July 29th, 2011

Products piggyback on "Smurfs" movie

The Wall Street Journal

Sony Pictures has spent three years and enlisted more than 200 business partners in the build-up to this Friday’s theatrical release of “The Smurfs,” but it’s not clear how much green the little blue characters will end up generating for the movie studio.

The studio has tie-ins ranging from blueberries to Club Med activity centers to McDonald’s Happy Meal promotions that play off the characters’ “three apples high” stature.

The promotional frenzy is supposed to culminate this Friday with the release of the $110 million 3-D film, which combines live action and computer-generated animation. But the studio appears to have had mixed success in priming a new generation of fans for the return of the 53-year-old brand.

Sony estimates the movie will earn around $30 million this weekend, which a spokesman says “would be a terrific start.” The studio says its prerelease market research shows high awareness of “The Smurfs” among families with young children, but that the movie appears weaker with general audiences.
[smurfs0727] Sony Pictures

On other fronts, the Smurfs are faring somewhat better. U.S. ports received 79 shipments last month of Smurfs-related toys, apparel and other merchandise, according to Panjiva Inc., which tracks imports. While that represented a 19-fold increase from the same month last year, it was far below the 421 shipments of “Cars 2” merchandise imported the month before its theatrical release in June of this year.

The extensive promotional plan also includes Post Cereals’ urging kids to eat “a Smurfy breakfast” and contests from Kids Foot Locker and Stauffer’s animal crackers. Internationally, Smurfs tie-ins include Galbani parmesan cheese, Renault cars, Be Total Kids vitamins and Sun-Maid raisins.

Sony Corp.’s movie studio is betting such efforts will sell the brand to 6- to 12-year-olds, who are too young to remember earlier Smurfs television programming and merchandising crazes. It is also hoping to rekindle their parents’ affection for the brand and turn the film into a successful cinematic and licensing franchise, in the vein of the 2007 relaunch of “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” After a $44 million domestic opening weekend, the “Alvin” movie made a total $217.3 million in the U.S. and spawned two sequels.

But for every “Alvin,” there’s a failed relaunch such as last year’s “Marmaduke,” which grossed just $33.6 million domestically. Both “Alvin” and “Marmaduke” were released by News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox. News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.

“The Smurfs” follows six of the creatures as they are transported from their woodsy village to New York City and must find a way home. The promotional and licensing opportunities played a significant part of Sony’s decision to pick up the film from Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures after that studio put the rights to the project up for sale. The partnerships helped the studio limit its marketing costs.

Sony took a two-pronged approach to its marketing, with some efforts geared toward reviving the overall brand, and others more narrowly aimed at promoting the film. The measures included selling retro clothing at retailers including Hot Topic and launching a downloadable Smurfs’ Village mobile game. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for the past three years has featured a Smurfs float, also part of the marketing machinery.

This week Sony intensified its efforts, including lighting the Empire State Building “Smurf Blue” and building a Smurf Village in New York City’s Columbus Circle.

NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier said Sony executives will need to reach younger audiences, not just older fans. “If they don’t, it’s unlikely any nostalgia effect will have a positive impact on sales,” Ms. Frazier said.

Launched as a comic strip in 1958 by Belgian artist Pierre Culliford, under the pen name “Peyo,” the Smurfs quickly became the subjects of books, songs, and feature films in various countries around the world. The characters’ names are reminiscent of the Seven Dwarfs—including Brainy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf and Clumsy Smurf.

Long a staple in Europe, the Smurfs didn’t significantly take off in the U.S. until 1981, when Hanna-Barbera Productions launched an hour-long animated show that ran on NBC for eight years. Hanna-Barbera is now of part of Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. Entertainment network.

Fewer Smurfs-related products have been released in the U.S. since the show ended. Nonetheless, they have brought in $8 billion to $9 billion in licensing deals over the past 15 years, estimates William Auriol, the chief executive of International Merchandising, Promotion & Services SA, which co-owns the Smurfs. Lafig Belgium SA, controlled by Mr. Culliford’s heirs, is the other co-owner.

To build children’s awareness of the Smurfs, Sony Pictures created an advertising campaign designed to introduce various characters, said Marc Weinstock, the studio’s president for worldwide marketing.

“We needed to hammer out the different personalities and engage with kids about who these characters are,” he said.

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