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Write-up

Consolidation Crushes Licensing Expo 2019

Contact the editor at karina@plainlanguagemedia.com

This year’s major take-away: Despite major shifts in how players are presenting on the floor, Licensing Expo Las Vegas remains the show to see and to be seen.

The major trend in 2019 was consolidation. That is to say, company consolidation. Just as soon as the dust got settled from blockbuster unions like Endeavor (WME-IMG), Activision Blizzard, and Universal/DreamWorks, everyone else began enacting major structural changes.

WarnerMedia was the prototypical example of consolidation on the floor. Warner Bros., Cartoon Network, and HBO crowded into one booth, while Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV, and Paramount packed into another. Rooster Teeth and Crunchyroll shared the same space, united by new parentco Ellation (part of Otter Media, a WarnerMedia company). The conglomerate began integrating licensing functions between its newly-related business units after AT&T acquired Time Warner last year.

Even where a company’s booth didn’t show dramatic cosmetic changes, change was afoot. For example, Endemol Shine re-aligned its commercial activities to bring all global brand licensing activities under one umbrella; while local teams retain their autonomy, their innovative ideas can move around the world more freely. Activision Blizzard is also formally integrating its licensing teams around the world, building out more expansive, territory-wide programs in addition to its regular localized, regional efforts.

That didn’t mean there were less brands on the floor—quite the opposite. When it comes to the breadth and depth of IP, diversification is the name of the game. Studios big and small broke open their vaults this year and were pushing their entire library of properties, retelling classic stories for a new generation. By doing so, they hope to appeal to conservative-minded retailers looking for a sure bet.

But they’re also eager to serve consumers hungry for something new by mixing in some original IP, albeit with smaller, focused programs. The hope, of course, is that one of those bets will generate big returns. The undertanding, however, is that this is becoming much harder to accomplish. Smaller product launch windows, reduced space on retail shelves, and the growing popularity of esports and influencers make for a crowded marketplace.

But companies can’t afford to not diversify. Case in point, the presence of Hasbro and Mattel on the Expo floor and in the media business.

Most licensing executives were excited about consolidation hitting their office, citing an increased intra-company awareness of and focus on licensing as a unique revenue-driving and marketing tool. And, of course, smaller booths (double the brands didn’t mean double the space) translated into smaller costs.

The bigger story, however, may be who wasn’t mixing with the unwashed masses. As usual, Disney kept its business off the show floor, with newest acquisition Fox joining Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar in a smattering of hotel ballrooms. “An entire floor,” one licensee gasped in awe. “They’re never coming back.”

And some familar faces decided to follow the leader. Recent up-and-comers National Geographic and Buzzfeed declined to renew on their flashy booths this year. After experimenting with a small booth on the floor last year, Amazon stayed off the exhibitor list this year. Meanwhile, Netflix took the hint and stayed clear.

The exception to the consolidation rule? Brands hailing from China, Japan, and South Korea. Excitement was high for social media-based brands which have leveraged their sticker-based characters into lifestyle brands like Line (now getting a series from Nelvana) and Kakao. And while many smaller players new to the Americas could be tracked down to the larger, country-specific pavilions, there were also break-outs who owned their own stand-alone booths, such as Pinkfong’s Baby Shark.

Whether that excitement for Asian properties was well-founded, or well-understood, remains to be seen. While Baby Shark is the breakout surprise exception, preschool brands generally have failed to take off in a meaningful way. Much of the commercial successes are concentrated in properties for older kids and adults—such as anime properties like Viz’s One Punch Man, big-budget franchises like Toho’s Godzilla, or musical acts like Big Hit’s BTS (licensee Line held the monopoly on the boy band in America with its BT21 line).

After many years, the tides have shifted in the perception of esports as a legitimately significant phenomenon attracting the eyeballs and wallets of a new breed of sports fan. Last year, the esports panel attracted just under two dozen attendees; this year, Blizzard’s head of esports licensing spoke to over sixty professionals.

Another hot attraction was the brand-new cannabis pavilion organized by PRØHBTD, which collected a variety of emerging lifestyle properties in the beautification and wellness spaces. In the words of its CEO, the ultimate goal is to “take cannabis from the black market to the supermarket.”

Many attendees showed up for just one day—Tuesday or Wednesday—and it showed. Foot traffic was down considerably in the last two days of the show. The general consensus when it came to appointments was that the familiar phrase: “the number was down, but the quality was up.”

At our own booth, we noticed many more visitors absolutely new to the business “hoping to learn what licensing is,” in the words of one hopeful. Most new faces balked at the Catch-22 nature of the business, but weren’t prepared to put in the work to make it happen—after all, we’ve seen plenty of first-time exhibitors over the years who’ve persevered. One example is Zoonicorns, which first came to Expo two years ago with a dream, a stuffed toy, and a YouTube channel. Today, the property is getting syndication and licensed extensions.

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