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Scares in the spotlight… Industry figures give us their picks for untapped horror brands that boast serious licensing clout – and discuss if horror is now a year-round proposition.
Tim Collins, MD, The Brand Director
In short, like a lot of pop or fan culture brands, horror is definitely a year-round interest for fans which makes it more appealing for merchandise manufacturers – and retailers – as a result. My untapped brand is – of course – Hammer Films, the iconic British home of horror. It’s very much a brand in that its style of filmmaking and casting was a known quantity for film goers from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Hammer is still with us and there have been more recent movies of course… The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe in 2012 and this year sees Dr Jekyll with Eddie Izzard released for – you guessed it – Halloween. Classic Hammer films include Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Quatermass Xperiment, where actors such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt and Oliver Reed all found fame.
Rob Ames, Co-Founder, Triclops Studio
With falling autumn leaves comes spooky season – my favourite season. Out with back-to-school stationary and in with the blood-soaked Halloween merch!
As a lifelong horror movie fan – hooked after watching A Nightmare on Elm Street on VHS when I was way too young – 2023 has been a pretty decent year so far… From indie chiller Talk to Me to the killer robot doll M3GAN, French meta zombie comedy Final Cut to the time-traveling horror/sci-fi mash-up Totally Killer. Iconic horror franchises have also seen new blood, fresh innovation and social relevance injected into their stories. Look at Saw X, Scream 6, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (a modern take on Frankenstein), Evil Dead Rise, The Exorcist: Believer…
Now, I’m not really into the warped, gory, body horror stuff. For me, I’m drawn to those ‘killer’ character archetypes that command the screen, rack up the body count and make you think about your own fears, grief and death. I grew up on some of the all-time greats: Freddy Kreuger, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lector, Leatherface, Pinhead, Jason Voorhees, Chucky, Jigsaw and Ghostface to mention a few. Before these freakshows, I was schooling myself on more ‘horror lite’ movies as a kid: It, The Lost Boys, Arachnophobia, Gremlins, The People Under the Stairs, Beetlejuice, Tremors and even Robocop and Candyman – very much adult films that somehow wormed their way onto my telly! I guess it’s like today’s Stranger Things or Disney’s new – mildly frightening – Haunted Mansion movie.
One such film and IP that really appealed to me as a kid – and feels relatively untapped licensing-wise – is 1987’s The Monster Squad. It’s a ‘Goonies meets Universal Monsters’ mishmash where a young group of monster fanatics attempt to save their hometown from Count Dracula and his evil horde. It’s now a cult, if forgotten, classic, bombing when it launched at the cinema. It’s a great movie, a mix of scary and funny, and at the time I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a kick-ass toy line and other merch to support it.
I think, some years later, Playmates tried to encapsulate its vibe when they launched Monster Force in 1997. Again, it didn’t do so well but given ‘kid horror’ is now a streaming staple as well as a steady, upward-trending genre at the box office, a new take on The Monster Squad could be cool, timely and drive the resurrection of retro movie merch and new opportunities.
If it was me at the helm, I’d switch out the now-dated monsters from the film and replace them with more commentary, made-up, internet-worth, Creepypasta characters. Hit me up Hollywood!
Stephanie Griggs, Founder & Creative Director, Studio Griggs
I have to say that I am fairly easily scared, so I’m not a hardcore horror fan – but what instantly came to mind for me on this one is David Lynch’s cult classic, Twin Peaks. Some would say it’s in the genre of psychological thriller – but undoubtedly horror is one of the main tropes of the series, along with surrealist drama, dark humour and incredible cinematography. Killer Bob is one of the greatest villains of all time, and his M.O is terrifying.
I do think Twin Peaks has licensing legs all year round, and over the years the brand has successfully expanded into merchandise and publishing, particularly to coincide with the show’s return in 2017. Merch that came out at this point mostly leant into the nostalgia of the Twin Peaks opening sequence and tropes of characters like Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne. It covered categories including health and beauty, skateboards, apparel, cosplay and gifting.
What seems to be relatively untapped though – especially for Halloween – would be the unleashing of the unnerving, creepy and downright psychologically twisted aspects of the series into merchandise… Maybe a focus on 90s nostalgia, in combination with the Black Lodge – the alternate plane of reality, accessible through the woods of Twin Peaks and filled with malevolent spirits. I can see slogans like ‘No-one is innocent in a town like Twin Peaks…’ or the cryptic ‘Fire walk with me’ on product, implying the pervasive sense of darkness and foreboding that hangs over the narrative and makes it so memorable.
Separately, the soundtrack is one of my all-time favourites for evoking an atmospheric mood. Transcending horror, it’s both soothing and deeply unsettling, creating a sense of unease and suspense. It would certainly make fans stop in their tracks whenever they heard it – and would be the perfect marketing audio, inside or outside of the Halloween period!
Twin Peaks helped pave the way for shows like Stranger Things, which has of course had major success in all year-round licensing. By focusing on mood over meaning and the journey over the destination, this genre has strong appeal – and the appetite from cult fans is surely there.
Thinking about it, I might use Twin Peaks as my Halloween theme this year. I’ll blast the soundtrack, invest in an excellent wig and perfect my manic Killer Bob face as I open the door to unsuspecting trick or treaters…
Sophie Bloomfield, Creative Director, SBC
The horror category is relatively untapped currently and there are so many great opportunities to be had! A big part of SBC is looking for great commercial trends and the correlating IP to match them. With the spread of Emo/Goth/Grunge and 2000s trends, it’s the perfect time to mine dormant or nostalgic brands.
Twilight – although not classically gruesome horror! – is perfect for licensing at the moment. It’s trending well on TikTok and the aesthetic fits all the horror/grunge trends.
Another great property to tap would be Emily the Strange. She originally appeared on the scene in the form of a comic book created by Rob Reger. This IP is already remerging into the US market via Dolls Kill, but this would be a great brand for Europe too, especially in the fashion specialist retailers.
My last choice would be the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by Archie comics. I was lucky enough to work on this IP when I headed up Creative Services at WildBrain CPLG. Archie comics in general has a wealth of untapped IP and incredible artwork. Pretty much everything you see in their classic comic books is there to be mined. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch comic is much darker then the classic 90s TV version, which means it’s more in line with the trends we’re seeing now. Plus, the popularity of the Netflix live action version – and she has a cat, and cats always sell well! – means it’s a great IP for all year-round spooky times.
Deirdre Cross, General Manager of Emerging Brands, Funko Games & Mondo, Funko
At Prospero Hall, we’ve long been fans of horror films – and spooky licenses in general. In recent years, we’ve worked with the incredible Funko licensing team to secure several untapped licenses. In 2020, we released our Disney Haunted Mansion: Call of the Spirits game which is designed for families to play. We have been pleased to see that this property is a 365 opportunity for consumers to purchase and play, not just during “spooky season”.
In May of this year, we released our new Scream Game. This product is complex from a licensing perspective, as it required us to obtain rights from both Paramount, for the film, to use the name and the story, and from Fun World for use of the “Ghost Face” mask. We believe we’re experiencing the benefit of a lot of pent-up demand due to this complexity at retail as fans are coming out for our game in a major way!
Carl Rush, Creative Director, Crush Creative
Halloween all year? Hell yeah!
I’m not particularly fond of making sweeping trend forecasts, unless we focus on the specific brand or property, taking into account various factors like industry and market trends, the target audience, and the brand’s core values. Ensuring that style consistently aligns with the brand is paramount, right? Well, yes, typically, but when it comes to Halloween, horror, and all things gothic, maybe this is one trend that universally fits all…
So, I decided to put this theory to the test with some of our Crush clients. Let’s give it a shot, shall we?
Honestly, I believe I could make gothism work for any brand, especially with the growing popularity of goth clothing across various fashion styles, from Techno Goths to Catwalk Goths and even Cowboy Goths. Shows like Wednesday, Stranger Things (with its Hellfire Club), and recent films like The Nun (for which we just finished some licensing assets) demonstrate that our appetite for all things gothic knows no bounds.
Brands like Killstar have partnered with numerous IPs, and even high fashion labels like Vampires Wife have collaborated with H&M. The consumer demand is there year-round, without a doubt.
Embrace your inner bat!
Charlie Day, President, The Sharpe Company
As a Brit-born licensing guy who’s lived and worked in California for decades, Halloween is one of those tentpole/anchor seasonal merch events – and horror has always been a massive part of the Halloween experience here.
For adults over many decades, a major part of Halloween fun has been going to The Rocky Horror Show, dressing up and participating in that event. The brand has huge pull for Americans – it’s a cultural force here and it’s so far been relatively untapped as a licensing opportunity.
Rocky Horror is an immersive event experience that is a convergence of Rock N Roll music, hugely memorable sing along songs, and cosplay – while at the same time having a really strong culturally appropriate message. When Rocky Horror launched 50 years ago, it was the first time a lot of people went to a theatre and felt they could express themselves freely – whether they were transgender, queer, straight or whatever… And they felt safe doing so.
Plus, it’s a generational thing that has rolled forward. We see as many college theatrical productions now as we did previously – literally hundreds – and the movie shows at hundreds of movie theatres every Halloween. It’s the longest running theatrical movie release ever. Those events – and the fact that the music is just so memorable – have kept the Rocky Horror Show embedded in public consciousness over the decades.
Now, the newest of platforms for social expression – TikTok – has been embraced by fans so they can express, share, and exhibit their Rocky Horror’ness with younger fans are using it to share their love of the brand. Last time I looked there were over 600 million views/searches for Rocky Horror on the platform – and the numbers are growing fast.
Rocky Horror has now caught the imagination of US licensees as it has so far been relatively untapped as a property. With its long history and devoted fandom, Rocky Horror sits comfortably as an evergreen property – and horror is hot here! So, although tongue-in-cheek, Rocky Horror Show’s horror credentials are also a key draw for licensees.
One major US retailer said to me at Licensing Expo: “Horror now is not just Halloween…. Horror is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for us.”
To tap into that convergence, I’m keen to see how the comic book series currently being developed by Dark Horse is going to take the story of Rocky Horror into the next realm and on to the next adventure. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the fans respond to it. It will expand the universe of Rocky Horror through what is ostensibly a traditional medium – books and storytelling – that will keep and build the Rocky Horror Story year long.
It’s a truly timeless time warp!
Chris Taday, Director, Licensing Link
Halloween has become increasingly significant in the UK seasonal calendar over the last decade. Retailers and brands focus primarily on products that have a scare-fest theme. Popular themes include bats, mummies, and Dracula, with blood, eyeballs and pumpkins often overlaid. The target age group determines the extent of the interest in Halloween and horror. Halloween is still considered a seasonal program for families and children in the UK, starting shortly after the ‘back-to-school’ period.
That said, one of the growing trends in the entertainment industry is the use of horror film franchises in year-round location-based entertainment. The SAW franchise has translated well into interactive experiences like escape rooms due to its intense and suspenseful nature. Other horror franchises like The Conjuring, Insidious and Squid Game have also been adapted into haunted house attractions and escape rooms that are now all-year-round activities instead of just seasonal ones.
The Conjuring is a well-known franchise in the US, with Warner Bros selling a comprehensive range of merchandise on its website compared to a much more limited range in the UK. The series of films created by James Wan includes not only the main Conjuring films, but also spin-offs like Annabelle and The Nun. These have garnered a large fan base and become a notable presence internationally.
The Conjuring franchise lends itself to consumer products such as figures, collectables, apparel, and games featuring creepy and iconic characters, such as the Warrens and other evil spirits. Foreign horror properties, especially those from Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, have recently gained significant popularity too.
It is essential to understand that the development of horror products depends on the target age group. It’s potentially challenging to market horror-themed items outside of the Halloween season for children and families. Parents are more cautious about purchasing these items. However, the interest in horror-themed items is increasing for adults visiting location-based entertainment, cosplay and other collectable merchandise.
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