Disney’s Simon Philips on Star Wars, Marvel fandom and Donald Duck

You’ve been in the job one year now. How has the last 12 months been for you?

The change within licensing as a whole within the European region has been significant over the past year. What we’ve found is that many countries which had been experiencing growth challenges has seen that change, and have started to grow in positive ways which is fantastic.

We were very fortunate at Disney because many of our franchises bucked the trend that European retailers we experiencing. We saw new franchises like Violetta coming on extremely strong, capturing the hearts, minds and souls of the consumers. This enabled us to increase our shelf space and see an opportunity to grow in areas that were new for us.

2014 is a year brimming with big properties for Disney. What stands out for you?

As we go into 2014, we have some great releases. We have a brand new Muppets movie [Muppets Most Wanted], which I’m very excited about. I remember as a kid going to Borehamwood and Elstree where they used to film The Muppets and waiting outside with my dad to see them. They did a little show in front of the studios, it was great. So I have personal memories of that and I’m excited for this movie.

We have The Amazing Spider-Man 2 coming out which is going to be awesome. Looking around Nuremberg Toy Fair, the amount of product I saw around Spider-Man was just incredible. We have Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the next instalment from The Avengers franchise. Post-The Avengers we’ve already had Thor: The Dark World, which was incredible and had a very strong merchandise programme. Captain America continues that saga on.

Continuing with the Marvel universe, we have a brand new movie coming out with a brand new set of characters, well, new for the moviegoers, not for the comic fans, called Guardians of the Galaxy.

The way that Marvel has built this movie slate is incredible. It offers licensees continuity and retailers’ continuity in terms of incredible content. So supporting the Spider-Man, Captain America and Thor movie releases is a strong animation slate with The Ultimate Spider-Man, Avengers Assemble and Hulk and the Agents of SMASH on Disney XD everywhere, where is Disney XD is Disney Channel and on free-to-air as well. It’s great that all of this content is able to come together to enable us to develop a 365-day a year merchandise programmes.

Other things that are exciting me in 2014 are the Disney Junior franchises: Doc, Jake and Sophia. It’s incredible to have three shows that capture people’s imagination and the products are really awesome.

We also continue to build Violetta, which is new to the UK but has generated a massive amount of attention in France, Spain and Italy. We’re actually in the middle of a live action concert tour, which sold out in Italy, France and Spain. They sold out within the first hour of the tickets going on sale.

Giochi Preziosi and Simba have toy rights depending on the country. In the UK, it’s back to the days of High School Musical and Hannah Montana with a live action show with singing and dancing and strong storylines. But the difference here is that this is a telenovela. This is a co-production between Disney Latin America and Disney Europe and the show is produced in Argentina. Each season is about 80 episodes so the frequency of shows is fantastic. It gives the fans of the show the ability to really consume it with an incredible appetite, which is great.

Our classics, Minnie and Mickey, continue to go from strength to strength.

Star Wars, it’s our first full year and we revealed Rebels [at Nuremberg] and the reaction has been fantastic. We have Stormtroopers downstairs. Star Wars is a dream come true for anybody within licensing. I grew up with Star Wars, it was my generation and it was something that impacted me. I had my lightsaber, the Hasbro play sets and it was great. It’s been something I’ve been able to share with my kids and many fathers have shared it with their kids as well. So to be able to bring a new Star Wars to life and to have the opportunity to bring those products to fans of all ages is great. And Rebels will be incredible.

In terms of products and popularity, Star Wars has never really gone away, both in the gap between films from 1983 to 1999 and from 2005 to now. When the next film comes out, can it get even bigger?

I think it can.

Star Wars has a very strong heritage in some countries but is going to be new to others. The opportunity for us to grow this business and to be able to bring new and exciting licensed products to areas and countries where it has perhaps not had the opportunity to benefit from Star Wars is great. In the German market Star Wars is huge and in France, the UK and Nordic, we have strong Star Wars bases. Then we look at the opportunities in countries like Italy and Spain, where Star Wars isn’t as well known, or in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. We have an opportunity here to tell incredible stories and one of the reasons that Star Wars has been around for so long is that the storytelling is just incredible. We have the opportunity to continue that and create the very best product interpretations of those stories.

LEGO did, and continue to do a phenomenal job in the construction category with Star Wars and the vehicle play in Star Wars is just off the charts. I’m really excited by Star Wars. When you wake up in the morning and get out of bed to go to work, I have a smile on my face because I get to play with lightsabers and I love having the opportunity to work with companies that can create products that, and it sound cheesy, can bring happiness and joy to kids of all ages.

I spend a lot of time in retail just sitting and watching consumers. I love it when someone picks up one of our products and buys it. But what I love as well is when I see a kid walk up to it, grab it and says to their parents “this is what I want.” With Star Wars, you see that all the time. It’s such a great play pattern.

Star Wars and Marvel both have incredibly passionate fan bases. How conscious are you when selecting licensing partners that you won’t upset the most dedicated of fans?

There is an expression in the Spider-Man comics and in the first Spider-Man movie, which is ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.

We have incredibly loyal fans when it comes to both Star Wars and Marvel. People who consume the content and love it. They are knowledgeable and passionate about it. We must make sure, and we do, that when we license products, we have products that will work for the kids and products that will work for the hard-core fans. It’s very important that we achieve that balance where we don’t do something the fan will see and say “this is not what I expect” from one of our movies. There is a great responsibility that comes with it.

We have, without a doubt, the finest product development team in the world. They actively work with our licensees to make sure the products that are developed really are the very best interpretations from the movies or the animated series. It’s not a question of a being passive where we receive product and we just approve it. We are actively working with our licensees to ensure that the development around the product is the best that it can be and the best interpretation possible.

The Muppets has been brought back to life thanks to the movie. How do you approach the licensing plan for this property?

For me at least, The Muppets from a merchandise opportunity is more focused on fashion and the young adult/adult business at the moment. We want to expand that at a later date but for the time being, the Muppet characters have such a connection with an adult consumer that we took the conscious decision to focus our on fashion.

You’ll see some fantastic fashion come out when the movie comes out. There’s also a lovely plush range, but it’s more gifting plush than something you would expect to find in toy retailers. That’s a decision we made because we wanted to be able to recreate the emotion around the Muppets from the consumer standpoint with the products, and then we’ll start to expand as time goes on.

It’s not about an in-and-out programme with Disney. We are all about extending our franchises and focusing our franchises to make sure we can have product that goes from the halo retailers, like our Disney store in Harrods, through to our mass market and discount partnerships. Disney is very elastic. We have the opportunity to play in lots of different spaces.

The Christmas of 2012, we had windows in Harrods with different princess dresses. We had dresses from Elie Saab, Valentino and Versace and others. These were interpretations of princess dresses that were phenomenal. Thousands of pounds worth, with shoes from Louboutin, and at the same time we had princess in Tesco for little girls, and everything in between. We map our franchises methodically; it’s not by chance. We really plan them. On the planning for The Muppets, it was young adult, adult and then bring it down later on.

Are there any brands you’ve seen take off in one territory, but not so much in another, that has taken you by surprise?

Donald Duck. From a Disney Consumer Products standpoint, our publishing business for Donald Duck in the Nordics, Germany, Italy and Benelux is absolutely incredible. Having characters that have been a part of peoples lives for so long mean that you have connections with people that go far beyond that of a toy or magazine. These characters have been a part of their childhood and a part of their children’s childhood or grandchildren’s childhood.

We know who Donald Duck is growing up in the UK but he didn’t have that relationship with the English consumer as he does in the Nordics, Germany, Benelux or in Italy. So we do have differences.

If we look a Violetta, it is huge in Italy, France and Spain. Look at Fairies in France, it outperforms every other country in Europe. Different characters and different franchises appeal to different people.

We never look at EMEA as a single market. We always have to remind company’s who think about coming into EMEA that it is a collection of countries that might have a common trade, but they have individual retailers, individual languages and in some cases, different currencies. So just because something works in one country, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in another country.

We have great teams on the ground who work with the industry locally to make sure that we can bring these stories to life. If Donald Duck is not big in the UK today, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to take the learning we have from other parts of Europe where Donald is big and bring them to the UK. We can spend time building him because it’s not about what we’re doing today or tomorrow, it’s about what we can do with the Disney franchises in the long term as well.

We have such great classic, new and future content, that we have the ability to just continue to introduce it and grow the business. And obviously grow the footprint at retail and bring on new licensees and support new, innovative products.

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