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Paul Frank Industries trying to turn Julius into a media star

The Orange County company behind the whimsical monkey character is attempting to boost sales with a promotional blitz that involves a prime-time Christmas cartoon special, gobs of new merchandise and a Julius-themed Winnebago on a cross-country tour.

June 14, 2011|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • Julius is ready for the big time, says Elie Dekel, president of Paul Frank Industries owner Saban Brands, about the character that is expected to rake in $300 million in retail revenue this year.
Julius is ready for the big time, says Elie Dekel, president of Paul Frank… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Julius is prepping for his Hollywood close-up.

Last summer, Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban bagged the chimp, spending about $50 million to buy Paul Frank Industries, the Orange County company that turned a whimsical drawing of a wide-mouthed sock monkey into a global fashion statement.

Now, Saban's team is developing a promotional blitz to catapult Julius from smirking slacker found on vinyl wallets and T-shirts into a bankable media star.

Saban Brands on Tuesday will unveil plans for the primate to headline a prime-time television animated Christmas special next year, a project that is intended to land Julius on the cartoon A-list along with such august characters as Charlie Brown and the Grinch.

Saban is no stranger to children's television, making his fortune in the 1980s and 1990s with such popular properties as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Power Rangers" and "X-Men." Last year, Saban bought back the rights to "Power Rangers" from Walt Disney Co. and relaunched the characters with a successful new show on Nickelodeon.

In Saban Brands' latest relaunch, a Julius-themed Winnebago will embark on a cross-country tour in the coming weeks, making stops at Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., malls and music festivals to refresh the brand, which has lost some of its cool-kid cachet. In November, Julius will appear as a helium balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

"Julius is ready for the big time," said Elie Dekel, president of Saban Brands.

Perhaps, but the monkey's new corporate handlers face a challenge: How do they boost sales by creating cartoons and churning out gobs of new Julius merchandise, games, mobile phone applications, gardening gloves and even pancake batter, and still remain true to the California surf culture and hand-craftsmanship that originally made Paul Frank Industries a rock star among the hipster crowd?

"In the 1990s they came out of the box very strong; they had the hottest line going," said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Assn. "But you can't be cool for too long."

Saban Brands, however, is betting that Julius is that rare property that not only can endure, but become even more popular and profitable.

The primate's prime-time special is key to that wager. Dekel hopes a family TV program will delight parents, who wore the monkey T-shirts when they were teenagers, and their children. The company would like to develop animated specials for Halloween, Valentine's Day and Easter.

But the TV project has forced the question: What is the right look and voice for Julius?

"If we were to come out with some slick version of `Toy Story' for Paul Frank, that wouldn't feel right for the characters," said Ryan Heuser, who in 1995 co-founded the company with Paul Frank Sunich in Heuser's Huntington Beach garage. That's where Sunich first stitched hand-made vinyl wallets, inspired by mid-century modern design.

"There needs to be a thread of consistency," said Heuser, the only founder still with the company and who manages the small Paul Frank creative team — four artists and a creative director — from its warehouse space in Costa Mesa.

The TV project, he said, should have "the same reverence for nostalgia, and that tactile feel and look of being hand-sewn and hand-done."

Julius, Saban's executives believe, has the juice to draw viewers.

"It is very unusual that a design-based brand, versus a media-driven brand, would be able to achieve this amount of reach — on its own merits," Dekel said. "It is based on the design, a universal design, which has translated and traveled well."

International sales now make up almost half of the expected $300 million in retail revenue this year, nearly double the performance in 2009. The growth is due to a seismic shift in strategy by the previous owners after a bitter falling-out with Sunich, the artist who created the designs. Two years of court fights among Sunich and his fellow company founders in 2006 and 2007 threatened the health of the enterprise.

Two years ago, Julius was repositioned for more mainstream consumers. Discount retailer Target Corp. began selling Julius-emblazoned pajamas, sheets, backpacks and T-shirts, completing the company's switch from a business that made its own wares to one that licensed its designs and collected royalties. In the U.S., the Target partnership helped jump-start domestic sales.

Under Saban, Paul Frank Industries has been aggressively pushing into foreign markets. While there are just four Paul Frank retail stores in the U.S., including the flagship store in Costa Mesa, there are more than 20 stores overseas.

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