Movie tie-in publishing, always a cyclical business, faces an increasingly competitive landscape and is feeling the effects from some recent, heavily hyped movie-based efforts that did not meet expectations. At the same time, however, books tied to a strong property—and with the right mix of formats—can shine at retail.

"Retailers are a little gun-shy and certainly less aggressive when it comes to looking at [movie] tie-ins," said Virginia King, executive director, worldwide publishing at Twentieth Century Fox Licensing & Merchandising, licensor of this spring's Planet of the Apes and next year's Ice Age films.

Movie tie-in publishing has always presented unique challenges for publishers. "You know that up until the last minute you'll have to make changes," said Robin Corey, v-p and publisher of novelty books and media tie-ins at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. "You need to be flexible and willing to make changes that can be expensive and time-consuming at the last minute."

"You're always crashing books or working editorially without any real acquaintance with the movie material," added Esther Margolis, president and publisher of Newmarket Press, known for its Shooting Scripts, "making of" books and other titles for movie buffs.

Production delays can be problematic, too. Margolis cited the example of Gladiator: The Making of the Ridley Scott Epic, which was not ready in time for the film's May 2000 release because DreamWorks could not release editorial materials in time. When Barnes & Noble found out about the delay, it cut its advance sales by more than 60%, according to Margolis, who credits DreamWorks with being understanding of her needs. "They offered to let us cancel the contract, but I'd seen an early cut and I knew it would go the whole way [to the Oscars]."

Film tie-ins are allowed only a short period to succeed. "You have one and a half shots at it," explained Nancy Pines, v-p/ publisher at Pocket Books for Young Readers, which is releasing novelizations under its Minstrel imprint for the films Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy and Clockstoppers. Tie-in titles have a window of four to six weeks, at most, prior to the movie, as well as a second, smaller opportunity at the home video release.

Despite the challenges, movie tie-ins can sell. Corey reported 2.3 million copies in print of six S&S titles tied to Nickelodeon's Rugrats in Paris film (based on the television series), with one of those selling 250,000 copies. Scholastic printed 565,000 copies of four titles based on The Sixth Sense and more than 3.6 million copies of various titles tied to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

"There are so many movies coming out, we have to gauge which ones will do well," said Susan Dennis, Kmart spokesperson. "It just depends on the movie. It's a constant ebb and flow."

Borders spokesperson Kendra Smith said that since the "run-away success" of titles tied to Fox's Titanic, the chain has seen more movie tie-ins, both for adults and children. She cited Newmarket's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Gladiator books as current strong performers and predicted Pearl Harbor: The Movie and the Moment (packaged by Newmarket for Hyperion) will do well. "We're definitely getting behind the movie," Smith said.

Karen Burk, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart, said movie tie-ins, especially for adults, are doing better now than they were two years ago. "[The movie marketing] adds to the visibility of the books," she said.

Selecting a License

"We're even more selective [about acquiring movie licenses] than we are with other media properties, because of the very short window," said Corey. "We look at them with an even more squinted eye."

"There's so much to choose from, and it's not all worthy," Pines added. "We're doing fewer movie tie-ins than we used to."

Some publishers favor television properties over films. "TV properties are definitely the wave of the future for this company," said Rich Maryyanek, senior v-p of marketing at Golden Books. Golden's sole film tie-in for this year is Nickelodeon's fourth-quarter release Jimmy Neutron, which has been teased with in-theater trailers and animated shorts on Nickelodeon's Web site since last year and will spin off into a television show in fall 2002.

Golden will also publish tie-ins for Warner Bros.'s Powerpuff Girls film next spring. The fact that the movie is based on an already-hot television and licensing property reduces risk and offers additional sales opportunities. "It's not only a time for us to sell our movie-related products, but to sell all our Powerpuff products," Maryyanek said.

Yet stand-alone films are attractive to other publishers, especially if they are backed with significant marketing dollars and have staked out a release date well in advance. "The tent-pole movies are the ones that publishers can really commit to," said Margolis. "All movies are high risk, but [event movies are] less high risk."

"I think the booksellers need to know that the studio is going to have a major multimedia campaign supporting the film," added King. She noted, however, that most films (except comedies) lend themselves at least to a novelization, even if there is no other book merchandising activity.

Nancy Cushing-Jones, president of Universal Studios publishing rights, agreed it is easier to put together a comprehensive publishing program on the big event films, such as Universal's Jurassic Park 3, for which Random House will publish a three-tiered children's program, including standard movie tie-in formats, original spin-off novels and nonfiction books under the Jurassic Park Institute banner. Non-event films, on the other hand, are more of a challenge.

Randi Reisfeld, Scholastic's senior manager, licensing and media, said properties that appeal to young children (or have an avid fan base) tend to drive book sales. "If they're geared toward younger children, the tie-ins will be successful, especially if you look at them as souvenirs of the movie," she said. "For older kids, it has to tell a story. If a movie really tells a story and makes a good book, you want to do it. If it's glitz and action, it won't do as well." She credited the company's success with novelizations and spin-off novels based on Star Wars and The Sixth Sense to strong story lines, and attributed the poor performance of books tied to The Mummy to that film's action slant. "The movie did well, but the books did not do well." (Bantam Doubleday Dell is the licensee for the sequel.)

Many publishers are aligned with a studio and typically have a first look at that studio's properties. Some partnerships are between sister companies, such as Simon & Schuster and Paramount, Talk Miramax and Hyperion (both Disney subsidiaries) and HarperCollins and Fox; others are between separate companies, such as Scholastic and Warner Bros., Random House and Disney, and Penguin Putnam and DreamWorks. These publishers also consider properties from other studios.

Finding Formats That Fit

Certain movie tie-in formats are standard, including novelizations, junior novelizations, storybooks, readers and coloring and activity books. Increasingly, however, novelty formats are tailored as much as possible to the film. Simon & Schuster is doing a Jimmy Neutron title with a lenticular cover to echo the 3-D animation in the film, while Random House is releasing a furry book to mirror the furry main character in Monsters, Inc.

For its summer film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney Publishing created movie-specific formats for all ages, including a pull-a-page book featuring vehicles from the film, journals, activity books involving decoder rings and the Atlantean language, and titles highlighting concept art for the movie. "We have formats that we continue to publish and do well with, but we approach each movie as a blank slate," explained Lisa Holton, Disney's senior v-p and publisher for global children's books.

"We try to take a look at each property individually and do some formats that are unique to it," said Jon Anderson, v-p and publisher of Penguin Putnam's DreamWorks imprint. Titles tied to the spring film Shrek include a gag book—"gag being the operative word there"—and a Scratch 'n Stink Storybook. "We tried to apply [the film's] sarcastic edge and humorous approach to the traditional storybook format," Anderson said. Shrek also marks the first time Penguin has married its Mad Libs brand with a license.

"We in publishing are becoming less cookie-cutter about it," noted Kate Klimo, v-p and publisher, Random House Books for Young Readers. "Books have to break out of the mold and reflect the movie better. They're much more customized to the movie."

Overall, the number of book titles released per film has declined. "There was a perception, particularly after the success of The Lion King [in 1994], that the sky was the limit in terms of the quantities that could be sold," said Anderson. "But there was a perception on the part of our customers that publishers were publishing too many books."

"We're doing fewer, more select titles that work across all our channels of distribution," Maryyanek reported. "We try to selectively cull the products we think will work best. The goal is to make an impact at retail without overpopulating it."

Reisfeld remembered that three years ago Scholastic published eight formats each for the films Godzilla, Lost in Space and Quest for Camelot, all of which would be associated with fewer titles today. "I don't think we'd ever do a movie tie-in that didn't have a novelization," Reisfeld said. "But we'd rethink other formats." For the August Warner Bros. release Osmosis Jones, Scholastic is publishing a novelization and an 8 × 10, four-color graphic novel.

"As publishers, we're attempting to not do as many books as the movie studios would love to see out there," said Klimo. "For the studios, books are not only a validation of the movie but glorious, saleable PR, so the more the merrier. But bookstores are a little tired of making so much room for displays with such a big footprint."

Some studio executives said they recognized the need for fewer titles. King noted that seven years ago a film like The Lion King would have 22 books in a program. "Today you're doing half that," she said. "You have to have fewer books working harder."

Despite the trend toward fewer formats per film, Random House is publishing 17 titles for Disney's Atlantis and 18 for Monsters, Inc. As Klimo concluded, "Some movies still come along that merit the full-tilt boogie."