Business Musings: Licensing Everywhere (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Seven)
We’ve been deep in the licensing business for six weeks now (more if you follow me on Patreon), and it’s time to take a different perspective for the next two weeks or so. We’ll be diving deeper into licensing and the things we need to do for licensing—going back into the weeds, as it were, in the next couple of weeks, but licensing has been in the news in some peripheral ways, and I wanted to deal with them before (ahem) November.
So, let me touch on a couple of things, to help you get your mind around licensing and how it might work for your own products. Remember, in the “Story” post, how I compared all the various possibilities of licensing to a theme park? In particular, I mentioned The Wizarding World of Harry Potter as an example, which touched off some great comments on that post.
At the end of July, I was reading the rebooted Entertainment Weekly Monthly (I’m not kidding you: they’ve changed the magazine to monthly, but they’ve left the name. No confusion there. Nope. None), and in their Must List for the Month, they mentioned Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, which is, apparently Pokémon Go for Harry Potter fans. The fact that EW mentioned it was a bit confusing, since the game came out in June (not August) and is underwhelming profitwise—at least according to expectations.
The very idea of a Harry Potter Pokémon Go game works. The fact that it didn’t make $300 million upon release upset the folks behind the games, but makes sense in retrospect, considering the conversation I heard at the gym just yesterday: three women in their mid-to-late thirties were updating each other on a bet they had made. They were trying to see whose husband would watch the Harry Potter films first. One woman said her husband was going to watch this weekend, because she’d threatened to make him read the books. (I suspect, from the rest of the conversation, the “read the books” part meant read them nightly to the kids.) Then she pulled a Harry Potter gym bag out of her locker, and the women walked out to the snack bar.
Women who are that busy—husband, kids, jobs, gym, life—aren’t going to buy the latest greatest Harry Potter thing, even if those women were the kids in line at midnight at Barnes & Noble 20 years ago for the next book in the series.
Licensing is about spreading to various brands and various venues, yes, and the expectations of profit need to come from a reality base for the audience. But also, the expectations need to factor in the point of the license.
Well, the licensor needs to make a decision each time they license something. Why are they licensing to that brand, that manufacturer, creating that product?
In some cases, the licensor is doing it to raise revenue. In a few cases, the licensor is doing it for a specific purpose. In other cases, the licensor is doing it because they can. In even more cases, a feeding frenzy is going on with a hot property, and the licensor is just throwing things at the wall to see if they’ll stick.
But it’s not the new projects that interest me. New projects aren’t exactly easy to license—everything requires a series of conversations between licensor and licensee—but it’s logical to license new projects. Everyone’s excited, or at least, the licensor is.
The same with hot, hot, hot properties. In 2011, I was at lunch with a writer friend whose book had just become a TV show that aired on a major network. That week, his idiot agent was fielding dozens of calls from other Hollywood types, wanting to license something, anything, by my friend. I say idiot agent, because those of you who read my blog regularly know how this ended up: the idiot agent blew most of those deals by refusing to negotiate or by taking free options (!) or failing to return phone calls. Now, eight years later, that friend is suffering from a serious decline in income, which could have been avoided had he handled his own early negotiations and had he realized that the feeding frenzy wouldn’t last.
Hot, hot, hot properties get chased all the time. Just Google the licensing for Stranger Things (speaking of items in the news) and see what’s been licensed and what choices The Duffer Brothers (and Netflix) made to keep the show’s vision pure.
But back to the older properties. Dean and I find ourselves on casino floors weekly, as we go to meet visiting friends, see a movie, or try a new restaurant. And as we walk past the slots, I’ve noticed that a lot of slot machines feature old properties—as in really old. Like the old 1960s Twilight Zone. Or X-Files. Or The Flintstones—the cartoon version.
Someone thought that licensing old TV shows and movies to slots was a good idea, and, as Alex Rodriguez, the vice president of slots at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula told a local paper,
I think it’s connected to social gaming. That, coupled with easy access to live-streaming outlets like Netflix and Hulu, make pop-culture games popular.
Whatever, Dude. Or Holy Nostalgia, Batman. I’m not sure which, and I’m not sure it matters. Right now, licensing old pop culture properties to slot machines is a thing, and if you were a licensor with an old pop culture property, you might want to consider licensing there, to catch the wave.
I know CBS is. We passed the CBS booth several times at the Licensing Expo, and CBS had a free list of properties with licenses available to exploit that it was giving away.
There’s a great analysis about the ways to think about licensing in this ten-year-old article in The Guardian newspaper. In 2009, the Beatles decided to license rights to a music game. The Beatles: Rock Band was a music game that allowed players to compete at playing Beatles music.
The Guardian interviewed all four of the parties involved in the Beatles side of the license—Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Olivia Harrison, and Yoko Ono—and asked them why they would consider this. It took the licensee (Harmonix as part of MTV) a lot of work to convince McCartney and Ono, in particular, to do the licensing. But it happened.
Because the Beatles team finally saw the value in it. As McCartney said, “For us, let’s remember that the central thing is our music is getting played.”
Not just played, though. Paid attention to. Giles Martin, record producing son of the legendary Sir George Martin, worked on the remixes for the game. Giles Martin made the most salient point in the article, in my opinion. He said,
…what I do like about [the game] is that it makes us listen to the music again and again, in the way that we used to when we bought albums. As opposed to having 3,000 songs on your iPod which you flick through with obsessive button pressing. These days we do hear a lot of music, but we don’t actually listen to it very often.
I was actually thinking about that game at the end of June, when I was lucky enough to attend a Paul McCartney concert here in Las Vegas. I’ve gone to a number of concerts, some with older rockers, and the audience is usually within a 20-year range of the performer. Not so with McCartney, who filled the biggest arena in town two nights running on his 2019 stadium tour. A good half of the audience was under 40, and some were in their twenties.
They were in Beatles swag, most of them, and very involved, more so than some of the older members of the audience who could still remember the Beatles before they broke up.
Because (full disclosure) I’m a major Macca fan, I knew that a whole lot of younger listeners learned about the Beatles through music gaming. And that brought them to the stadium concerts.
For McCartney, for Ono, for Starr and Harrison, the point is to keep the music and the legacy alive. They actually curate everything Beatles.
Not all licensors curate. Not all care that much or have the time.
And sometimes, the success of licensed projects is a surprise. For example, no one expected a little 1988 movie that grossed $8 million on first release to turn into a licensing juggernaut, but it has.
John Waters calls his 1988 movie Hairspray the gift that keeps on giving. He told Entertainment Weekly in June,
They made it a big, brassy Hollywood musical [on Broadway in 2002, and in a 2007 screen remake], and it worked that way. And now they have it in every high school, not just in America but everywhere. And I think that’s amazing, because it’s still two men singing a love song to each other, and no one ever seems bothered… Because of political correctness they can’t cast by race or anything, so I’ve seen it with a skinny black girl playing Tracy [Turnblad].
Kids don’t care! That’s what’s so great. So eventually when they redo Hairspray on Broadway, it should be every sex and race playing the opposite and still have the same script, and it will be theater of the absurd, which is what I started with in the first place. [Laughs]
His property, his IP, and the vision will live on. And that’s what matters, right?
Well, maybe. Depending. Artists do want to control their work and often, they lose control or, to be more accurate, they sign it away. The Beatles did that in 1968 with their catalog and it took Paul McCartney 50 years to regain control of that catalog.
Taylor Swift made news this summer when she let fly with an angry Tumblr post after her former music label Big Machine got bought by someone she considers a nemesis. Swift does not control the master recordings of her first six albums, and in order to get those recordings, the only deal Big Machine offered her was to sign a new 10-year contract. That contract stipulated that for every album she recorded, she would get the master recordings of an older album back. She walked from that deal, and chose to move forward. But she’s still angry about the Big Machine sale.
She knew what was coming, though, since a big part of Big Machine’s net worth comes from its control of Swift’s catalog in a contract she signed when she was just 14 years old. Whoever bought Big Machine would get a lot of Taylor Swift. (I have no idea why, in those negotiations in 2018, no one recommended that she buy Big Machine.) To release her masters meant the company would lose a large part of its value before the big sale.
After Swift went public on Tumblr, Kelly Clarkson (who is no stranger to fraught relationships with the men in charge of a former music label) had a suggestion:
@taylorswift13 just a thought, U should go in & re-record all the songs that U don’t own the masters on exactly how U did them but put brand new art & some kind of incentive so fans will no longer buy the old versions. I’d buy all of the new versions just to prove a point ?????
— Kelly Clarkson (@kellyclarkson) July 13, 2019
Swift could do this. She would be creating new product. And she could license that new product. Maybe.
What would stop the licensing? Another clause in that contract she signed when she was 14. Maybe. If she signed a standard agreement. Because the standard recording agreements have what in publishing is called a non-compete clause. And if she signed that, then it might restrict her from licensing the new versions of the songs. Not from recording the new versions.
We don’t know what her contracts say, and the contracts are the important part for Swift. But what’s important for us is that this fight that’s playing out in the press (less and less these days, but it’s still there) is a fight about licensing and intellectual property. And in some ways, it’s a cautionary tale about contracts.
Since I’ve started this series, a lot of writers have told me they’re not going to worry about licensing their work. They’ll let their publisher do it.
Well, first of all, most traditional publishers don’t license 99% of the rights they control. And second, what happens if you leave the publisher and find yourself in a Swiftian situation? Then you’ll be fighting, like Paul McCartney did, for decades to control work you created.
Better that you hang onto the rights and be the one to decide if your book is suited to a slot machine or a version of Pokémon Go.
The point of this post, though, is to help you continue to see all the possibilities for licensing around you. Follow the entertainment news. See how much of that is about licensing. Or just keep an eye on the marketing for your favorite TV show.
For example, I’ve been exchanging texts with a friend over our mutual love for Stranger Things, and she sent me this link. Yes, you too can make a gigantic chocolate Demogorgon. While waiting for your Dustin Chia Pet to grow, and wearing your Strange Fur Things t-shirt. Yeah, someone thought of these things. Yeah, someone is making money on them. Yeah, someone (maybe me) is buying a few of them.
The possibilities are endless. You just have to figure out how to exploit them. And we’ll be getting back to systems for that next week.
In the meantime, start reading and watching what’s going on around you with an eye to licensing. It really is everywhere.
We are doing a lot of work on licensing and revamping our own business. Dean is chronicling it in a course we call Licensing Transition: A Year-Long Journey From IP To License, which you can join on Teachable.com.
We will also have a representative from the Global Licensing Group which puts on the licensing expos around the world at our Business Master Class in October.
I, of course, will continue to deal with licensing on this site and on my Patreon page. I’m more in-depth on Patreon, because I do smaller blogs along the way. I will occasionally pause to look at the news or to see if there’s something else I should be examining. Or to take a wider view as I did here.
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“Business Musings: Licensing Everywhere (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Seven),” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2019 by Dean Wesley Smith.