirts and handbags.

Officials from KB Toys and Toys R Us Inc. report strong early sales of the movie-related goods, which started to appear in stores in early April. And the momentum should pick up when the films make their theatrical debut over the next few weeks. What should help is that the movies are expected to attract diverse audiences.

But the business of movie-related merchandise is tricky. Success at the box office doesn’t guarantee success at stores, says Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nessbit. Mr. McGowan recalled how retailers have been burned by merchandise associated with such films as “Godzilla,” “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” That has caused retailers to become more cautious, betting on fewer movies. And consumers are becoming harder to sell to, shrugging off basic apparel for trendier items, for example.

Mr. McGowan says retailers will face a big challenge in beating last year’s “Star Wars” merchandising power.

Lucasfilms Ltd.’s “Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” the last in the franchise’s latest trilogy, generated $3 billion in merchandise sales worldwide at stores, according to John Singh, a company spokesman. That figure surpassed the $2 billion in worldwide retail sales generated from “Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” released in 1999, and $1.2 billion in sales tied to “Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” in 2002.

According to Charles Riotto, president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, a movie that generates $300 million to $400 million in merchandise sales is considered good.

But suppliers and film merchandising executives are optimistic, saying they’ve worked hard to appeal to consumers’ tastes.

“It is a great summer when you look at it from a box office standpoint,” said Eva Steortz, vice president of boys and film marketing for Disney’s consumer products division. She pointed out that the movies reach out to different consumer segments.

“‘Star Wars’ is a great film, but you know who your audience is.” With these new movies, she said, one has to “garner a little more consumer insight.”

Miss Steortz noted that Disney embraced a broad merchandising strategy with “Cars,” which is slated to hit theaters on June 9 and is expected to attract a core audience ages 2 to 6. The company signed up 350 suppliers to produce the products, from bedding to children’s clothing. Among the highlights are a $34.99 Fast Talkin’ McQueen vehicle that does 15 tricks, named after the main character, and $24.99 racing tracksets from “Cars” main toy supplier Mattel Inc., which is also producing most of the toys for “Superman Returns.” There’s also a $159.99 TV-DVD combo shaped like a car, from Disney’s electronics division.

For the “Pirates” movie, opening in theaters July 7, Disney is targeting 6- to 9-year-olds and is focusing on toys that encourage children to act out the drama in the movie.

From Zizzle LLC, the main toy supplier for the movie, there are mill wheel sets with collapsing ladders and pistol and belt sets with blast sound effects.

The merchandising executives behind “Superman,” which is to hit theaters June 30, are aiming to attract both children and adults. Its toys and children’s apparel targets 5- to 11-year-olds, but the studio is also looking to woo adults and teens with fashion apparel like $85 rhinestone-encrusted tank tops and $300 cashmere sweaters with the “S” logo.

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