Godzilla: He's Big. He's Upset. He's Invisible

Merchandisers are antsy about the movie monster's marketing

It was the end of a long day of shooting on the north shore of Oahu. Matthew Broderick, star of the Sony Pictures Entertainment film Godzilla, stepped off a seaplane and headed into the brush in search of the giant lizard. But for Dean Devlin, the film's 35-year-old producer, one more task awaited. As shooting finished, he headed across the island to the lavish Ihi Lani resort to brief nervous Taco Bell executives on Godzilla's unusually secretive marketing plans. "All they needed was someone to hold their hand a little," says Devlin.

It's not the movie they're worried about. If Hollywood buzz is to be believed, Godzilla is going to be a monster hit this summer. But pardon the 80 partners and licensees who, like Taco Bell, have signed up to create movie tie-ins for getting a little antsy. Until the film opens on May 20, none of them will be able to use the image of the 22-story lizard to promote their products. No ads, no toys, not even plastic soft-drink cups can appear if they show Godzilla. Says W. DeWayne Booker, senior vice-president of marketing for Trendmasters Inc., a St. Louis-based toymaker with the rights to make more than 40 Godzilla-based toys: "No one was O.K. with this, at least not at first.

That's understandable, since the tactic is about as far from standard Hollywood marketing as a movie can get. Normally, moviemakers try to build excitement and merchandise sales for a film by trotting out its stars well in advance of opening day. Walt Disney Co. has made a science of the practice and has been rewarded with successes such as The Lion King's $100 million in toy sales.

So why keep the big guy under wraps? The mystery marketing is the brainchild of Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, the team that created the 1996 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. blockbuster Independence Day using a similar no-see-um tactic. The two have redesigned Godzilla, the star of more than 20 B-movies--and have mandated that no one outside the production team can spot him in his full glory till opening night. Devlin and Emmerich hope to create a mood similar to the opening weekend of Independence Day, when moviegoers flocked to get a look at the much-heralded bad guys. That success persuaded Sony to go along with the unorthodox approach for Godzilla. "With filmmakers of this quality, you'll take a chance," says Sony Chairman John Calley.

Still, it's a pretty big roll of the dice. Licensing experts estimate that as much as 30% of a movie's tie-in products are sold before a film's opening weekend via fast-food restaurants, toy stores, and the like. That makes hiding Godzilla from the public eye a 22-story headache for the retailers. Despite complaints from Toys `R' Us Inc., for example, stores won't be allowed to stock Godzilla toys until the night before the movie debuts. Bob Weinberg, the chain's senior vice-president and general merchandising manager, complains that stores could easily be selling Godzilla merchandise over the next several weeks. "We think it's all kind of silly," he says. "You don't have much of a Godzilla display without Godzilla.

BODY PARTS. But having struck this deal with the filmmakers, the movie's marketers and licensing partners are making the best of it. Taco Bell, which will spend $20 million to promote the film, made two separate TV commercials--one for April that shows only the lizard's giant foot smashing New York, and a later version with a full view of the rampaging beast. Eastman Kodak Co., which has a product appearing in the flick, had to let a Sony production crew film its commercial. And Trendmasters played up the secrecy by posting guards outside its display space at trade shows, issuing card keys to a select few retail buyers.

Sony, too, is looking to make a virtue of this necessity. Although theater trailers have been running since January, they have built curiosity by never showing more than the tail, foot, or eye of the beast. Sony has also coughed up roughly $20 million for a high-profile TV ad campaign--including an estimated $2 million for a spot on the upcoming finale of Seinfeld. And at 150 movie theaters, Sony will put up 10 1/2-foot-tall computerized displays recreating a stormy weather scene in the movie in which New York is trashed--with no monster in sight. Says Sony marketing chief Robert Levin: "We were forced to get creative.

For some, however, the extra effort wasn't worth it. Sony says Galoob Toys Inc., which makes toys for movies such as Star Wars, backed out of an opportunity to be Godzilla's toymaker. Galoob declined comment. And already, some Godzilla licensees are suffering for the silence. The line of Godzilla toys isn't creating nearly the same buzz with retailers as the Hasbro line based on Dreamworks SKG's Small Soldiers, says Martin Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter. That's a problem, since many sellers finalize their Christmas orders in spring and summer.

Moreover, while Trendmasters has a solid reputation--and it already has rights to make classic Godzilla toys--licensing heavyweights like Mattel and Hasbro didn't sign up. Burger King Corp. chose to stick with its summer movie tie-in, Small Soldiers, rather than add Godzilla. Altogether, Godzilla's marketers have signed tie-ins with 80 licensees. While certainly good, the numbers trail the partnership deals typically signed up by movies with more traditional marketing; The Flintstones, for example, signed more than 100 partners. And although overall merchandise sales are hard to estimate before a picture opens, industry experts predict that on toys alone, Godzilla will take in between $50 million and $75 million--well short of The Lion King's record.

Can secrecy help Godzilla beat those ho-hum predictions? Mystery has made stars out of other monsters. In addition to the evil aliens of Independence Day, the producers of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial generated interest by hiding the face of their alien star until opening night. And Godzilla may have a way to make up for lost face time, says John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which advises theaters on upcoming films. With the field to itself, it should enjoy a blockbuster opening weekend. "Everyone else is afraid of Godzilla and has moved their films to other weekends to stay clear of it," Krier says.

Walt Disney Co. studio chairman Joe Roth scheduled his summer action movie Armageddon for July, in part to stay out of Godzilla's way. "[Godzilla] has a chance to do $100 million the opening weekend," he says.

Sony is already planning to turn the giant lizard into a franchise, with more films down the road and an animated TV series. Of course, that assumes he's a hit when he finally shows his face.

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