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The Xmas Files : Fans of TV Show May Have to Probe a Little, but the Gifts Are Out There

December 18, 1996|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Agent Mulder might call it a commercial conspiracy.

Despite a crush of consumer interest, merchandise based on the popular Fox Network series "The X-Files" remains much like the show's labyrinthine plots--hard to get unless you really work at it. And it's not by accident.

The dearth of products and the frenzy surrounding the items already in stores was carefully calculated, according to licensing industry observers. Unlike "The Simpsons," "Star Trek" or other cult shows that have cashed in big with shoppers, makers of the hourlong thriller decided that their more adult audience would view less as more.

"With 'The Simpsons,' that was the classic example of saturating; stuff was everywhere," said Rich Levitt, editor of the Licensing Book, a New York-based trade publication. "But with the 'X-Files,' you're seeing something unusual. They are putting out very sleek, hard-to-get items that reflect the show's production values."

While most shoppers can easily find the six videos and more than a dozen books spawned by the spooky sci-fi hit, they are hard-pressed to get their hands on much of the apparel, trinkets and specialty items. Levitt and other observers say the trickle of products will probably keep fans interested in the tie-ins longer and generate a hunger for more.

"The demand is ahead of the product, and they want to keep it that way," Levitt said.

Fans of "The X-Files" can expect more products to hit stores in 1997, according to Pat Wyatt, president of Twentieth Century Fox licensing and merchandising, which handles the show's goods. Meanwhile, Wyatt said, many of the show's faithful followers thrive on the hunt--just as their heroes, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, chase down the truth about aliens and shadowy government conspiracies.

"Ambiguity is part of the show's appeal, and it allows for a lot of personalized interpretation by the fans about what is actually going on," Wyatt said. "We want the products to reflect the show. The pursuit is part of the fun of it. We don't want products to be too mainstream. If fans see the products everywhere, it loses some appeal to them."

Not for all fans. On a recent weekday afternoon, Irene Keller of Carson had far more demand than supply, and even less patience. Hefting shopping bags, she shook her head with dismay after her hunt for "X-Files" gear at South Coast Plaza ended with just two paperback books and two videos for her husband.

"I wanted to get more, something he could take to the office," said Keller, a devout fan of the Sunday night show. "I'm really disappointed. I thought there would be more."

*

There is more: key chains and computer mouse pads, sweatshirts, jackets and hats, trading cards, even bound copies of episode scripts. But just try finding any of it. Some sci-fi specialty stores, such as Mile High Comics in Garden Grove, have large "X-Files" product selections, but even those outlets can't keep pace with demand.

"It's very hard to come by 'X-Files' stuff, and it's one of our hottest sellers when we do get it," said John Lohmann, a sales manager at Mile High Comics. "A lot of people come in and say they've been everywhere looking. There's not a lot out there, and it moves quick when we get it. People want this stuff."

"The X-Files" is not the traditional type of television show that generates merchandising booms, according to Ira Meyer, publisher of the Licensing Letter. The series is decidedly dense and brainy and does not have the built-in youth appeal that often triggers the rush to retail.

The show, in its fourth season, follows FBI agents Mulder and Scully as they investigate X-files--the agency designation for unsolved cases that drift into the paranormal or extraterrestrial. Often, their efforts are foiled by the nefarious Cigarette-Smoking Man and his cohorts, a wealthy international cabal bent on "inventing the future."

Hardly the type of material that lends itself to action figures or squeeze toys. Meyer said the heat surrounding the show's merchandising caught many industry observers off guard. In recent years, several other examples of adult-themed entertainment had spawned tie-in products, but few with the success of "The X-Files."

"It's this year's 'Forrest Gump,' " Meyer said, referring to the 1994 movie that generated a flash flood of merchandise. "Every once in a while, something comes out of left field. This seems like one of those. It's more than a cult and less than a monster. . . . The interest is coming from the consumer. This is not a manufactured interest."

Wyatt said that much of the merchandise's appeal--like that of the show itself--can be credited to "The X-Files" creator and executive producer Chris Carter. Carter approves every item and has a hand in design issues, Wyatt said.

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