“Just a Wacky, Weird Thing to Make”: A Brief History of Movie Merch, From the People Who Made It

Ellman arrived at Universal in 1974 and made the first big splash of his career by conceiving of marketing ploys for Jaws. That 1975 production has since been enshrined as the first bona fide “summer blockbuster” and its impact forever changed the way studios greenlight, release, and

subsequently promote their tentpole films. Under Ellman’s guidance, Universal expanded beyond print ads and radio spots and onto the bodies of its audiences, shilling everything from T-shirts, towels, and beach bags to a shark-shaped pencil holder.

Steve Ellman (VP, Exhibitor Relations at Universal Pictures from 1974–2005): Jaws came out in June, and right before the release there was a sighting of two great white sharks off the coast of California. I remember an executive at a rival studio accused me of dropping them in there somehow. From then on, Universal and I made sure Steve Spielberg always had something going.

You want to make the studio happy, you want to make the press happy, and you really want to get people interested. My job was to make sure those people were taken care of. We used to give things to the press: they would walk right in and get a jacket or a hat. And it was understood that they’d take these things home, they’d give them to their kids, or they’d trade.

What’s the Tie-In?

Compared to the breakneck pace of today’s digital campaigns, the pre-internet process of conceiving, designing, and producing merchandise seems downright glacial.

Mimi Slavin (SVP, Promotions at Warner Bros. from 1996–2008): As soon as a movie was greenlit—a family film—we started pitching it. Family-friendly films are promotional-friendly, and with a tentpole release the expectation was always a McDonald’s or General Mills tie-in. That’s considered the holy grail.

Kirk Iwanowksi (EVP, Marketing at Sundance Channel from 1997–2008): Studios saw this need to create more consumer touchpoints around the release. It wasn’t just about driving momentum into opening weekend, it was about creating opportunities for audiences to engage with that content. That meant licensing deals, strategic partnerships, and promotional deals.

Slavin: The original Space Jam was really pushed forward by consumer products: they needed new news about the Looney Toons in order to continue to monetize them. And our biggest challenge was creating something that wasn’t going to be a conflict with those consumer products.

I did a tie-in with Hostess for Minions, and as much as everyone thinks Twinkies are disgusting, you wouldn’t believe how many people were reaching for the Twinkies on the table that were dressed as Minions.

You have to ask the question: “What effect does this [merchandising] spend have on the box office? Does sending a cute kit full of goodies help you get press?” It probably helps you get attention, but at the end of the day, your movie has to work no matter what they send the press.

A Twister necktie.

Courtesy of A24

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