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'Hunchback' Does a Bellyflop: More Bust Than Blockbuster For Disney Tie-Ins

By Published on .

Walt Disney Co.'s "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is looking like the entertainment king's first flop in recent history for tie-in partners.

Disney's latest annual "event" film has produced unspectacular box-office results to date and, as ticket sales continue to decelerate, toy industry insiders claim retailers and department stores are canceling big orders for "Hunchback" merchandise. No. 1 toy retailer Toys "R" Us, however, says its "Hunchback" sales are meeting expectations.

Marketers including Mattel and Hallmark Cards may be left with more unsold merchandise than they planned.

Anxiety is also mounting among some franchisees of fast-food partner Burger King Corp., which ordered an unprecedented number of "Hunchback" toys and puppets in anticipation of another record-setting Disney promotional extravaganza. Burger King had expected the animated version of the Victor Hugo novel to top last year's "Toy Story" and "Pocahontas" and 1994's "Lion King."

`NOT THE USUAL BLOCKBUSTER'

"It's not the usual Disney blockbuster, either at the box office or the restaurant," said one executive closely involved in Burger King's latest Disney promotion. "Kids don't know what the `Hunchback' is-it's a foreign concept to them."

Disney and several of its long-term licensing and marketing partners remain optimistic, but many Hollywood executives and Burger King franchisees declined comment.

"Hunchback" opened June 21 and earned a respectable $77 million after 24 days, but in its fourth weekend was eclipsed by Paramount Pictures Corp.'s "Harriet the Spy," which took in $6.6 million vs. $6.4 million for "Hunchback"-an unprecedented turnabout for one of Disney's major animated releases.

Among the film's problems, industry analysts say, is that it seems to lack a specific target audience among girls or boys. More significantly, its ugly-but-lovable central character, Quasimodo, is a far less beguiling hero than Disney's usual cute or cuddly animated stars.

"*`The Hunchback' has been a little disappointing, but manufacturers will cope. Disney's other properties, including `Winnie the Pooh,' are having a big resurgence, which is compensating for setbacks," said Gary Jacobson, a toy analyst with Jefferies & Co.

Some Burger King franchisees fault Disney for not promoting "Hunchback" as heavily as previous films.

$20 MIL IN BK SUPPORT

The burger chain forked out $20 million, including a heavy schedule of network TV spots via Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York; Disney has not revealed what it spent to promote the film, but industry estimates are between $10 million and $15 million.

"The distribution of [our] kids meal premiums for `Hunchback of Notre Dame' has fallen slightly below our very ambitious expectations," said a spokeswoman for Burger King.

"Hunchback" marks Burger King's last tie-in with Disney before the latter's wide-ranging, 10-year promotional contract with McDonald's Corp. begins.

DISNEY'S TRACK RECORD

Analysts say disappointment with the movie is widespread because previously each Disney animated film managed to top its predecessor in total merchandise sold.

Hallmark is offering a full line of social-expression products, partyware and decorations, along with a gift-with-purchase promotion. The company said it is "very pleased" with sales results so far.

Major toy licensee Mattel has more than 20 dolls, games, puzzles and playthings.

"We shipped more `Hunchback' product than `Pocahontas,' and our sales expectations for `Hunchback' are not turning out to be as strong as `Pocahontas,"' said Glenn Bozarth, senior VP-corporate communications for Mattel.

Toys "R" Us had been more cautious, claiming it had ordered less "Hunchback" merchandise than it did for "Pocahontas."

However, Mattel's Mr. Bozarth noted that "Hunchback" debuts "in the U.K. and Europe later this year, where we anticipate good results."

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