THE BIG INTERVIEW: Paul Southern, Senior Director, Domestic Licensing & Marketing, Lucasfilm

We talk original Star Wars and The Clone Wars with Lucas' licensing boss.
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“I guess we’re fortunate that the Force continues to be very strong with boys around the world; the 33 year-old Star Wars franchise continues to perform like the Energizer Bunny of the licensing industry – just going on and on, year after year.”

Paul Southern, senior director of domestic licensing and marketing at Lucasfilm, opens our interview with one of the best metaphors I’ve ever heard. Just the thought of the super cute Energizer Bunny rocking up on the Millennium Falcon makes me smile.

Star Wars is the brand that effectively kick started licensing as we know it. If you’re looking for the perfect example of a movie becoming a viable long-term licensing proposition, Star Wars is it. From the three original live action movies, to the three prequels and, now, animated series The Clone Wars, George Lucas’ sci-fi epic is a benchmark.

“Bearing in mind the challenging nature of the economy over the last year or so, and the impact this has had on consumer spending, the last 12 months have been remarkably successful for Lucasfilm,” Southern tells 2009 saw Star Wars maintain its position as the number one boys’ toy property in the US, and the number one licensed toy overall according to NPD. And, says Southern, the success in the toy category is replicated across a whole host of other areas around the world.

“We’ve seen huge success from The Clone Wars themed merchandise across all of our licensed categories around the world – clearly fuelled by the success of the TV series. The great news is that in many categories this now sits alongside products themed around the original live action Star Wars movies,” Southern explains. “Our development group has done a great job stylistically and visually in capturing the excitement and dynamism of The Clone Wars, really raising the bar with the assets we are providing licensees.

“What we’ve also been able to do – in parallel – is re-imagine a lot of the live action assets we have from the original movies, making them feel fresh, contemporary and new. It’s exciting to see the old and the new sitting alongside each other at retail.”

Of course, toys have been a key lynchpin in the success of the franchise, and the last 12 months have been no different, with key partners Hasbro and Lego both enjoying success with new product.

“Our Lego relationship continues to go from strength to strength. What was originally a toy category-based relationship has evolved into very successful video games, and from there it has now evolved into a true co-branded proposition that sits alongside the successful licensing programmes that both Star Wars and Lego independently continue to develop. We initially launched some apparel items and the success we’ve seen in that category has led us to broaden out the Lego Star Wars co-brand into other carefully targeted and relevant categories.”

The Clone Wars, of course, will continue to be a cornerstone of Lucasfilm’s plans for the future and Southern believes that it’s a very exciting time for the Star Wars franchise. He’s also far more optimistic in the economy in general, but points out that we’re still a long way from being in the position of saying the recession is behind us.

“I’m sensing cautious optimism for the future, rather than the doom and gloom we were all feeling going into the Vegas show last year,” he says. “I expect to see the macro economic factors running down into the licensing industry, with licensees being very cautious – investing in fewer licences – and taking fewer risks within their portfolios. At the same time, I see retailers trying to mitigate risk, leaving buying decisions as late as they can and focusing on proven winners. It’s increasingly difficult for a new property to get traction unless it comes out of a studio or production company that has a great track record.”

Capital is going to be tight for several years, and Southern believes it will be the bigger companies, with the financial clout, that will be best placed to exploit the opportunities. “I see the big players getting bigger and more powerful, and the smaller guys finding it more and more challenging, whether you’re a creator of content, a licensee or a retailer. I just hope that creativity continues to rise above all of these challenges, and finds a place to express itself.”

And, going forward, it’s the digital sector which will present the biggest growth for the licensing business, says Southern. “It’s a cliché, but we’re living through one of the greatest revolutions our industry has ever seen and I think many of us are still trying to work out what it means for us. Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, or PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, iPhone or iPad, or casual online gaming, they all offer great opportunities because of the way they engage their audiences. Combine that with digital content delivery through numerous different interfaces and there’s a whole host of different licensing opportunities surrounding us. I just need to get my nine year-old to explain it all to me…”

Lucasfilm can be found on stand 5446 at Licensing International Expo, which runs from June 8th to 10th at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Convention Center, Las Vegas.


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