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Being first isnít always the wisest move ...

01/07/2002. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

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Itís a very weird effect watching marketing forces being applied to our Science Fiction genre. Is it possible to stand on the fence? Do we love or hate it? I mean, is it being employed to influence the die-hard SF fans who know enough to know what they like or dislike?

Hello everyone

Itís a very weird effect watching marketing forces being applied to our Science Fiction genre. Is it possible to stand on the fence? Do we love or hate it? I mean, is it being employed to influence the die-hard SF fans who know enough to know what they like or dislike?

Or is it being targeted at the general public who are enticed by the flavour of the month before they are swept along by the next craze? Whichever, we are now seen as a cash cow, prepared to buy anything connected to our interest that comes onto the market. Is commercialism likely to do serious damage to SF? Am I too late when it comes to asking that particular question?

Merchandising has always been around filmed SF although not in any great capacity for many years. Itís just a progression from the 60s when the only things that heralded a new film was a souvenir booklet and a vinyl soundtrack - assuming you could find the small stack at the back of the shop.

If we were very lucky, we might get an article with some photos in ĎPhotoplayí. If youíre a bit too young to remember, there was only one film mag in the UK once upon a time. To say we were starved of merchandise was a bit of an under-statement. With the amount of media mags around these days, weíre definitely spoilt for choice. When it comes to merchandise, the sky is the limit in its variety.

Fortunately, television merchandise was always a bit more widespread from the on-set. Annuals, novelisations, tie-ins and toys really did take off with the Anderson TV series in the UK and the realisation there was a lot of money to be made providing the source material was successful. Providing you could find it, the prices were within most of my generationís pocket.

Manufacturers edged their bets and didnít over-produce and probably accounts for the high price of anything that managed to hold onto its box. The toys got played with simply because no one gave a thought to their collectability. It might seem callous now but at least the toys were enjoyed and used for their original purpose. The only reason Iíve kept the boxes of some of the TV-based cars was the interesting packaging and seemed a good way to look after them.

Probably the big splurge happened with the first ĎStar Warsí film back in 1977 and then any SF film drew manufacturing companies eager to join the bandwagon. Anything that happened before that time was regarded as small time. ĎStar Warsí didnít just hit the SF market but brought in people who wouldnít have considered themselves that remotely interested in the subject. Science Fiction was loosing its oddball mentality to the public at large.

They were seeing things on the big screen that finally hooked their imagination big time. If they werenít caught with ĎStar Warsí then ĎAliení certainly caught the more Ďadultí movie-goer. ĎStar Trekí merchandise became a constitution (I could say Ďenterpriseí) for manufacturers. SF was getting the Ďcoolí status before the term existed.

Of course, any eager SF fan of anything that was turning up was apple-picking what they wanted. Whether this was figures, books, model-kits, etc, you could generally get what you wanted if you knew where to look. It brought a whole new line of revenue to the media specialist shops. It also meant that no one could collect everything at one go unless you were stinking rich. Collections were now based on personal taste with no one really being able to claim, outside of comic collecting, to have more than anyone else.

The odd thing was that it was the action figures that brought the most attention presumably because it was something more tangible to the source material. They could be used to re-enact the film and they could be moved. Something we die-hard SF fans could recognise but mostly grew out of when we moved up from adolescent and found books! Saying that, the most basic cash cow is with books based on TV and film series. They are obviously seen as fulfilling a marketing need but their non-canon status doesnít put them much higher than fan fiction which as one of my friends is prone to remind me also has a large following.

The one thing manufacturers learnt fast was that quality sold over quantity. The ĎMad In Hong Kong/Korea/whereverí unauthorised copies didnít have a chance against the authorised merchandise. If the price was kept reasonable then, outside of High Street shops, there was little return as well. Looking at some of these items appearing in their sales suggests that the manufacturers donít do sell or return much these days. Obviously, the manufacturers must also have had staff who know what itís like to buy such items or paid attention to their market research. It was no doubt helped by film and TV companies not prepared to just take the licensing money and run.

With so many SF films coming out on an annual basis now, the merchandise has to take turns on the shelves. If you miss particular items on their first appearance and havenít sold out, it can be a little tougher, although not impossible, hunting them down later. I often wonder if there isnít some warehouse merchandise mountain just waiting to be unleashed one day when they run out of space or have a quiet month. With the widespread use of the Internet, no one is restricted from hunting the world for the items they really want.

SF merchandise is also handled with a lot of, if not too much, respect these days. If you donít want to devalue a particular item, you never take it from its packaging especially if itís blister-packed. Those who really want to open them up invariably buy two copies.

Another scary moment unless the merchandisers are honest. A few years back, Marvel Comics issued their third Spider-Man comic series and had its first issue in a sealed bag. The Comic Price Guide immediately indicated that the value would drop if the bag was opened. From my perspective, as long as the cover was a black and silver/black and gold Spider-Man, the contents could be the ĎMuppet Babiesí and no one would ever be the wiser.

The price of not knowing for sure. The problem was also many fans didnít want to know as well considering they could also get an unsealed copy. Such marketing ploys didnít really do much service to the US comic industry where value was placed higher than enjoyment.

Maybe itís me not being the purist but itís also an indication that SF-orientated merchandise was moving away from what it was intended. Rather than being seen as being part of something big, a little merchandise to celebrate a good memory of, say, a film or TV series is reduced to a means to profit from at a future date. Not only left in its box but no doubt placed in a bigger box with all other items bought never to see the light of day in the hope of making a profit one day.

This has also been capitalised upon with limited editions that began the trend of elitist fans who just want to hold something they see as rare regardless of whether they will ever read or open the contents. If it was a limited edition so much the better. If we all do that and all have a mad purge of attic space one day then any potential high value will soon drop as too much and too many would be available. Thereís bound to be some sort of limit on fans with big wallets anyway.

To some extent, even that can be seen as excusable since it will ensure there is some, if not a lot, of SF media preservation maintained, even if the prices are never likely to be great with so many people doing it. That being the case, why not take out the item youíve bought and really enjoy it?

This also illustrates a somewhat different problem. As commented earlier, a couple decades ago, it wouldnít have been difficult for anyone to have a massive or even near complete SF collection. These days, it would be practically impossible because there wouldnít be enough time to enjoy everything, enough places to have it on show or a never ending bank account.

Collecting SF merchandise has to be selective to personal taste. With every fan there is always some desired item that will always be just out of reach either by its rarity or expense. Weíve all got a wants list of sorts, havenít we? Iíve noticed as I get older that the urgency to own isnít quite so intense. Yes, Iíd like to own some things but I can wait, especially if the price is extortionate. Whether itís a realisation of lack of space, futility to own everything or infinite patience, I donít know.

It doesnít make me any less of an SF fan just more selective as to what I want to add to my collection. Saying that, looking over what I do collect, it would be pretty obvious to anyone that I have a well-read SF book collection with amongst them several dozen books some people would give their eye-teeth for. Mind you, I didnít pay my eye-teeth for them either. I got the majority when they first came out at standard prices. Iíve just got an eye for what I like and often being in the right place at the right time.

The oddest thing though is lately because Iíve held back on buying particular merchandise when they first came out is seeing them reduced in price a few months later. Either the shops have over-stocked or just willing to get rid of their remaining stock at any price is hard to say. One thing for sure is Iím learning the game of patience and seeing it happen now rather than rush when things first come out if I think this will happen.

Buying SF merchandise isnít a race to be first. How can it be when the runners-up have the same items you own? The important thing is to own a good copy by paying a reasonable price. It shows a canny collector than one with a big wallet. A piece of merchandise with a story behind it always has good memories. It also indicates an item is bought because itís really wanted rather than as a status symbol. The Internet reduces the hunt for unusual items to a simple search than years looking through the media shops on the off-chance something will re-appear. Itís not quite the same thing any more but there are the odd challenges even through the Net.

Saying that, the one thing Iíve never seen re-appear is the ĎThe Champions Colouring Bookí - based on the 70s ITV TV series that actually had a coherent story running through its pages. Iíve kicked myself and learnt my lesson from not picking up a copy when I had the chance and learnt my lesson. If itís something you want and thereís money there then itís better to buy now than regret later. It also has to be tampered with ĎJust where do I put it when I have it?í but thatís a different subject.

In many respects, waiting for prices to drop in the sales could be seen as a worrying trend for fans and shops. Does it mean shops have over-stocked on videos or DVD?? It happens if they want to compete with other shops or mis-calculate sales. Will they cut back in their ordering? When thereís a massive promotion for a new film, itís always better to have too much than not enough. An unfortunate consequence is that if a fan sees so much, then selective or even delaying buying tends to take place.

An instant scare to shop-keepers and manufacturers that the turnover isnít as fast to pull their profits as they imagined. More so, if the more canny amongst us wait for the sales before buying anything. It will be perceived as a failure on the horizon. Anyone remember the effect when the original ĎDuneí film merchandise bombed simply because the film lacked mass appeal and although the models were interested lacked that certain appeal that would have everyone rushing out to buy it? A later consequence of which put these models up the price bracket but it made film companies more concerned in having a commercial hit if they were to sell licensing rights at a high price.

In many respects, this can also risk a new merchandise implosion. Maybe not perhaps with limited editions or smaller companies but it will affect the decisions from some of the bigger merchandise manufacturers. Whether this would mean a production cutback is debatable but they might look at how much theyíre paying for licensing. Considering how any film company calculates merchandise licensing into their film budgets can have a knock-on effect to how much money is invested in the films themselves. If they think the bubble is bursting on the SF market...!!!

A not unreasonable thought considering how SF film budgets are sky-rocketing. All it takes is a few failures and film companies will pull back or be selective in what they produce themselves. A cycle effect that would take some effort to break away from. Over-commercialism could re-ghetto Science Fiction. Whether thatís a good or bad thing is debatable and open to discussion.

Now this editorial isnít an incitement to go mad and buy SF merchandise. In fact, when I started this editorial I was more concerned about how the high costs of some merchandise is going and the effect on SF fans who simply canít afford it. There are still too many who perceive owning particular SF merchandise as a statement of status. In that regard, it is far better to be selective and buy merchandise you really want rather than adhere to any trend. Not settling for any old tack always sends out the right signals as well.

The problem is do we all wait for the sales or get what we like when it first comes out? Obviously, the generic fan who buys simply because the film is popular is always likely to over-rule the die-hard SF fans. Our numbers might be healthier than a few generations ago but generic buyers and children are larger in number and tend to be what keeps the bigger merchandisers healthy.

If they get the same realisation about waiting for the sales before buying it might change the approach to licensing. Manufacturers might become less eager to buy licensing rights that will discourage film companies to take risks than they do at present. Some of this trend can be spotted from the way that old TV series are being turned into multi-million budget films rather than risk going with fresh ideas. There is a need to remind film companies that grass roots Science Fiction is the genre of new not rehashed ideas.

Seeing SF fans as a cash cow is one thing but resources are not infinite. Making something so limited that few can buy it is one way to get people to stop buying altogether. It happened with the ĎStar Trekí figures a few years ago and the bubble is likely to burst on the trading card limited number of chase cards at sometime (a practice that is banned by law in the UK).

As long as merchandisers provide a suitable item and get a reasonable return without over-anticipating sales, then we can all be happy. If they have to depend on demographics then we SF fans become a commodity too easy to exploit then weíre all in trouble.

SF fans as a group tend to be a hard-headed bunch when it comes to being exploited. This no doubt goes back to our roots when Science Fiction was seen as a geek or oddball hobby rather than big business. These days, weíre exploited because we allow it. Woe the merchandiser who messes up our good will cos itís just as likely to spring back on all of them. We might have come of age but I doubt if limiting the stock of anything outside of commercial limits will fare wisely for long.

Am I alone in this opinion or do you think there needs to be some control over merchandise distribution? Send your email comments to our letters page. Me? Iím going to see if ĎThe Avengersí Steed and Emma models are worth purchasing providing I can make some space in my room.

Thank you and good night.

Geoff Willmetts


(Less Serious) Thought For The Month: There were plans to do a young Batman and Robin TV series after the success of the ĎClark And Loisí and ĎSmallvilleí TV series. It became a non-starter when the title, ĎBruce And Dickí, was mentioned.

PS: For those keeping track, Iím about 18 months behind with going through the ebook samples. Thank you for your patience but let me know if youíve sold or changed address so I can change my pile.

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