If you take your children to the soon-to-open film "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York," they are almost certain to want some of the wacky gizmos that star Macaulay Culkin pulls out of his backpack.
Through calculated merchandising, your kids will not only be able to get several of the toys that Culkin uses at crucial points in the film, but also a knockoff of his handy-dandy backpack. There's even a $30 replica of his hand-held tape recorder, although it doesn't do all the nifty tricks it does in the movie.
In an unusual merchandising move, executives from 20th Century Fox and producer John Hughes worked with toy maker Tiger Electronics to develop several toys before filming the movie.
The studio says the gadgets were integral to the plot. But critics contend that this is the ultimate example of luring impressionable children to nag parents for items they don't need.
At issue is how far some film companies will go to cash in on their movies--even if it means enticing 6-year-olds to covet costly toys by putting the eye-catching devices in the hands of film heroes. Some critics view it as product placement at its ugliest.
"With Christmas just around the corner, this is a very, very slick and cynical move on the part of the filmmaker," said Jeff Chester, co-director of the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based consumer group. "Our kids are growing up in an environment where everything is for sale. I'd give Fox an 'A' for merchandising but an 'F' for conduct."
"Home Alone 2," which opens Nov. 20, has Culkin lost on the streets of New York City. Backers hope the film follows in the lucrative footsteps of the original "Home Alone," which grossed more than $500 million worldwide.
Other films are hoping to cash in on the children's market too. Disney's "Aladdin," which opened Wednesday, and Fox's "Toys," which will open Dec. 18, also plan merchandising campaigns.
They are taking their cue from films such as "Batman" and "Dick Tracy," which were both box office and merchandising hits. Items such as the Batmobile and Dick Tracy's wrist radio--which were part of the heroes' collections long before the films were made--were naturals to be made into toys. But Culkin's Kevin McCallister character is still evolving--and a merchandising empire can yet be shaped around him.
Among the items soon to be sold at toy stores is Monster Sap, a $4 can of foamy soap that he sprays at the bad guys when he's in a jam. And a replica of the backpack he carts around will be sold for $16.
"We didn't put (the gadgets) in the movie in order to sell toys," said Al Ovadia, president of 20th Century Fox licensing and merchandising. "We put them in the movie because they were necessary elements for the film."
After discussions with several toy makers, the selection went to Tiger Electronics, a Vernon Hills, Ill., firm known for its hand-held electronic games.
Roger Shiffman, executive vice president at Tiger, said he approached Fox about developing the toys for retail sale long after he was asked to create them for use in the film. And Shiffman rejects criticism from those who say this kind of merchandising isn't right.
"I have two kids and I'd be hard-pressed to say they need even 1/100th of what I supply them," Shiffman said. "We are in the toy business, and we are trying to expose our products in such a way that kids will want them."