A Hobbit standee at an Ontario bookstore comes to life and tries to escape! Sort of..

Under the spell of hype

Thought Sept 11. and the recession had brought naked capitalism to its knees? Think again. As GAYLE MacDONALD reports, the forthcoming Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies are unleashing a consumer frenzy more powerful than any wizard could conjure up


Saturday, November 3, 2001 – Print Edition, Page R1

Gabriele Schreiber was frantically working the cash at The Bookshelf Cafe in downtown Guelph, Ont., on Monday evening last week when she saw the strangest thing. Four figures — hair natty, kind of long, and scruffily clad in what looked like brown potato sacks — were marching determinedly together toward the exit.

Schreiber nudged her colleague, Kelly Holmes, who immediately leapt out from behind the desk in hot pursuit of the ragtag troupe. “Stop! Thieves!,” Holmes shouted.

The hobbits did indeed come to halt. They were part of a four by six-foot cardboard cutout promoting the soon-to-be-released blockbuster film Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. But behind the cutout were three teens, who’d been trying to make off with the booty, and who dropped it, tore out of the store, ran down Quebec Street and disappeared into the night.

Schreiber and Holmes jokingly refer to it as the Great Hobbit Caper. But the hype and frenzied anticipation surrounding the upcoming Lord of the Rings — and and the equally eagerly awaited fantasy film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — is no laughing matter. Cinema chains and bookstores with lifelike floor displays of the stars of these two movies are on high alert, watching for any suspicious characters who might be plotting the next Harry or Hobbit heist.

With only two weeks to go before Harry Potter flies off the printed page and onto the silver screen (it arrives in North American cinemas Nov. 16) — and a month and a half before Frodo lives in celluloid (Dec. 19) — it seems everybody wants a piece of the prepubescent conjuror named Harry or the bumbling little Hobbit with a warrior’s heart and a taste for honey cakes.

“People are just crazy about both these books, these characters,” says Schreiber. “With the films on their way, the demand for anything [to do with] Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings is unprecedented. We have to watch our displays like hawks.”

For two years now, Warner Bros. (Harry’s film company) and New Line Cinema (the Lord’s) have been scripting, shooting and strategizing the release of the two movies, touted as the most ambitious fantasy franchises in cinema history, costing an estimated $230-million (U.S.) to make, and with potential merchandising/promotional spinoffs that could exceed $3-billion the first year. (That’s roughly the gross domestic product of, say, the Bahamas.)

And these are only the early days of the branding blitz. Author J. K. Rowling has promised seven books before she’s done telling the tale of the mop-top, goggle-eyed Harry (which could mean seven films coming to theatres near you in the next decade). And New Line’s already shot the next two Lord of the Rings flicks that make up J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy (to be delivered in 2002 and 2003).

The studios are just now ramping up for the first instalments of the biggest fantasy double bill ever, but already the list of merchandise is staggering: Kindly wizards, gimlet-eyed goblins, terrible trolls, unicorns, hobbits, elves, dwarves and orcs are virtully everywhere — and on every product.

There’s a $1,800 loft bed (complete with turret). There’s Harry Potter toothpaste, glow-in-the-dark Harry Potter Band-Aids, Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans (including horseradish and grass flavour) and a Harry Potter Fluffy Security System (the fluffy component? No clue). And Oprah — the daytime harbinger of all things trendy — recently did a little item on the latest Harry Potter eyeglasses, that come in four styles and six colours, and retail for $89 to $119.

Lord of the Rings paraphernalia is skewed to a slightly older crowd but is just as all-encompassing. There’s a sound bank (hear haunting screams, hisses and wails of the Ringwraiths as you drop a coin), busts of Frodo Baggins or Gandalf the Grey for your mantle, cast-metal helmets, CD sets, VCRs, pewterware and chess sets. The lists go on. And on.

But whether you opt to wear a “Gandalf for President” T-shirt, Bilbo Baggins boxer shorts or Hedwig Owl hat, manufacturers and retailers alike are anticipating that these two franchises will spawn the children’s branding sensations of the decade.

Between the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, more than 235-million copies of books have been sold in close to 50 languages, from Swahili to Urdu. Lloyd Kelly, vice-president of sales with HarperCollins Canada, says his company has sold over one million Lord of the Rings books in Canada since June. He figures booksellers here purchased enough Rings stock for one in every 20 Canadian to be reading Tolkien at any given time. “We’ve had movie tie-ins before, with films like Titanic,”says Kelly. “But this is bigger. One year ago, we assembled a Tolkien task force and started having regular meetings about once a month. The frequency increased over the summer to once a week, then to once a day. We’ve never had so many meetings about one particular series of books.”

Kelly adds: “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Worldwide, HarperCollins has seen sales of the books soar by 400 per cent this year.

“Bookstores have been inundated with requests from customers to take the displays home,” adds Kelly. “We had these giant cardboard stand-ups of Gandalf the Gray that are six feet tall, and people are begging to take him home.”

Christopher Columbus’s Harry Potter (he directed Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire)and New Zealander Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are vying for what’s expected to be the biggest box-office gross in history. They hope to squash Titanic and build a brand franchise with the force of George Lucas’s Star Wars series (launched in 1977), which is, according to reports, a product worth well over $8-billion.

The stakes are high. Harry Potter — which stars British-born unknown Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, John Cleese, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and Alan Rickman — is estimated to have cost north of $125-million. It’s been dubbed into 24 languages, with another 16 countries getting subtitled versions. The Lords trilogy, shot in New Zealand and starring Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler, Sir Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett, cost about $300-million and has a similar blanket global release.

In the past 18 months, both Rowling and Tolkien’s son, Christopher, have made noises indicating they wanted to restrict the amount of merchandise hitting retail shelves. If so, no one has listened. Corporate sponsors have opened their wallets and lined up. Coca-Cola is reportedly spending $150-million on marketing related to the film, roughly the same amount the company is thought to have paid to sponsor the Sydney Olympic Games. (At Rowlings’s insistence, though, the beverage maker can’t use Harry’s face on its bottles and no pop cans will appear in the film on the lunch tables of Hogwarts School of Wizardry).

Time magazine has reported that Warner Bros., just on the strength of an extended trailer, was hawking the TV rights to Harry Potter for an estimated $75-million. (The previous record was $35-million for Titanic). One U.S. network approached by Warner Bros. told Time “it’s obscene.”

Even school uniforms, once on their way out, are making a popular comeback.

General Mills has teamed up with the Lord of the Rings camp (for an as-yet undisclosed sum) and is delivering sweepstakes-hosting kits to high-school and college-cafeteria operators across the U.S. who order qualifying General Mills products. As you read this, Burger King is monitoring a ship, now crossing the Pacific, loaded with millions of plastic Lord of the Rings interactive toys and goblets that will be sold with kids’ meals at its chains.

Closer to home, Alliance Atlantis, HarperCollins and Air Canada have turned Casa Loma in Toronto into a surreal replica of Tolkien’s mythical Middle Earth, displaying artifacts, costumes and props from the movie. These same corporate partners — as well as others such as Chapters, Volkswagen and AOL — are this week launching an on-line Trivia Quest game whereby lucky Frodo fans can win a Beetle stuffed with Tolkien books or a trip for two to New Zealand.

Despite all the buzz surrounding the pictures, however, media/entertainment pundits still say it’s by no means a slamdunk that all this merchandise will fly off the shelves. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the Afghanistan war have cast a pall over the economy and the world mindset. Marketers from both film camps are loath to predict that merchandising tie-ins linked to the two films will be runaway hits.

Despite that uncharacteristically cautious tone from Hollywood, the early signs are that these popular books and the movies to come are exactly the kind of escapist, good-thwarts-evil kind of fare that global consumers are ravenous for.

Web sites for both movies have been inundated with hits from surfers in more than 150 countries seeking access to trailers for the flicks. In England — where Harry Potter was shot and where the world premiere will be held tomorrow at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square — thousands recently queued at theatres to book advance tickets to the film. (The UCI Cinema chain sold 10,000 in the first hour.)

England’s expecting a boom in tourism. Hoping to revive an industry plagued by foot-and-mouth disease and the Afghan war, the British Tourist Authority plans to publish a Potter Around Britain map. And New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings cast and crew have been stationed since late 1999, is seeing multimillion-dollar road signs pointing its way. The Evening Post in Wellington last week reported Prime Minister Helen Clark designated a cabinet minister “Lord and Minister of the Rings.” Some Auckland travel operators and Tolkien fans recently formed a company, Red Carpet Tours, to cater solely to Rings junkies.

Allan MacDougall, president of Raincoast Books, Harry Potter’s Vancouver-based Canadian publisher, says in his three decades in the book business he’s never seen anything close to the insatiable demand for all-things Harry. “Just everyone I talk to wants to see the film,” says MacDougall, who was rushing out the door Wednesday to catch a plane to London to join the crowd going to Sunday’s gala showing.

“It’s a classic tale of good triumphing over evil,” says MacDougall. “It’s Harry against the odds. People have embraced these books from Day One without the hype. It was all word of mouth. And I think the same phenomenon could happen with the films.”

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is darker than Harry Potter. It’s a labyrinthine fable about a band of happy-go-lucky Hobbits who live in a long-ago mythical Middle Earth, forced to conquer evil or lose their way of life. Some movie executives, critics and fans have wondered whether Tolkien’s fantasy, which inspired the dreams of more than 100-million readers, can soothe the nightmares of a nation still traumatized by the shadows of terrorism. Bill Gray, national merchandising and promotions manager at Burger King, is confident it can.

“These books are absolutely uplifting and revelational,” says Gray, who read them in the early 1970s, again in the early 1990s, and plans to dust them off for a third go-round. “I think the two films have slightly different target groups. Harry Potter is much younger, a narrower target group whereas Lord of the Rings is for anyone aged 6 to 106.”

In fact, Gray’s corporate office is so sure of Tolkien’s marketability and longevity that it signed a three-year deal with six promotional tie-ins linked to the two sequels and the three video releases.

Despite all the hype and hooplah preceding it, Harry Potter arrives with no Happy Meal. Yes, a Time magazine cover is on the way (he’s already been the face of a so-called collector’s issue of Vanity Fair) and a barrage of TV commercials is coming. But Warner — at Rowling’s say-so — cut no deals with fast-food chains or potato-chip makers.

Unfathomable as it may seem given the weight of Pottermania, Business Week says the studio signed only one-third as many merchandise and sponsorship deals for Potter as other recent blockbuster wannabees, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

With the countdown for Harry only two weeks away, parents everywhere are bracing themselves against an avalanche of product aimed at their kids. It’s anyone’s guess whether Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings merchandise will be the magic antidote to cure the ills of the licensing industry, which soured last year with slumping sales of the once-hot Pokemon and Star Wars merchandise.

USA Today, which prides itself on having its finger on the pulse of America’s Everyman, issued a call this week to its readers: “Are you mad about Harry? Are you rah-rah for Rings?”

Talk about a multibillion-dollar question.