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This Year, the Entertainment Industry Has a Brand-New Angle

July 30, 1996|JAMES BATES

Last year, it was "content is king" and "vertical integration."

This year, it's "brands."

The entertainment industry's leading buzzword of 1996 suggests that the entire business is undergoing a massive Procter & Gambleization.

"Batman" and "Jurassic Park" aren't just movies. They are like Tide and Coca-Cola, global brands to be exploited. Sony Corp. President Nobuyuki Idei wants to make Sony not only a brand name in Walkmans, but in entertainment as well.

The latest Advertising Age reports that NBC is forming a club that for $24.95 will give viewers discounts on NBC-brand merchandise. Join the club, get the "ER" surgeon's gown at 30% off.

Time Warner seems especially out front in pushing the brand angle (which no doubt has more appeal to investors than talking about the company's perpetually lagging stock price).

The company's recently published annual report features Batman on the cover with the title "Building Global Brands." It's loaded with references to brands, including one statement that brings it full circle: "Brands build libraries, libraries build networks, networks build distribution, distribution builds brands."

In a Wall Street Journal article last week, Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time Warner Inc.'s Time magazine, went so far as to refer to some of the publication's high-profile contributors as "brand-name writers." Can't wait for that Peggy Noonan coffee mug.

A lot of the emphasis on brands is merchandise-driven, no doubt led by Walt Disney Co.'s success at selling its "family brand." The windows of the giant Warner Bros. store in Manhattan feature displays of the late studio star James Dean, who 40 years after he died has become a rebel with a merchandise cause.

MCA Inc., now owned by a consumer products firm (spirits giant Seagram Co.), is gearing up a bigger push in selling its brands.

No doubt the brand concept has merit. Still, it's easy to be skeptical of how long Hollywood's latest business mantras will last, since they always seem to have a shelf life of as long as it takes someone to think up a new one. Already, the rocky start to Disney's acquisition of ABC has cooled some of the chatter over "vertical integration" that one heard ad nauseam a year ago.

And it was just a couple of years ago that Hollywood executives were preaching the gospel of "filling the pipeline" by making and distributing as many movies as possible to meet the world's insatiable appetite for U.S. entertainment.

Now all executives talk about is how Hollywood makes too many films.

And let's not forget "synergy," which brought Japanese electronics giant Sony and Matsushita into Hollywood. Enough said.

Best supporting hot dog: Over the last decade, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has gotten tough in making sure people attach a registered trademark symbol () next to "Oscar."

The academy has been fighting to stop its generic use; it registered the name as a trademark in 1979. That's why studios are always under pressure to put the trademark symbol as a reminder when they use "Oscar" in ads or promotional materials.

TriStar Pictures, however, has taken it to a new level. Production notes in the press kit for the film "Matilda" that opens Friday include a brief biography of child star Mara Wilson, who plays the precocious youngster.

Among her credits is that "she was cast in commercials for Oscar Mayer."

Summer reading: Few CEOs in America have taken as much heat as Time Warner's Gerald Levin, who has been under the gun for about three years over such issues as the company's lagging stock price and last year's management chaos.

Now comes a book of pointers for those in the top spot, courtesy of Time Warner's own Warner Books. It's called "How to Think Like a CEO: The 22 Vital Traits You Need to Be the Person at the Top," by D.A. Benton.

Among the things the book promises is that "you'll learn how to avoid getting fired."

The book on Geffen: Tom King, who's been covering Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal since 1991, is taking a two-year leave of absence to write the first biography of entertainment mogul David Geffen. After years of dodging attempted bios, Geffen has agreed to cooperate with King and further agreed to have no control over the manuscript.

After a spirited auction among several top New York publishers, King landed a high-six-figure deal from Random House. The expected publication date is 1999.

Geffen confirmed that he and King have "no deal whatsoever" to give Geffen final edit of the book. He said that while over the years various individuals have approached him about doing a book about his life, "I finally decided to get out of the way" before someone wrote one not to his liking.

Geffen--who amassed his fortune in the music business and is now partnered with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in the new venture DreamWorks SKG--said King is "going to write finally what is a business book." Geffen also said that if he had not agreed to cooperate, "King said he wouldn't do it."

King, confirming that, stressed that although Geffen will be interviewed and has "encouraged others" to sit down for interviews, "it's my book and he has no control." King noted that "this is a serious biography that will tell the compelling professional and personal story of the man I believe to be modern Hollywood's most fascinating figure."

Geffen, he said, "is truly one of the first men since the Golden Age to build a show business empire from the ground up."

Times staff writer Claudia Eller contributed to this column.

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