From Universal Monsters to M3GAN: Paul Bufton on the year-round appeal of Universal’s horror portfolio

Paul Bufton – VP EMEA at Universal Products & Experiences – reveals what gives a scary movie brand potential.

Paul, it’s always lovely to catch up! We’re here to talk horror – and NBCUniversal has an enviable portfolio of brands in this area.
Yes! Universal is the original home of horror, if you think back to the classic Universal Monsters characters – Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon… That carries all the way through to more contemporary brands like M3GAN and the recent Chucky TV series.

Have these brands been the focus of your licensing efforts in recent years?
Yes. We’ve always got lots of exciting things on for the Universal Monsters. M3GAN has been huge on TikTok and is doing phenomenally well for us. Chucky is doing well too; it has that nostalgia pull with audiences familiar with the original movies, but the show is bringing him to new audiences too.

Paul Bufton, Universal Products & Experiences, M3GAN, Experiences, Fashion, Film & TV

On M3GAN, it felt from the very first trailer that it was destined to become a cult hit. Why do you think it has resonated in such a strong way? And was licensing always in its future?
Nothing’s ever a sure thing, but M3GAN is so original and feels very contemporary, so we were excited that it resonated with audiences – but you can never take these things for granted.

“M3GAN feels unlike any other character out there – she had a unique appeal from the get-go.”

If I was to put my finger on why it’s blown up, I think the TikTok dance trend has a lot to do with it. Also, M3GAN feels unlike any other character out there, so she had a unique appeal that was proprietary from the get-go. She’s a bit like Chucky in that regard. But when the film came out, it felt like a cultural moment. Then we saw lots of people were searching online for M3GAN products, and that’s when we started to expand the licensing programme!

Going back to the Universal Monsters. Why do these characters still resonate when it comes to consumer products?
With these classic characters, there’s a familiarity. They’re so recognisable and synonymous with Universal as a studio. Nostalgia also plays a big part, but we’re really stretching that here if you think about how far back these movies actually came out. It comes down to how we can make these characters work in certain categories, and while costumes and fashion was the first foray into consumer products for this brand, we’ve expanded into beauty, home, collectibles, publishing and much more.

We’re lucky because we have some really talented in-house creatives and designers that love these characters too. They apply their talents to both current and future trends and it’s been incredible to see it come to life.

Paul Bufton, Universal Products & Experiences, M3GAN, Experiences, Fashion, Film & TV

They’re almost literally icons; they’ll be consumers that don’t know the films but will recognise the lightning bolt streak in the hair of Bride of Frankenstein, or Boris Karloff’s version of Frankenstein.
Absolutely. And they’re all representative of fundamental human conditions – the misfit, the outsider, the misunderstood. That plays into it and why they’re so easily accessible.

Fast-forwarding to the modern day, Universal has produced plenty of well-received horror movies, but not all of them get the licensing treatment. What dictates when and why one of your new horror films makes the leap to become ‘a brand’?
Oh gosh – that’s a really good question! Firstly, it has to have built an audience and a track record. Look at films from Blumhouse or Monkeypaw; they’ve built a remarkable reputation for quality, thought-provoking horror. That’s important. These movies also have a distinct look and feel. It means there’s an audience expectation – a positive one – and that’s useful when it comes to licensing and making sure we have the appropriate categories at the retail offerings.

Paul Bufton, Universal Products & Experiences, M3GAN, Experiences, Fashion, Film & TV

Part of the challenge for us is how we respond to a hit. We, as a consumer products business, need to consider timelines around going from concept to market. Certain categories are faster than others, like fashion. There’s capacity in the UK to turn around apparel for surprise hits really quickly – and that’s with major retail partners.

Beyond fashion, categories like homewares have significantly longer lead-times. That’s when it becomes about working with properties that have a track-record and an audience excitement around them. It’s a bit of an inexact science!

With that in mind, is it the case that licensees can come to you with ideas around brands that perhaps aren’t one of the ‘pillars’, but have that following and fan-connection?
We’re always happy to have a conversation. It’s also where our approach to horror has really started to crystalise. We look at ‘Horror’ as a broad collection of different IPs, filmmakers and content. And within that, we have IP that come and go based on seasonality, market trends, fan interest, etc. It’s also great to have a variety of partners and retailers who have different interests and might want to create something bespoke or see potential in an IP.

“If someone comes to us with a brilliant idea, we’ll listen…”

At the end of the day, we love making cool product that gets fans excited. If someone comes to us with a brilliant idea, we’ll listen… And some of the crazier ideas that have come our way have gone on to be wildly successful.

On that, could you give us some examples of product that highlights how creative your licensees can be with your horror IPs?
A lot of it falls with the fashion category actually. We did a Universal Monsters programme with Prada a few years back. It was stunning and had a bit of a trickle-down effect for the brand in terms of licensing activity.

Paul Bufton, Universal Products & Experiences, M3GAN, Experiences, Fashion, Film & TV

We’ve since had some fabulous design-driven collections with H&M and ASOS. It speaks to a broad audience that might be hardcore horror fans, or more casual fans that love the characters or the colourways they represent.

Away from product, let’s talk about licensed experiences. Your Halloween Horror Nights at the Universal theme parks have a great reputation.
They run from September to early November now because demand has gone through the roof. It’s a celebration of horror and it’s really experiential… Maybe I haven’t got the right disposition for it but I found it utterly terrifying at times! There’s merch, experiences, costumed characters… But the real draw is the houses. You walk around these things and have the living daylights scared out of you! They’re brilliantly done.

Paul Bufton, Universal Products & Experiences, M3GAN, Experiences, Fashion, Film & TV

Do you think we’ll see more these sorts of things – be they horror-themed mazes or immersive retail experiences – popping up here in the UK?
Never say never. The first port of call for us here is definitely the retail experiences. We want to dial up horror as a key genre at retail. And horror isn’t just for Halloween – these movies get released all year round now. That’s part of the retail opportunity. We’ve just showcased some fun experience-led retail concepts at BLE and that went down really well.

Paul Bufton, Universal Products & Experiences, M3GAN, Experiences, Fashion, Film & TV

It looked fantastic – and was usually swamped by people taking photos.
Well, it’s also one of the interesting creative challenges for us; that evolution from Instagram to TikTok. Insta is still perceived as a static photo opp, but for TikTok it has to work as a short video piece.

You mentioned earlier that horror isn’t just for Halloween. Is that reflected by your licensees? Are they excited about launching product for these brands throughout the year, as opposed to just in the build-up to Halloween?
Yes, and it’s down to us having conversations up front with them about what’s coming up on the release slate. We can also give them current data and insights about our brands. We need to give them enough information to feel confident about backing these brands at different points across the year.

Looking ahead, what new film launches will we see having a licensing push – or licensing potential?
There’s a lot to come for The Exorcist: Believer, and more around movies from Blumhouse and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw. We also think there’s real board game potential with Blumhouse’s Five Nights at Freddy’s, which hits cinemas and Peacock later this month.

Paul Bufton, Universal Products & Experiences, M3GAN, Experiences, Fashion, Film & TV

There’s also lots more to do in tabletop gaming. And broadly speaking, there’s more to be done with horror brands and video games – we see huge potential with our horror brands in that space for sure.

Paul, this has been great. I have one final question! What’s your favourite scary movie?
It’s a tough one because it’s such a broad genre… One man’s thriller is another man’s horror! I’d have to say Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s always resonated, and I love that you can visit the original lake on the studio tour.

Good pick! Let’s tie-in again soon Paul.

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