Movie tie-in publishers see a significant upside for programs tied to strong film properties, despite a growing list of risks and difficulties. Reduced shelf space for books at both trade and mass market retailers, changing reading habits that open up digital rights issues, shorter lifespans for the average theatrical film, and increased competition from a plethora of movie releases each year—all combine to create a challenging marketplace for licensed books based on theatrical films.

“Timing is everything,” stresses Frances Gilbert, v-p and publisher, Sterling Children’s Books, which is in the midst of its second movie tie-in program, with Sony’s Arthur Christmas. “I’m sure we’ve made our inventory department crazy with this.”

“There’s definitely a window and it’s getting tighter and tighter,” agrees Mara Anastas, deputy publisher, novelty and media, at Simon & Schuster, which published The Smurfs in 2011 and has a three-film deal with DreamWorks. “It’s tricky, and with every movie we learn something new.”

Books can be in stores as little as three weeks before a film release—although six or so is the norm—and often are returned by stores just a few weeks thereafter. Some film-based books do have longer lives. “A couple of formats might go on and on, and you’re reprinting for 12 months,” Anastas says.

Increasing competition is making it more difficult to secure and maintain promotional placement. Bendon president Ben Ferguson points out that there used to be one to three children’s movies out per year. “Now, there are so, so many,” he says. “Each year it’s getting more and more competitive. Boys’ action is an especially congested and competitive area. It’s tough to stand out.”

Tried and True

The difficulty of breaking through in a challenging marketplace with a new film continues to drive a franchise mentality. “When we sign a movie, we hope it will become an ongoing program. Lots of these characters can live in situations outside the plot of the movie,” says Emily Brenner, v-p and publishing director of HarperCollins’s early childhood group, whose licenses include Ice Age and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

“The Cars franchise is a good example of how we have been able to extend our publishing plan beyond the movie release window, by publishing in support of the popular Cars Toons shorts,” reports Jonathan Symington, v-p global sales, marketing and licensing, Disney Publishing Worldwide. The ongoing series of short animated films featuring the Cars characters also has spun off into videogames and toys.

The publishing strategy for an original film varies from that for an established franchise. “For a sequel, we might do a larger publishing program or push for more promotional displays,” says Ferguson. “For a new movie, we do a softer launch to protect our retailers, then get ready to run with it.”

In general, the films associated with the greatest number of book titles are those with the broadest merchandising initiatives. “On many programs, we follow the lead of the consumer products strategy, and that’s led by toys,” says Kristy Cox, head of worldwide publishing at DreamWorks Animation, who notes that the studio’s Puss in Boots had a smaller licensing and publishing program than the more toy-friendly Kung Fu Panda 2. “We don’t want to say they’re all behemoths. We want to share with our retailers and partners what we really think the opportunities are.”

In some cases, books can drive the licensing effort, as with Rise of the Guardians, a DreamWorks film based on a William Joyce project. “We’ll have a nicely sized publishing program that will probably take the lead in the overall licensing program,” Cox predicts. Licensor DreamWorks has granted rights to Simon & Schuster as the primary publishing licensee.

Publishing can play a key role in the transition of a stand-alone film into a franchise. “We look at our overall business as being about building brands,” says Robert Marick, executive v-p, Fox Consumer Products. “Publishing is a wonderful way to bridge all those [film, DVD, and other entertainment] opportunities we have over the year.”

When a film is based on a book, as it often is, the publisher of the underlying property typically participates in the tie-in program. Simon & Schuster, for example, is publishing tie-ins for Rise of the Guardians, as noted above; its Atheneum imprint is Joyce’s publisher.

“The original books are what turn readers into fans, and then the movie tie-in books are what you’re going to want if you’re a fan,” says David Levithan, v-p, publisher and editorial director, at Scholastic, which is releasing tie-ins for the Lionsgate film based on Scholastic’s The Hunger Games. “The movie tie-ins do not in any way try to tell the story of the Hunger Games; that is the job of the novels. Instead, the movie tie-ins add a visual component and let the reader linger more in the world after they are through lingering in the story.”

E-books and Other Formats

In the last six to 12 months, studios have begun granting book publishers (print and/or digital) the rights to produce tie-in e-books and e-book apps. There can be some gray areas between the capabilities of publishers and the studios’ interactive divisions. “We work very closely with our mobile team and our marketing team to make sure anything we do works complementarily and not competitively with anything they’re doing,” Cox explains. Dreamworks granted its first e-book app for How to Train Your Dragon in 2010 and expanded with Kung Fu Panda 2 into digital cookbooks, storybooks, comics, and “art of” books.

“We haven’t had any problems finding a way that both the digital partners and the publishers can be comfortable,” says Lori Burke, director of licensing at Penguin. “It’s a matter of figuring out what the contract language needs to be so all of us can do what we need to do.”

“Most publishers are in the e-book space already and understand the uniqueness of their category versus the mobile or online gaming universe,” says Greg Economos, senior v-p global consumer products for Smurfs licensor Sony, who points out that e-books have cross-promotional benefits that printed books don’t, including the ability to link to e-commerce or bonus content.

In terms of traditional formats, the typical mix for a family film includes 8×8s, leveled readers, hardcover storybooks, coloring and activity, and novelizations, as well as board or sound books when appropriate. “These are standard formats that fit any merchandise rack, whether it be in Barnes & Noble or Target,” says Burke.

Publishers try to match their movie properties with their bestselling formats. Sterling has a strong sticker book series, so it included an Arthur Christmas sticker book among its tie-ins. Bendon creates puzzle books or workbooks for some of its movie titles, while HarperCollins tries to include I Can Read books for films targeting ages 4 to 7. “That’s one of our strongest formats and one of our strongest movie formats, so we try to overlay them when possible,” Brenner says.

The basics can be enhanced with specialty titles. “We do change things up when it makes sense,” says Kara Sargent, editorial director at Simon Spotlight, who cites 8×8 storybooks with a pullout movie poster as a strong tie-in format.

S&S is including titles in its Rise of the Guardians program to appeal to collectors, while Reader’s Digest is doing some high-end novelty books to capitalize on the film’s epic nature and fourth-quarter release. Penguin created a cookbook for Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 2. For Universal’s Despicable Me in 2010, Little Brown created Sleepy Kittens, a puppet book that brought to life a fictional book featured in a key scene in the film. The format worked well and Little Brown replicated it under the title Hoppy Bunnies for this year’s Universal release, HOP.

Movie licensing programs have narrowed over the years, although the largest efforts, such as a Disney/Pixar release, will feature up to 40 titles. “We really want to create success stories for both the retailer and the publishers,” says Cindy Chang, v-p and general manager, Universal Partnerships and Licensing.

Marketing Muscle

One of the draws of licensing a movie property is the studio’s marketing clout. “We met with Lionsgate well over a year before the [Hunger Games] movie’s release date and have been working hand-in-hand with them ever since,” says Levithan. “Our marketing and their marketing are an integrated effort to drive people to the story in both of its forms.”

Studios will often tie in with a major retailer to offer film-based licensed products exclusively. Books have wider distribution, but benefit from the awareness generated by the exclusive. “Toys R Us had gotten behind Arthur Christmas in a very big way,” says Gilbert. “Having a mass market retailer behind it with this incredible support was a big draw.”

Meanwhile, publishers are increasingly tying in with the DVD release, working with the studio, the DVD distributor, and/or the retailer. Disney is publishing Ride with Mater, an augmented-reality storybook tied to its Cars 2 DVD release. Several publishers have created books to be packaged with the DVD, often as retail exclusives. “Five years ago, the DVD wasn’t something to promote against,” Burke says. “But now it’s definitely another hit.”

“The publishing product is often still in stores for the DVD,” says Economos. “It’s one of the easier categories to co-promote with the Blu-Ray or DVD release.”

Still, the DVD does not necessarily drive book sales. “We hope the DVD gives it a little kick, but it’s very variable,” Brenner says. “It depends on whether the retailer really embraces the DVD and makes a big statement in the store.”

Publishers say they intend to continue publishing film tie-ins, despite the difficulties, although most stress that they’re selective. As Gilbert notes, “It’s too risky a prospect to not go into it with your whole heart and do things you really love and believe in.”