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Are There New Icons in Old Cartoons?

Marketing: Entertainment companies are turning to popular characters of yesteryear in an attempt to create 'brand' identification.

January 14, 1998|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Do you remember with fondness Woody Woodpecker's annoying laugh and shock of red plumage? Universal Studios is hoping that's the case for you and millions of others, as the Seagram-owned conglomerate seeks to turn the 58-year-old character into an entertainment icon. In short, Universal wants Woody to become its Mickey Mouse.

Amid sprawling media companies and a constant mantra of building entertainment "brands," decades-old cartoons are being resurrected and charged with becoming studio ambassadors. At Universal, it's Woody; at MGM, it's the Pink Panther; at Viacom's Paramount, the Terry Toon library (which includes Mighty Mouse) is being scrutinized. The goal: Find a character with multi-generational appeal that can be exploited through a company's film, television, video, music, theme park and consumer products divisions.

"We think Woody has the potential to be a real icon for the studio," said Universal Television Entertainment President Barbara Fisher, comparing Woody to Mickey and to Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes characters. Already some Woody merchandise has begun to hit stores, including Universal's new store on Universal CityWalk next to the studio. And Fox will air a new animated "Woody" show in the fall.

In the last couple of years, Universal has been pushing family entertainment, with mixed results: Last year's "Leave It to Beaver" live-action movie was a flop, but the animated "Land Before Time" direct-to-video movies have been strong performers. Universal sees Woody as a way to brand Universal's kid-friendly entertainment across all its divisions.

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Just as a set number of familiar actors are considered good bets at the box office, old cartoons are considered safer than new animation. Although Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and others are following Disney into theatrical animation, Disney remains the overwhelming champ in churning out new hits. Fox's "Anastasia," with a box-office gross of about $49 million, would have been considered a big disappointment had it been released by Disney; Disney's "Hercules," not considered a huge hit, did twice that.

"In a very competitive environment, it's a real leg up to have something people already know. It's great to have a property that entire families are aware of," said Nancy Steingard, executive vice president of Universal Studios' Universal Cartoon Studios.

Universal owns the entire Walter Lantz cartoon library, which spans more than four decades and includes other characters scheduled to reappear, including Andy Panda and Chilly Willy. For years, Universal contracted with Lantz to create about 26 cartoon shorts per year. Universal bought all the rights from Lantz in 1984, 10 years before he died.

Universal also has long-term deals for the Jay Ward characters, including Rocky and Bullwinkle, and the Chipmunks, created by Ralph Bagdassarian. All are being developed for new programming (TV shows and videos) and merchandise.

But Universal has found that Woody is more popular than Bullwinkle. In the latest "Cartoon Q" report from Manhasset, N.Y.-based Marketing Evaluations Inc., Woody had an overall Q score of 33, compared with Bullwinkle's 23. By comparison, Bugs Bunny rated a 50, and Mickey Mouse a 43.

That last number points to a problem Disney is trying to address: Mickey has lost a bit of his luster.

His Q score--essentially a popularity rating, derived from questionnaires sent to 1,000 households--has slipped significantly in the last year, from 49 (neck-and-neck with Bugs Bunny) to the current 43 (neck-and-neck with the Pillsbury Doughboy, a.k.a. Poppin' Fresh).

So Disney is pulling out the stops to promote the mouse. A new animated TV show and a series of "Mickey Matinees" at movie theaters are just two components of the effort.

"We want to remind people of who Mickey's character is, to get away from his icon-only status right now," said Roberts Gannaway, executive producer of the new animated "MouseWorks." The show, featuring Mickey and other classic characters, such as Donald Duck and Pluto, will appear next January on one of the Disney-owned networks (ABC, the Disney Channel or the upcoming Toon Disney channel).

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Gannaway's co-executive producer Tony Craig says Disney's caution with Mickey's image may have held the character back in recent years. "It seems like nobody wanted to do anything to mess Mickey up. No one wanted to be the one to ruin him after all these years," Craig said.

Executives at MGM, meanwhile, are hoping they can make an icon out of a martini-quaffing cat. Known mostly as an insulation pitchman in recent years, the Pink Panther (who made his entrance in the first Peter Sellers Pink Panther film in 1964) is poised for a comeback on video and in consumer products. The MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas also is mulling a Pink Panther attraction and gift shop.

"We think he's sort of a nice fit right now with the popularity of lounge culture," said Doug Gleason, senior vice president of marketing for MGM Consumer Products.

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