Publishers’ licensed movie tie-in programs have been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, mirroring the fortunes of the film industry, according to about a dozen executives in the field who spoke with PW recently. Production hiatuses, shuttered theaters, changing distribution strategies, and other complications combined to create an uncertain landscape for the studios and the tie-in business, which is characterized by long development times, strict release dates, and short sales windows. And while the situation is improving somewhat, many of the challenges continue.

At the beginning of the pandemic, shifting theatrical release dates were the primary concern for publishers. Movies were delayed or went from theatrical release to streaming without much notice. “That’s extremely challenging for us,” said Valerie Garfield, publisher for licensed, novelty, and branded publishing at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. “It throws our carefully laid-out program up in the air. We take time to consider the number of titles, formats, and price points depending on the marketing, visibility, and timing of the film. If we can’t pull it up as much as needed, or if we expected a flashier campaign but then it’s released quietly on streaming, we have to adjust our expectations. Sometimes the timelines don’t match up and we can’t make the new on-sale date.”

Without advance notice of changes to release dates, retailers cannot promote new tie-in programs in stores, which is critical to publishers’ success. Retailers have also occasionally been caught with excess inventory due to delays. “In some cases, we were able to pull back our buys when release schedules and/or distribution channels changed, while in others the ship had already sailed,” said Stephanie Pinheiro, Barnes & Noble’s category manager, children’s and YA books.

The same has also been true for publishers. For Minions 2: The Rise of Gru, originally set for July 2020 but now slated for July 2022, “we had final books on the water when they first moved the date,” said Rosanne McManus, v-p and publisher at Printers Row Publishing Group’s Studio Fun imprint. “At least they’ll be ready on time, because they’ve been sitting in the warehouse for over a year.”

Insight Editions’ Art and Soul of Dune was released simultaneously with the premiere of that film, which was delayed from November 2020 to October 2021. “The challenge is to keep it embargoed that long and make sure nothing is leaked,” explained Raoul Goff, founder and publisher. He added that due to Covid’s ebbs and flows, Dune came out in Europe three weeks before the U.S. “The embargo had to hold to the U.S. date.”

Though delays are still happening, the situation is improving. “Release dates are getting a little more defined as theaters open up,” said John Russell, v-p global licensing at Phoenix International Publications’ PI Kids imprint. “That’s good for us and good for the retailers.”

“If you have a date that’s delayed, that’s okay,” Goff said. “But when there’s no date and you don’t know when the book will come out, you can’t sell it to retailers. It’s the indefinite delays that can drive anyone crazy.”

The rise of streaming

How will the move to streaming—whether films are released in streaming only, in theaters and streaming simultaneously, or in theaters only and then streaming later—affect movie tie-in programs? “With the rise in streaming content available, we’re finding new ways to reach audiences at home,” said Nicole Su’e, director of licensing at the Walt Disney Company. “It has certainly allowed for a new way of thinking about how and when we reach our consumer.”

Still, there are questions. “If you’re looking at a hybrid model with theatrical and streaming, does that extend the life of the film, even though the theatrical window is shorter?” asked Phoenix’s Russell. “It’s too soon to say for sure.”

Early returns suggest that might be the case, however. “We tend to see an overall longer life cycle for movie-based books that are released through streaming versus theatrically, as people tend to discover these properties on their own time,” Pinheiro said. “In the preschool and toddler space, we’ve had renewed success with simultaneous streaming releases. Raya and the Last Dragon and Luca brought strong sales as shoppers came to our children’s department to extend their child’s excitement after seeing the film.”

Chris Angelilli, v-p and editor-in-chief of licensed publishing at Random House Children’s Books, stressed that theatrical releases will always be part of the mix. “Streaming is a major platform and is growing quickly, but it won’t replace theatrical releases completely,” he said. “And honestly, the success of a property really depends on the film itself and has less to do with whether it’s streaming or theatrical.”

Supply chain issues

Meanwhile, shipping delays, lack of printer capacity, and rising costs for paper and transportation can be particularly vexing in the movie tie-in space. “Anything we have to source overseas, or with copious amounts of film art, can be difficult,” Su’e said.

“The increased delivery time hurts holiday and movie tie-in titles,” said McManus of Printers Row. “Both need to be in the warehouse by a certain time” due to strict on-shelf dates, she explained, adding that Printers Row doesn’t have the option to print in the U.S.

“In the past, when films changed and we had to pivot and were running a little late, we could make up the time with the printers,” Angelilli said. “But that’s not possible now. We’ve made all of our deadlines so far, but we’ve had some close calls.”

“After doing this for 20 years, you get to know how much to order—but now there’s more guesswork up front,” said Ben Ferguson, CEO of Bendon Publishing. “We’ve been making commitments earlier than usual and building a bit more inventory by ordering as early as we could release the artwork.”

One way publishers are limiting risk is to reduce the number of books they produce for a given film. “We’re a lot more conservative in terms of the number of titles we do,” Russell said. PI Kids is also creating fewer direct tie-ins and more titles that are based on the franchise behind films such as Paw Patrol: The Movie and Jurassic World.

Insight Editions still publishes “art of” books and other direct tie-ins for films such as Dune, but it has moved more toward lifestyle, collector, and in-world formats that are less time-sensitive, such as Tobin’s Spirit Guide: Official Ghostbusters Edition and The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Official Cookbook & Entertaining Guide, one of the company’s biggest titles this year. “We’re trying to find new ways to get readers engaged with the films they love,” Goff said.

“As booksellers, we almost always focus on the standard edition of a title around its media release rather than focusing solely on the media tie-in,” said B&N’s Pinheiro. “We’ve found that our customers tend to gravitate towards trade editions since they typically have a bookshelf/evergreen feel and won’t be outdated on bookshelves in a few years’ time.”

Some publishers are limited in the cuts they can make to their direct movie tie-in programs, however. “We usually present enough titles with a variety of price points to hit all the different retail locations,” Garfield of S&S said. “That won’t change significantly. If the movie has a wide audience, retailers expect the publishing program to be pretty wide.”

Being agile and collaborative are critical given today’s environment. “It’s everybody’s fault and it’s nobody’s fault,” said Paula Allen, founder of Screenland LA, an agency that pairs publishers with media companies. “It’s containers stuck at Long Beach, it’s manufacturing, it’s rising paper costs, it’s movies that have been delayed, it’s shorter release windows, it’s marketing budgets that have been cut. Everybody has to be flexible.”

Cautious optimism

Despite the obstacles, publishers have reported strong sales for some tie-ins—at least according to new pandemic-era expectations—over the past two years. “We’ve had several successful programs,” Angelilli said, citing Trolls World Tour and Space Jam: A New Legacy as examples. “We’re still very enthusiastically publishing against films, whether they are released theatrically or streaming. It’s a good chunk of our business, and that will continue for a long time to come.”

Su’e said Disney Publishing Worldwide is seeing strong sales on Encanto tie-ins, as well as positive pickup on promotional opportunities for its spring films. “Regardless of where consumers are experiencing new content, we believe fans will be diving deeper into the stories and buying books,” she said.

But uncertainty remains. “I thought by summer 2022 the scene would look much different, but I’m beginning to see it might not,” Garfield said. “We’ll continue to zig if we have to zig and zag if we have to zag. We’re still very much in it, but we have to change our expectations and are trying to anticipate what will happen.”