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Marketing Mania : Movies From 'Aladdin' to 'X' Try to Cash In on Tie-Ins--'a Great Profit Center for the Studios'


No one was knocking at the door in 1990 to sponsor products that would tie in with an unknown movie called "Home Alone."

"You couldn't sell the idea that an 8-year-old kid left at home would be appealing," said 20th Century Fox Licensing and Merchandising President Al Ovadia. At the time, the movie had just become a Fox release, after producer John Hughes' project had been rejected by Warner Bros. because it was thought to be too expensive to make.

Now, two years and $285 million later, Ovadia said, "Home Alone 2," the sequel to the third highest grossing American movie ever, "is a promotion person's dream." This time it's known as an all-family film with a proven track record.

Before it opens on Nov. 20, get set for a barrage of about 80 products, including toys, sheets, watches and video games. Many will feature the likeness of 12-year-old Macauley Culkin, the star of the film who tries to elude bad guys Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. There'll be a slimy liquid children's bath soap called Monster Sap that Culkin uses in the movie and Talkboy, a tape recorder that Culkin uses to foil his foes and alter his voice so he can sound like an adult.

But "Home Alone 2" won't be alone when it comes to major movie product promotions this fall.

The Walt Disney Co. is planning its biggest ever promotional effort for the Nov. 11 opening of its new animated musical "Aladdin." And Columbia Pictures has a smaller campaign that features some high-end, high-fashion designs and products for Francis Ford Coppola's elaborate Gothic-style production of "Bram Stoker's Dracula," which opens Nov. 13.

Other movie-related pitches that have gained visibility for director Spike Lee's upcoming "Malcolm X" are the popular baseball caps and shirts that boldly show the "X" logo. The official "X" items are sold by Spike's Joint, Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule production company store that has one outlet in Brooklyn. But this weekend, well in advance of the film's debut Nov. 20, the director will be on hand to open a Melrose Avenue Joint in Los Angeles on Saturday, and he'll be at the opening of a kiosk version of the store at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on Sunday.

"Clearly the merchandising of movie-related products is a great profit center for the studios," said Jeffrey Logsdon, a director of institutional research for Seidler Amdec Securities in Los Angeles. "It's often as lucrative as selling a movie to network TV." While most merchandising deals are made as much as a year ahead of a film's release, studios are usually reluctant to discuss their plans for fear of tipping off the competition. One source puts the value of the "Dracula" product deals "in the low millions" and estimated that the more extensive Disney and Fox deals will yield many times more.

But the value of such deals can go beyond the initial theatrical release. If characters become popular, they can last for generations. Ariel, the young mermaid from 1989's "The Little Mermaid," has become the second most licensed image next to Mickey Mouse according to Disney.

There also are publicity benefits for the studio associated with licensing products and promotions. Fox's Ovadia said the studio stands to gain about $25 million in beneficial TV and radio advertising for "Home Alone 2," which will supplement the studio's own substantial ad campaign.

Most experts, however, agree that as extensive as plans for "Aladdin" and "Home Alone 2" are, they do not match Warner Bros.' effort for last summer's "Batman Returns." That film, the biggest-grossing movie to date this year and the sequel to the 1989 megahit based on the comic-book hero, opened in theaters in June. "Batmania" was heralded by 120 "Batman" licensees who flooded the market with hundreds of products, accompanied by a major TV ad campaign for the film and two heavily advertised soft-drink and fast-food restaurant promotions.

But sometimes product tie-ins are less successful. Some "Dick Tracy" and "Batman Returns" merchandise never really took off.

"Some of these films are naturals for promotion, especially when they have familiarity. But familiarity can also be a hindrance, as in the case for 'Dracula,' which is not exactly your family kind of movie," said one studio insider.

The rule of thumb in the licensing and promotion business is that movies like the R-rated, sensual and bloody "Bram Stoker's Dracula" is not exactly the kind of movie that a fast-food chain or other family-oriented businesses wants to be associated with. A Columbia spokesman would only comment that there are "other ways to go about licensing and creating public awareness."

So, while you won't be seeing promotions for anything like a "MacDracula" special, you will be seeing plenty of T-shirts and similar products with the Dracula head and blood-red logo of the movie.

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