An E.T. Xmas
Kiss off, Strawberry Shortcake. Take a hike, Barbie and Ken. This season the dolls and toys on the Christmas lists of the nation’s children are taking a form that is absolutely out of this world. When the 3’4″ creature named E.T waddled into a Southern California suburb, he brought with him several unearthly powers, not the least of which was to turn everything his glowing digit touched into gold.
The benign creature has inspired a feverish scramble—both licensed and illegal. The movie alone (which cost about $10.5 million to make) has raked in $300 million. But that’s only the beginning of the swag. E.T. may have gone home, but his craven image remains, with his bug-eyed stare now plastered on dolls ($7 to $20 apiece), T-shirts ($8 to $15), pajamas ($15), lunch boxes ($5.25), bed sheets (twin set: $21.97), records, books and you-name-its. The total gross, estimated from $1 billion to infinity, promises to make E.T. director Steven Spielberg to aliens what Disney was to rodents. So much for all those kids who thought the tooth fairy was the only fantasy figure to deliver hard cash.
With so much at stake, a bootleg E.T. industry has sprung up, and the little fellow’s legal guardians have taken swift action in the courts to halt the debasement of his image. The sanctimonious rhetoric about E.T.’s spirituality notwithstanding, his creators are even more concerned with his financial integrity. Spielberg and Company collect nothing from the scores of counterfeit E.T. items flooding the market. According to Arnold Bolka, who puts out the Licensing Letter, an industry publication, the counterfeiting of licensed properties amounts to “a billion-dollar rip-off.” In the case of E.T, it includes such frauds as 2.5 million dolls from Taiwan, jewelry and key chains from Chicago and San Francisco, ceramic molds from Oregon and Massachusetts, balloons from Philadelphia, pseudo Deely Bobbers from California and Maine, and pirated videotapes (rented for an average of $3 a day) of the film itself. There are also such ephemera as an unauthorized recording, I Had Sex With E.T.
MCA/ Universal has filed 25 lawsuits, has more than 260 cases under investigation, and has won a preliminary injunction against a company that sold a half-million phony E.T. dolls. Of particular concern are the illegal videotapes, which the filmmakers fear will cut into box office receipts as E.T. is distributed around the world. In Britain, where the film opened last week, as much as half the potential audience may have already seen it on bootlegged tapes.
Spearheading the attack on E.T. videotape piracy is Universal Vice-President Charles Morgan. For the first time, Morgan managed to convince British moviemakers to join in the crackdown. Meantime MCA lawyer Barry Reiss heads a task force of 25 attorneys across the U.S., backed by a small army of private investigators on call to track down E.T. bandits around the globe.
The legit E.T. bonanza was well underway long before the holiday rush began. More than 70 product categories have been approved by MCA/ Universal, with an estimated six to 15 percent royalty paid to the company for each spinoff sale. Never mind that even official E.T.s look a bit like critters who might have been 86’d from the Cantina Galactica in Star Wars.
William Kotzwinkle’s paperback novelization (Berkley, $2.95) has sold more than three million copies, and a hardback (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $6.95) titled E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook, a 16-week best-seller, one million. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. kept its force of seasonal workers on overtime to meet the demand for E.T. bubble gum cards (300 for a packet of 10 cards, one sticker and a piece of gum). A Hollywood novelty company sold 35,000 E.T. masks (at $55 a copy) for Halloween. The Hershey Chocolate Company was buried in back orders for Reese’s Pieces, the confection that appeared briefly in the movie as E.T.’s favorite earth food, until it opened a new factory. “We estimate conservatively that sales of Reese’s Pieces increased by 65 percent due to the movie publicity,” says Hershey publicist Deb Ryerson.
Universal Studios, E.T.’s distributor, has opened an “E.T. Earth Center” along the route of its lucrative studio tour in the San Fernando Valley. Done up in a forest motif, the store hawks E.T. souvenirs. There are also “picture spots,” where tourists can photograph one another against E.T. backgrounds, phones for chatting with E.T., and a video game arcade that looks like a spaceship control panel, with 50 Atari E.T. games. Far and away the hottest items in the E.T. line are the squishy dolls in plush, brown vinyl or nylon tricot. The licensed designer and producer, Pascal (P.K.) Kamar, of Torrance, Calif., practically went into hyperspace trying to gear up a production line that would produce close to 10 million dolls in time for Christmas. He has 60 plants working solely on E.T. in Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.
“Fortunately, because of economic conditions around the world, there were a lot of factories available,” says Kamar, 59. “But E.T. is not an easy item to produce. It’s handmade, and people have to be trained how to do it.” The doll, which is stuffed with fiber and pulverized walnut shells (for weight and because they are semidigestible if a child swallows some), has, according to the hyperbolic Kamar, “wiped out the stockpile of walnut shells in the Far East. And we have also cornered the vinyl market.”
Kamar’s wife, Astrid, the 48-year-old president of the firm, has had the E.T. delivery headaches. “I’ve already booked nearly eight million pounds of air freight,” she explains. “One customer, J. C. Penney, had four 747s full of E.T.s flown in. I think it’s the first time that many jumbo jets have been filled with only one product.”
E.T. may propel Kamar from a very distant second place (after San Francisco’s R. Dakin & Co.) in stuffed toy manufacturing to the No. 1 spot—though a Dakin spokesman believes its diversified line will keep it on top. How was Kamar’s family-run business selected? “They called us,” says P.K. “I understand that some people associated with the film took their kids to a toy store and told them to pick out their favorite toy.” The children chose Kamar’s Monkey-Do, a stuffed vinyl monkey doll with overlong arms like one version of the official E.T.
Whatever the outcome of the license wars, parents will be hard-pressed not to plunk down cash for at least one extraterrestrial gift from Santa. This season, the Force may be with E.T.