After several years where licensed properties and media tie-in books had a growing presence, licensing was a bit more low-key at this year’s Bologna Book Fair than in the recent past, according to several attendees.
“It does seem as if licensing had a lower profile this year,” said Eric Huang, v-p and publisher of Poland-based Ameet Books, a licensee of LEGO, Disney, Mattel, Schleich, and other properties. “Many licensors and licensing editors who have attended in the past weren’t at the fair.”
“I didn’t attend because I felt that the licensing profile was lower than it had been in prior years, when licensors were trying to hone in on the fair,” said Valerie Garfield, v-p and publisher, novelty and licensed publishing, at Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing. “Most licensors, in my opinion, were there for international discussions, so for licensees who don’t hold world rights it didn’t seem like it was an opportune fair. It’s also really close to the Licensing Show [in early June], which still rules for those publishing meetings.”
Another factor may have been recent consolidation, layoffs, and new publishing teams at some of the larger studio, network, and brand licensors. “Everyone talked about consolidation and restructuring at the big studios, with Disney’s acquisition of Fox fresh on publishers’ minds, and the absence of certain people due to layoffs,” Huang said. He noted that Disney used its annual Bologna showcase in part to answer its licensees’ questions about the merger, as well as show off its properties.
The consolidations are happening on both the studio and the publishing side. “The flurry of acquisitions from recent weeks continues the industry trend of tighter and tighter consolidation, with fewer independents left,” said Sophie Partridge, executive v-p and publisher of exhibitor Phoenix International Publications/PI Kids.
Despite the challenges, licensed properties and books always have a significant presence at Bologna. Licensors including Universal Brand Development and Hasbro exhibited alongside publishers in the fair’s U.S. hall, while others took stands in the small Bologna Licensing Trade Fair held in parallel with the book fair. Meanwhile, publishers from Egmont to Scholastic to Carlton Books displayed tie-ins based on a wide variety of properties.
“Licensing always has a high profile at the Bologna Book Fair, with both properties that have their origin on screen, as well as book properties that can be adapted for TV or theatrical,” noted Linda Lee, v-p of global publishing at Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products (VNCP), which had a booth at the Licensing Fair.
Offsite licensor showcases and presentations also have increased over the years. “There’s higher box office output from all studios than ever before, and more diverse and exciting publishing programs to support event movies as everyone strives for continued engagement beyond the theater,” said Partridge.
Not surprisingly given recent licensing trends, properties beyond film and television made their presence known. “There seemed to be a lot more [corporate] brands represented at Bologna, specifically toy brands, than in past years,” said Craig Herman, senior director, category management, at Peanuts Worldwide Entertainment. He was at the show promoting the Peanuts characters, including new content for Apple’s subscription video-on-demand service and new publishing in conjunction with NASA.
Tuomas Sorjamaa, licensing and acquisitions manager at Ferly, a Finnish company that develops and represents IP for licensing and publishes books, licensed and otherwise, for which it offers global sub rights, spent most of his time in the agents center discussing publishing opportunities for Angry Birds and other properties. He noted a still-growing trend for video game properties targeting middle grade and YA readers, from Minecraft to Roblox.
Ferly represents Star Stable, a massively multiplayer online game, and saw interest from publishers in the U.S. and elsewhere, even in markets where the game is not well established yet. “We got very good traction with that,” Sorjamaa said. “Publishers seem to be looking at new things even when they’re not well developed as brands yet.”
Netflix Now a Key Player
Streaming platforms, especially Netflix, are a growing presence at Bologna as well. “Netflix has been a bit of an underperformer in licensing in the past couple of years, but now their shows are really working well in publishing,” Sorjamaa said, citing the Archie Comics-based Riverdale as an example. Ferly was offering some Netflix-distributed properties as well. “They were quiet the past couple of years, but publishers are interested now,” he said.
VNCP has seen success in publishing with its properties The Loud House and Avatar the Last Airbender, Nickelodeon TV shows that are both being produced as films with Netflix, Lee reported. “We’re looking at extending our content outside of our channel platforms,” she said.
Some properties not driven by traditional media remain very niche-oriented, however. “There seemed to be an increase in metric-driven properties being designed around demographic trends or gaps,” Partridge said. “The challenge that licensors have is not letting these feel too contrived or lacking in authenticity.”
Even as properties that do not come from the worlds of TV and film are growing, publishers continue to show interest in traditional media properties. “Preschool in general is a big driver category for licensed publishing,” Lee said, citing continued interest in Paw Patrol and excitement for the return of Blue’s Clues. “In our discussions, partners are interested in the support we can contribute off-air with our marketing and retail activations,” she added. “It’s no longer just about ratings.”
Licensed formats on display at Bologna ranged from longstanding licensing standards to newer opportunities where licensing has not traditionally had a big presence. “There are always the tried-and-true formats that seem to be in universal demand,” Lee said. “In conversations with publishers and retailers, people are looking for more types of differentiation to complement those lines. We have seen strong interest in more educational formats and also those focusing on the social/emotional aspects of storytelling.”
“Higher price point gift formats seemed to be a licensing trend this year,” Huang observed. “And classic activity titles were still everywhere.”
Sorjamaa noted a rise in all-ages graphic novels, both licensed and literary, which are still going strong in the U.S. and are starting to pick up in other territories where they traditionally had not had much interest, such as the U.K.
“Empowered females remain a huge topic, especially in high numbers of STEM biographies featuring women,” Partridge added. “And of course superhero women continue to claim box office dollars.”
Licensors and licensed publishers who were at the fair reported productive meetings. “People seemed very positive about children’s publishing and the future of publishing,” said Amanda Joiner, v-p of licensing and publishing at Ripley’s Entertainment, which was showing books based on its recently acquired Nitro Circus license, as well as its own Ripley’s Believe It or Not! titles. “You don’t always feel that way when you leave the fairs.”