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Digging Up the Past to Grow a Monster Franchise

Beyond remakes of 'The Mummy' and other films, Universal sees a chance for merchandise tie-ins.

October 29, 1998|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like Dr. Frankenstein toiling over his creation, Universal Studios is working to bring new life to its classic horror movies.

It is planning new movie versions of "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein" over the next two years, to be backed by merchandise ranging from action figures to housewares.

The challenge for Universal is in convincing consumers that there's a difference between Universal's monsters and the lineup of Frankensteins, Draculas and other ghouls that make an appearance every Halloween. It's no easy task.

Ever since Universal brought out the classic version of "Frankenstein" in 1931, other versions of the creature have turned up in costume stores, low-budget videos and films. Most recently, TriStar Pictures brought out the Kenneth Branagh-directed "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" in 1994. It fizzled.

Although Universal may have given these creatures their most enduring cinematic treatments, it didn't cook them up. Universal adapted the characters from books familiar to generations. So others may produce films, toys or trinkets using the same characters, so long as they don't look like Universal's creatures.

With the new version of "The Mummy" to be released May 7, Universal is laying plans to persuade consumers its monsters are the real deal.

The first hurdle is to persuade potential marketing partners--from food processors to toy makers--that Universal's monsters have value. Universal invited executives from consumer products and packaged-goods companies to "mummy summits" in London and Los Angeles, where the studio showed clips from the film and pitched possible tie-ins.

"I have to admit, I never realized that these characters like Frankenstein and the Mummy were licensed properties," said Mitch Litvak, president of the entertainment marketing firm L.A. Office. Litvak, who's seen clips of the film, added, "I think Universal is doing a good job of getting the word out now."

So far, the studio has announced deals with companies including Toy Island for toys, Western Graphics for stationery and gifts, and Scholastic for books aimed at the children's market. Universal is discussing a possible in-school tie-in with Scholastic, which produces magazines distributed to schools across the U.S.

Since the film's release was moved up from late summer to May--which will allow it to get a running start on the summer box office, and be out two weeks ahead of the first new "Star Wars" movie--Universal was somewhat hindered in lining up business partners. The summits were held less than 11 months before the film's release. Many consumer-products and packaged-goods companies normally start working 18 months or more in advance on such tie-ins.

So while toy giant Hasbro is producing some larger action figures ($20 apiece), the main toy license went to Toy Island, a smaller firm that was willing to take on the property on short notice.

Universal is also trying to create an appetite for its monsters by re-releasing videos of such related movies as "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." It produced a one-hour documentary, "Universal Horror," which made its debut on Turner Classic Movies and will be distributed abroad by Universal's overseas TV unit. And it's making a direct-to-video release of "Alvin & the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein." Universal's Web site has become a big promotional vehicle for the monsters as well.

The monster revival is part of a broader strategy in which studios are mining their film libraries for old ideas they can dust off for modern audiences. Studios do this because they already own the rights, and thus can count on built-in awareness for lower marketing costs and also for a nostalgia factor. Before the monsters, Universal revived such old TV properties as "Leave It to Beaver" and "Flipper," albeit without much success.

And when it comes to Dracula, Universal faces an additional hurdle. The son of actor Bela Lugosi, who played the role in classic films, controls the rights to his father's likeness. So Universal must work with him on any re-creation of a Lugosi-like vampire.

But Chris McGurk, president and chief executive of Universal Pictures, is confident Universal can overcome the obstacles and that the combination of a strong script for "Mummy" and new computer-effects technology will introduce the creatures to a whole new generation.

"The strategy is really to reinvigorate the franchise and take it into the 21st century," McGurk said.

Indeed, the monsters could be an exception to the generally poor record for such library redos. The studio is trying to put the weight of all its divisions behind the horror franchise, which also includes such live-action movies as the recently released "Child's Play" sequel, "Bride of Chucky," and the remake of "Psycho," due out in December.

It already has promotional deals with such big firms as Nabisco, which is selling Universal Studios' Monsters Cookies, which introduce the branded monsters to a new generation of kids.

"I think that if they put all the pieces behind it and make enough noise, they have a good shot at bringing new life to the property," said Litvak. Universal executives are optimistic that they have a winner in the monsters.

"Will there be Mummy knock-offs? Probably," said Cynthia Cleveland, president of Universal's consumer-products group, "but ours will have a distinct look."

Other ongoing promotions for the monsters include costumed characters at Universal's theme parks and a Monsters Cafe themed restaurant at Universal Studios Florida. There are already about 50 licensees for the "classic" monsters, making everything from $15 makeup kits to $5,950 limited-edition Frankenstein bronze busts. But Universal realizes the math is simple: You can make 10 times more money selling a million $6 action figures than 100 bronze busts.

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