This thing we call design doesn’t really exist. It’s impossible for design to live in a vacuum away from its motivating forces. But the business of design certainly does. And the film industry is no exception; a film only forms one element of a much bigger industry that’s about marketing, video sales and merchandising. Or as comedian Dennis Leary would probably say: “Raw, naked capitalism”.
Just as merchandising forms part of a film’s identity and raises its profile, in some cases the film itself has become a selling tool for spin-offs; the action figures, computer games, T-shirts, homeware and videos. The recently re-released Star Wars trilogy has offered merchandising opportunities which the more naive industry of 20 years ago missed, and with the merchandising licence due for renewal soon at a reputed $100m (62m) it’s a very lucrative re-release. The movie Space Jam goes further, with toys available in Burger King before the movie was even released in the UK and massive earning potential through its inclusion of basketball star Michael Jordan and Loony Tunes characters.
As children mature into little consumers even earlier these days, there’s fierce competition for their and their parents’ spending power. A ten-year-old child is just as likely to crave a pair of 70 Nikes as a Millennium Falcon ship, so any film spin-off needs a broad appeal base to succeed. What film companies attempt to create is merchandising that will appeal to both parents and children, as only 9 per cent of toys are actually bought by children.
Eva Saltman at London toy store Hamleys believes that selling the film to parents is crucial: “When Toy Story was released in the cinema, merchandising sales were fairly steady, but when the video came out demand rocketed because parents bought it and loved it.” Even if your movie doesn’t have characters which can be turned into action figures, there’s still the book of the film, the computer game, assorted T-shirts, posters and soundtracks to sell.
While research is carried out via focus groups and prototypes at toy fairs, it’s difficult to predict what will sell well, and there’s not always a correlation between the success of the film and that of the merchandising. Christian Harris, group merchandise director at Forbidden Planet, has seen some surprises at the store. “Merchandising sales for Independence Day were disappointing here because it was so mainstream that snooty sci-fi fans didn’t like it,” he explains. “But the toys from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas have become incredibly collectable even though the film and original merchandising didn’t do that well. It’s in the interest of the film company to create a cult appeal, because once the hype has died down the toys will continue to sell. They can also do well producing lesser-known movie characters because these have a strong appeal to collectors,” he adds.
Forbidden Planet sells predominantly to adult males who are buying something to collect rather than play with, and for them the packaging is almost as important as the product. “Buyers are very clued up on packaging. Obviously, as collectable items they keep the packaging intact and are aware of tiny details on it, so if the product looks nice and is packaged well it has a better chance of selling,” says Harris.
While manufacturers have to adhere to quite stringent style guides and controls, their input and ideas for ranges form a large part of the creative process. As creative resources director Joy Gipson at Pixar, the company which produced Toy Story with Disney, explains: “We offer lots of merchandising ideas to the manufacturer, but they have the final say in what they want to produce, as long as Pixar and Disney are happy with the end result.”
Liz Keynes, head of licensing at Aardman Animations, agrees. “We are always look for the kind of creativity and innovative thinking that reflects Aardman,” she says.
And new technology is making manufacturing a lot easier: “Manufacturers can use computer files to create the toys. Using these techniques and an exchange of information, the toys produced will be very similar to the characters people see in the films,” says Gipson.
Where there is often less design input is at the retailing end, where point-of-sale material forms part of the marketing mix and any deviance in size, positioning and so on is simply to take account of individual store constraints. “In the case of Disney, a style book and guidelines are drawn up by Disney’s central office and implemented by the various offices worldwide,” says Mike Evans, head of marketing at Disney UK. “We want people who’ve seen the movie to be able to easily identify and locate the merchandise.”
One area that is ripe for development is the Internet, a marketing and merchandising godsend that all the big movie companies have been using for some time now, as have toy manufacturers such as Trendmaster, Thinkway and Hasbro. Aardman got in on the act in November last year with Aardmarket, created by Aardman, Hewlett Packard and Mail Marketing. The site has been especially successful with Americans, and claims Aardman, gets more hits than big name sites such as Sainsbury’s. Site producer Lee Kellgren is based at Aardman and designed the “shop” on the site. She says the sale of goods through the site has financed its production and maintenance, “and it enables fans to identify with us by being able to talk to us”.
Those in the film industry deny that merchandising would ever dictate what gets made, but the toy market was worth 1.8bn last year in the UK alone and Disney’s worldwide film related merchandise brought in $1.2bn (7m). Which leaves you wondering just how long it will be before the movie is seen as simply one part of the film package – and not even the most important one.
Toy giant Hasbro acts as a licensee for many film tie-in toys and games, notably Star Wars products for LucasFilms, and its size and experience allow it a large degree of autonomy. One of its recent releases is the Star Wars interactive video board game, targeted at six- to ten-year-olds and centring around a video tape that features Darth Vadar giving orders and instructions that change depending on the progress of the players.
Ben Rathbone, product development manager at Hasbro, explains the design and manufacturing process: “We devised the game as a story in its own right, set between the first and second films of the trilogy. And while players take the part of different characters from the movies, the main thing we try to achieve is getting the child into the fantasy. Our role is to concentrate on the game’s playability, so we’ll come up with a rough outline and mock-up which is played and tested by various departments within the company for things like strategy, difficulty level and repeat-play interest.
“Once the game’s been approved by the licensor it goes through various stages such as marketing, the copy group which turns the rough rules into real English and does translations for the different markets, engineers who ensure the quality of the product for the factory process and the creative services department, which deals with layouts and any mechanical elements,” explains Rathbone.
While all this is done in-house, the graphic design work for the Star Wars game was done by design group Hill Watson, which does a lot of work with licensors, including NestlÃ© and Hasbro. “Most licensors we work with use the style guide approach, but LucasFilms unusually provided no reference material at all, giving us a free rein with the design,” says Hill Watson account director Roger Broadbent, who co-designed the game with Simon Byerley and Bernadette Conlon. “We had no dealings with LucasFilms at all and have a good relationship with Hasbro, so we got a lot of freedom in the design,” he continues.
Rathbone agrees that licensors are generally very open and give a lot of leeway to their licensees: “You’re given a lot of material and comprehensive style guides, but they’re really open to the ideas and concepts you work up. The game’s target audience comes first, and that isn’t necessarily the film’s audience, because the game’s playability is what is most important to us.”
Mark Blamire and Rob O’Connor
On the face of it, Trainspotting was never going to have much merchandising potential. A Begbie pull-string doll that swears and breaks a pool cue over Action Man’s head? A cute Renton doll who injects himself with a tiny plastic syringe and disappears into a toilet? Obviously not, but what little there was has been incredibly successful, from the T-shirts which are still selling well at London’s Vintage Comic Store to the soundtrack, which to date has sold 800 000 copies, and the incredibly popular poster that has launched a score of copycat ad campaigns.
The poster was created by designer Mark Blamire working with Rob O’Connor at Stylo Rouge, though credit for it has since been given to Empire Design, which was commissioned to create the campaign after Blamire and O’Connor worked up the original design. Mark Blamire, now senior designer at Creative Partnership, which specialises in creating film marketing material for films such as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Pulp Fiction, Microcosmos and Basquiat, was commissioned by PolyGram to design the poster during the making of the film, and by the time the film was finished it had already been printed.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a project,” enthuses Blamire. “So many things about it were unusual, the brief was very open, we had loads of autonomy on the design, and we knew it was going to be really big because of Irvine Welsh’s book, the success of Shallow Grave (produced by the same team) and the bands involved… there was a real buzz about it from the very beginning.” O’Connor found PolyGram’s confidence in their work refreshing: “We were breaking rules by doing things like using black and white shots on the poster, which film companies believe makes people think the film’s in black and white, but PolyGram was very brave in giving us the space to do it,” he says.
Having no reference to the film while he was working on the poster, Blamire took his inspiration from the film’s title and its subject matter, marrying the type and style of a train timetable with the colour orange, “which I associate with chemicals packaging”, he says. “That’s the reason the poster is so clean when the film is so grainy and dirty,” he explains.
He refutes the suggestion that the poster’s design was responsible for the spate of ad campaigns that quickly imitated it to a lesser or greater degree, including ones for HMV, Cobra, French Connection and, very recently, Virgin trains. “I think what they are all copying is the phenomenal success of the marketing campaign and the film. A huge amount of money – around 800 000 – was spent on billboards and teaserboards, giving it massive visibility. People try to latch on to that by simply reproducing it. It’s not necessarily the best way for them to sell their product, but you can understand why it happens.”
And was it designed as a piece of merchandising or marketing? Graham Humphreys, Blamire’s colleague at Creative Partnership, is emphatic: “You try and create a great piece of design which represents the film in the best possible light, so you focus on selling the movie, not the poster.”
THE FILM MAKER
It’s perfectly possible for someone to wake up to the sound of their Wallace and Gromit (W&G) alarm clock, put on their W&G slippers and head for the bathroom to brush their teeth with their W&G toothbrush and shave with their W&G shaving kit before dressing and knotting up their W&G tie to join their family at the breakfast table. There, they can tuck into their Kelloggs cereal, Ty-Phoo tea – both featuring a W&G toy – and cracking toast, spread with W&G Wensleydale cheese.
Nothing surprising there really, except that all these things could be – and obviously are, judging by sales – being done by grown-ups.
The unusually wide age range that W&G appeal to has resulted in an equally broad range of merchandising, overseen by Aardman Animations’ head of licensing Liz Keynes.
While the BBC acts as licensing agent, doing the deals and paperwork with would-be licensees, Aardman has final approval and looks firstly for the quality of the product it produces and secondly for good marketing and distribution capabilities. Keynes takes up the process: “We’ll then go from brainstorming through to product concepts, drawings and 3D modelling, which we do here in the studio. That’s a very important factor in control over the characterisation and quality of integrity of the characters, and as we have modelmakers here on-site we can offer them as a service to the licensee. It means we can work fairly quickly through that process because we’re providing the licensee with models that will work first time. We work as far as possible with 3D objects and trannies, graphic images as opposed to line drawings, which sets the products apart from other licensed products. We also have final approval over all elements associated with the product – including packaging, labelling, point-of-sale material such as shelf wobblers and all promotional material.”
Keynes feels that the merchandising has a responsibility to Nick Park and the film makers but also to W&G’s audience: “People have grown to love the characters and we have to ensure we’re not going to disappoint them or exploit them with shoddy sub-standard products. They also feel they know the characters personally because Nick made them so believable, so it’s important that their image of the character doesn’t get confused by having 50 Wallaces who all look different, because then the audience will begin to lose that connection with the characters. They have such human qualities that we all recognise people in them, and when I look at ideas for products I always ask myself ‘would Wallace like it?'”