VIACOM EYES NEW VENUES FOR BRANDS

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Viacom, ramping up efforts to merchandise the diverse properties of its $11.6 billion entertainment empire, will open a chain of retail stores this year and start publishing comic books emblazoned with the Paramount name.

Other ideas are in the pipeline as Viacom tries to replicate more of the merchandising success enjoyed by Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner.

COMING TO CHICAGO

Taking inspiration from the Disney and Warner Bros. studio stores, the first of 10 Viacom units will open on Chicago's trendy Michigan Avenue this fall. Viacom's Blockbuster Entertainment Group will operate the stores.

One possible name for the stores is TV Land, the same proposed name of a forthcoming Viacom cable network. The stores will sell merchandise licensed by Viacom Consumer Products, based on properties developed by the parent Viacom's movie and TV divisions, as well as MTV: Music Television and Nickelodeon. The stores will also house interactive games, a restaurant and a movie theater.

`STAR TREK' COMICS

Hitting the market earlier will be the new comic book being developed by Marvel Comics. "Marvel Presents Paramount Comics" will launch in May with "Mission: Impossible," based on the Paramount Pictures Corp. flick opening May 22. A line of "Star Trek" titles will roll out this summer.

The new line replaces "Star Trek" comics licensed by Malibu Comics Entertainment and D.C. Comics through December 1995 that didn't carry the Paramount brand.

Marvel will publish and distribute the comics, but both companies will share the editorial and marketing duties.

"The goal is to identify and create properties that can take off in licensing or be turned into films or TV shows," said Andrea Hein, president of Viacom Consumer Products.

Industry experts put Viacom third in merchandising in Hollywood, behind Disney and Time Warner. Paramount's premier merchandising property has been the 30-year-old "Star Trek" franchise. Viacom has been knocked for failing to develop additional marketable icons clearly linked to the studio.

`SCATTERED PROPERTIES'

"They have a problem in that they have an extensive but very scattered library of properties, but don't have a family of characters, like Mickey or Bugs, that can dominate a chunk of the market, or a brand that the company can rally around," said Michael Schau, executive editor of The Entertainment Marketing Letter.

However, Disney-with its brand name and seemingly interrelated universe of characters-is an anomaly in Hollywood. Even without that advantage, Ms. Hein and her team are proving that with the right mix of creative and strategic thinking, money and sense can be made out of a more divergent group of properties.

GOING WITH GUMP

Case in point: "Forrest Gump," a rare blockbuster that hasn't lent itself to a large number of mass merchandising deals.

Viacom is taking a fictitious brand in the film and turning it into a real one. The first Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant, operated in conjunction with the Rusty Pelican chain, opened last month; 22 others will open over the next three years.

Viacom also may take the brand into supermarkets.

Viacom is nurturing youth-skewing franchises. Viacom Consumer Products has acquired the Richard Scarry children's book series, and it wants to turn the 1995 Paramount movie "Clueless" into a girls franchise.

A TV show based on the film will air on ABC this fall.

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