By Lucy Cohen Blatter

To attend the annual Licensing International show at New York’s Jacob Javits Center, participants used to have to prepare themselves for cab drivers’ attitudes, costly labor unions and elbowing colleagues to navigate through crowded corridors. This year, everything carried on as usual — except for the crowd.

The sparsely trafficked corridors prompted one Canadian exhibitor to comment: “Where are the people?” The event organizers, who operate under a license from LIMA, the international licensing industry’s association, were visibly cutting corners and trying to find ways to generate more revenue, indirectly indicating some problems with the show.

In any case, content rights holders convening last week at the Javits Center were looking for ways to expand their brands beyond TV and film screens.

Unsurprisingly, the buzz around this year’s event was going green, with licensors and licensees flaunting more environment-friendly packaging than ever before.

Nowadays it’s not as easy as selling a license and being done with it. In today’s retailer-consolidated world, licensors must work closely with licensees and retailers to create packages that stand out from the crowd and make the big bucks (in 2006, manufacturers paid $6.04 billion in licensing royalties).

Cookie Jar Entertainment’s Sue Richter said it’s becoming more important to meet directly with retailers to “talk about marketing initiatives with them and introduce new products directly to them.” One of Cookie Jar’s most recent direct-to-retails involves CVS and Caillou diapers. But the company also toted boys property Magi-Nation, rockin’ show The Doodlebops and based-on-book series Hooray for Huckle!, among others.

According to NCircle Entertainment’s Debbie Ries, “Retailers are becoming much more savvy about the business. There’s so much competition, and they want to be at the top of the trends,” she said. “If you look back five or ten years ago, so many of the stores have gone out of business.” NCircle handles home entertainment for DIC Entertainment’s Horseland property and U.S. distribution of Granada’s Pocoyo property. Ries added that the licensing business is ripe for a new breakout hit — of Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer proportions.

Every content rights owner at the Licensing show was hoping to have just that. “We are here to meet with potential and actual licensees and potential and actual promotional partners,” said Starz’s Neil Braun. In particular, Starz was on the lookout for upcoming feature film Space Chimps for which Fox is handling the licensing.

Over at the FremantleMedia booth, David Luner (among others) was talking interactivity and licensing projects to complement his company’s slew of game shows (including The Price is Right, which has enjoyed publicity of late with the retirement of longtime host Bob Barker). “It’s amazing how fast things are moving in the interactive realm,” Luner said. “The lines between interactivity and consumer products have grayed, and there are real advances in console and DVD gaming,” he said. Luner sees potential in “online gaming (both free-to-play and pay-to-play) and game show interactivity in the mobile realm.” But, he insisted, “[the licensing business] is the caboose, the show is still the driver.”

Over at the Classic Media booth, the company was “celebrating its debut as a combined group under Entertainment Rights,” said Nicole Blake. After being acquired by Postman Pat proprietor Entertainment Rights, the company now comprises preschool/U.K. based Entertainment Rights, evergreen-focused Classic and religious-centric Big Idea (of Veggie Tales fame). “The energy is almost palpable,” Blake said. The newly combined company is preparing for various tent-pole events, including the theatrical release of Underdog, the TV series launch of George of the Jungle and the qubo programming block TV launch of Postman Pat.

At a DIC luncheon, Andy Heyward introduced a major property: boy-skewing Dino Squad, a series about kids who transform into dinosaurs. “This will lend itself to all vehicles,” said the company’s Lisa Streff. She specified that its highly intricate Internet community would be “core to the overall experience.”

One company that enjoyed a large presence at the Licensing Show was juggernaut Disney Consumer Products (DCP). Due to the success of its Disney Channel shows in the U.S., the company chose to focus on those licenses at the Show. The company projects $26 billion in retail sales for 2007. Next up, DCP will push its Fairies franchise, which it hopes to rival the immensely successful “Princess” line (expected to reach $4 billion in sales in 2007), and targets a slightly younger girl demo. For this reason, Disney’s Andy Mooney insisted that, “There’s no better time in history to be associated with the Walt Disney Company.”

It was hard to rival Disney’s presence at the show, but Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products (featuring the Comedy Central brand) certainly gave the company a run for its money. The three properties thrust into the spotlight were preschool photo puppetry series The Wonder Pets!; tween boy “mock”-umentary series The Naked Brothers Band, which revolves around real kids who are actually musicians (and has a very music-focused licensing campaign); and Neopets, which Nick’s Jonathan Finn describes as “a whole different story.” Acquired by Nickelodeon in 2005, Neopets is an online community that caught Nick’s attention because of its stickiness factor. While TV shows are often expanded into online worlds, in this case the opposite happened. Now Nick is planning to air short character-based interstitials on their network.

While all sorts of exhibitors — from corporate brands to major studios — were showing off all kinds of items, thanks in part to the big presences of Nick and Disney, the focus was, as usual, on toys and kids’ items. Of course this all makes sense, according to Starz’s Braun. “Since advertiser revenue for kids’ shows is more limited, especially in the U.S., companies that license kids’ TV content need to make up for it with DVDs and toy licensing,” he explained.

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