One familiar joke about a great Disney attraction is that it always ends in a gift shop.
So stepping out of the new Star Tours—The Adventure Continues at Disney's Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort, I am taken back to the fall of 1980. I was working at a toy store in the Christown Mall in Phoenix, Ariz. The Empire Strikes Back had just premiered and Star Wars merchandise had skyrocketed. Along with car and plane models, my job was to keep up the ever-popular Star Wars display in the store. R2D2 and Yoda action figures were hot items, and customers often came in early in the morning to see if any new shipments had arrived. No doubt about it—Star Wars was hot!
It wasn't always so.
Movie merchandise was typically left to a few items like sheet music, LPs and posters. Of all the studios, Disney did the best job of merchandising their films. As a child I remember finding a unique toy inside Sugar Crisp cereal when Mary Poppins was released. They were small toy chimneys that, when you pressed the lever, Bert or Mary Poppins would pop out. But beyond Disney, there wasn't always much in the way of movie merchandise.
All that was changed by the time The Empire Strikes Back rolled into theaters—not Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Before then, movie studios didn't pay attention to cross merchandising a film. And 20th Century Fox paid dearly for that. Their negotiation with George Lucas provided little salary, while instead offering Lucas 40 percent on the film's gross and all rights to not only sequels but to merchandising. But he was too busy putting the film in the can to really create any merchandising strategy. And most toy manufacturers didn't see the sci-fi genre as really a good bet.
Mego, which had distinguished themselves as the maker of action figure toys for Marvel and DC superheros in the 1970s rejected the opportunity to make toys for Star Wars. That left Kenner (now Hasbro) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to license toys for Star Wars. That paid off dearly by the time I was arranging their toys on a retail shelf in Phoenix. Now, according to NBC's Today, LucasFilm Entertainment properties garner $8 billion a year in sales for their films to include not only the Star Wars phenomenon but Indiana Jones, as well. Today people can find everything from Star Wars dog food to a TaunTaun sleeping bag (smell not included).
But Star Wars wasn't the only movie to almost miss the boat when it came to merchandising.
As Barbie describes it in Toy Story II: "Back in 1995, short-sighted retailers did not order enough dolls to meet demand."
I remember that Christmas very well, as I spent an enormous time searching everywhere in Orlando for a Buzz Lightyear figure for my son. John Lassetter, whose love of toys was reflected in the film, was shocked to hear that neither of Disney's usual toy partners, Hasbro or Mattel, held much interest in the film. The license instead was provided to Thinkway Toys, a small Toronto-based manufacturer. Thinkway had wanted to produce 6-inch action-figure-style toys like Kenner had done with Star Wars. Lassetter wanted something more full size like the G.I. Joe figure he played with as a child. The toy manufacturer conceded in doing both size figures. When the larger 12-inch Buzz Lightyear was presented to Lasseter, he took it into the screening room and held it up in front of his employees. According to the account in Infinity and Beyond, "...the place went nuts!"
Still, retailers didn't get it going into the holiday season. Only a few Buzz Lightyear and even less Woody figures could be found in Toys R Us and even the Disney Stores. And Wal-Mart didn't take any. When the head of Thinkway, Albert Chan, saw the movie in advance, he put in his own money into making another 250,000 Buzz dolls to go with the 60,000 in the initial order. A week before the movie opened, every one of those toys had sold out, just from the movie trailers and commercials. A week later, after the movie premiered, orders for the toys totaled 1.6 million. Tom Schumacher stated:
"It's one of the most famous stories in retail mistakes, because, except for Albert with his fantastic talking Buzz and Woody dolls, nobody on any level got on board with the movie, nobody cared. The great irony, of course, is that Toy Story has become one of the great toy franchises in the history of modern films."
Of course, the toy companies have learned to respect the film industry. And nowhere is that more apparent than in that Cadillac of all movie merchandising opportunities, Cars. The Hollywood Reporter announced in February that Cars had hit $8 billion in sales. More than 200 million die-cast cars have been sold. The franchise is averaging $2 billion a year in sales, and that number is about to dramatically increase for 2011 with the Cars 2.
With Lights! Motors! Action! only doing two shows daily while Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular still doing five shows daily, it's clear that this attraction is ripe for being overhauled. And John Lasseter is just the man to do it. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
"We think we have the potential to make it even bigger," The Hollywood Reporter quoted of Chris Heatherley, vice president of toys for Disney Consumer Products. "We have a lot of headroom with the international and the spy component of the new movie and all the new product and technology, which takes it to the next level."
Small wonder that Radiator Springs looms large in the horizon for Disney California Adventure Park. Comparatively, with all of its years as an attraction, and with four movies behind it, Disney noted in The Hollywood Reporter that Jack Sparrow and company has only generated a fourth of what Cars has accomplished with one film and no ride. It is clear that the parks want to rev up the presence of this film in its parks. After all, it's No. 2 in all-time film merchandise, just behind Star Wars.
So it's no small joke that a gift shop seems to appear at the exit of every major Disney attraction.
It's not just that the movies are a part of today's Disney park experience. So is the merchandise. Indeed, the most tangible token of Disney's efforts to make memories to last a lifetime, might be the one inside your shopping bag.
(Send an email to Jeff Kober)
J. Jeff Kober, (@MousePlanetJeff) president of Performance Journeys and CEO of World Class Benchmarking, is also a thought leader on best-in-business practices at the Walt Disney Company. He brings those ideas to organizations via keynotes, seminars, and workshops to organizations around the world. He has authored "The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney" as well as a "Disney at Work" series of apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, available via DisneyatWork.com. You can find out more about his newest book, "Lead With Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence" at LeadWithYourCustomer.com.