POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #50: License to Sell

By Jeffrey D. Allers

There’s something funny about watching oversized toys lay waste to Chicago as they battle it out on the big screen, while the actors who probably grew up playing with them are reduced to the supporting cast.  It’s a telling sign that we’ve come full circle with license tie-ins:  as films once helped sell toys, now the toys themselves are starring in their own motion pictures.  Perhaps the next Star Wars trilogy will feature animated Lego figures.

We actually owe Star Wars creator George Lucas credit for the beginnings of this marketing cross-pollination.  As he was struggling to complete the first (and, it appeared at the time, the only) chapter in his cutting-edge space opera, he had enough foresight to reserve the rights to all license tie-ins for the film.  It proved to be a financial windfall for Lucas, and, just as he invented the modern summer blockbuster film, he can also be credited as the father of the lucrative toy tie-in market.

In the decades since, Hollywood studios and toy companies have continued to capitalize on the mass appeal of movie tie-ins, and they’ve even formed stronger business partnerships to maximize sales. In the July 11 issue of Time, Allie Townsend writes that “Toy companies have become Hollywood’s new auteurs.” In her article, “State of Play”, she writes that savvy studios are even including toy manufacturers in their screenwriting teams and art departments to “keep us on the right track creatively,” says Adam Goodman of Paramount.

Townsend also interviews Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner, who claims that the part of the toy market with tie-ins to movies and other entertainment is growing faster than traditional stand-alone toys—and games.

Boardgames have always been a staple of film and television tie-ins, but industry giant Hasbro has unfortunately demonstrated a long-standing preference for recycling older games from its catalogue, pasting on new themes rather than trying to reinvent the wheel—or, in this case, the wheel of fortune in The Game of Life.  Just try counting the films that have been backed by their own Monopoly versions.

It’s the safe bet that stymies creativity and innovation, the reason Hasbro and other toy giants are targeted for so much criticism by gaming hobbyists.  But even the smaller German publishers, who have built their reputations on innovative Eurogames, cannot ignore the prospects of marketing tie-ins with other known entertainment properties in literature, television, and, of course, film.

In recent years, publisher Kosmos, in particular, has aggressively sought out popular licenses for its game catalogue.  To its credit, titles like Inkheart, The Name of the Rose, and The Golden Compass are original games rather than re-themed rehashes of their worldwide smash, The Settlers of Catan.   And while those games may not have surpassed the sales of their perennial favorite, publishing competitor Ravensburger’s boardgame based on the hit TV game show Schlag den Raab was reportedly the country’s bestseller last year.

Even one of my game designer friends once confided that his Little Polar Bear game, released by Ravensburger, was his most popular design by far—in no small part to the license tie-in with the well-known children’s books and films.

And American company Fantasy Flight continues to fill Lucas’ pockets as the latest game publisher to snag the Star Wars license. It remains to be seen if the new games will be originals or simply rehashes of previous Fantasy Flight releases, but either way, the company can bank on the property’s evergreen appeal.

“There are lots of licenses available–both good and bad,” says Christian Hildenbrand, editor for German publisher Amigo.  “A good license can almost guarantee sales, and a publisher would not be professional if it let good business opportunities slip by.”  Hildenbrand also notes that designer games with licenses have improved in quality, with many being nominated for awards.  Still, he advises that a balanced catalogue is the best strategy.  “Producing only games with license tie-ins is also not good, as the publisher can’t really give the game its own ‘face'”, he adds.

Now, it seems that boardgames are going to follow toys full circle in becoming the subjects of major motion pictures.  According to Townsend’s article, old boardgames scheduled to be revived by the silver screen include Mattel’s Rock‘em Sock’em Robots, and Hasbro’s Battleship (starring Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgard and Rihanna), with Ouija, Candy Land, and Clue to follow.

I can’t help but think that The Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne would make better summer movies–they’ve already inspired a pair of German novels, after all.  Or perhaps another compelling adventure saga could include the rise and fall of the races of Small World as they vie for control of their varied—albeit Technicolor—land.

More likely, however, we’ll probably be treated to “Uno: the Movie”, with both 2-D and 3-D versions appearing in multiplexes around the globe.

I think I’ll take my popcorn to the gaming table instead, where any game is welcome—even a license tie-in, as long as seeing the film is not a prerequisite for playing it.

About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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2 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #50: License to Sell

  1. peer says:

    Hasbro struck a deal with Universal a few years ago, so that Universal HAS TO make Hasbro products into movies, even if they not always want to…

  2. Sam says:

    The irony of all this is that Clue was already made into a very campy (and now cultish) 80’s movie featuring Tim Curry, though I’d like to think that was a fun fluke of an example.

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