Super Roads to Riches are Paved with Comics
By Don Maley (E&P, 11/30/1968)
A cross-country auto ride along the secondary roads that often parallel the 70 mph Interstate System offers a visual potpourri of billboards, junk yards, motels, hamburger stands, gas stations and other blights on the fading landscape.
But now there is to be some comic relief from this optical vexation—compliments of the cartoonists and the syndicates that distribute their funny features to newspapers. Characters right out of the comics pages will adorn drive-in food stands and an assortment of other businesses for travelers.
A Sunday drive in the country might soon resemble a tour through the Sunday “funnies.” “Li’l Abner,” “Daisy Mae,” “Snuffy Smith” and “Loweezy” have been signed up to become a part of the “burgeoning franchised fast-food roadside restaurant business.”
The “Little King” restaurant chain has been in operation since last winter. Otto Soglow, who draws “Little King” for King Features Syndicate says the chain has about 20 units. And this is a royalty business.
Reggie Smythe, English creator of “Andy Capp,” syndicated by Publishers-Hall, is negotiating with a food franchise outfit to establish 500 “Andy Capp” fish ‘n’ chips shops across America.
To cite one example of the profit involved in the food business, Al Capp, creator of “Li’l Abner” (Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate), signed a million dollar contract with Longchamps Inc., the New York restaurant concern, for the use of characters, graphics and special features of his strip. Capp is to be paid the $1-million in advance against royalties over 10 years. It was not disclosed how much the syndicate would realize under the agreement.
Longchamps plans the first “Li’l Abner” within 50 miles of New York City and “one or two” in Florida. The restaurant’s facade will portray a typical structure in “Dogpatch” and will have an “endless string of frankfurters coming out of the kitchen.” “Hamus Alabamus” barbecued sandwiches and “Mammy Yokum” fried chicken will be featured. Food prices will range from 20 cents to $2.
King Features is deeply involved in the food franchise business as many of their contract artists’ characters are lending themselves to roadside munching. Fred Lasswell’s “Barney Google” was signed this year by a Columbus, Ga., franchiser which hopes to build a string of “Snuffy’s Shantys” across the country. A KFS spokesman said the builders’ plan is “grandiose,” as they hope to have 700 shops in operation by 1970. The simple menu includes “Loweezy’s Baked Beans” for 24 cents and “Hillbilly Chili” for 35 cents. Hot dogs will go for 19 cents.
Little King International Inc., a subsidiary of Spectrum Ltd., which is an affiliate of Transcontinental Investing Corp., is awarding bargain-price “Earldoms” ($7,995 “plus good credit and character”) to interested parties who want to venture into the fast-food business. The “Little King” structures resemble mini-English castles, but the bill of fare features moderately priced Italian hero sandwiches.
If the chain becomes successful, Otto Soglow will be kept barnstorming across America to draw cartoons of the customers when a new “Little King” restaurant opens.
Of all newspaper syndicates engaged in diversification, King might well be the most progressive as their complex international merchandising operation is in the multi-million dollar category. Their animated, live action Beatles film, “Yellow Submarine,” enjoyed rave reviews.
According to KFS president Frank C. McLearn, the Hearst syndicate “likes to make a little money,” and “Yellow Submarine” will do just that. “A gross,” says McLearn, “of from
$10 to $15-million would be very nice.” More than 200 “Yellow Submarine” merchandising items are being marketed internationally in conjunction with the film.
McLearn said editors have no reason to be alarmed by new syndicate enterprise. “Our main function is to serve newspapers” he said. Separate departments at KFS handle diversification projects. Jerome Berger is King’s director of business affairs and Al Brodax oversees production of motion pictures. For the last four years, John Wright, an 11-year King veteran, has headed the Special Services Department, and has handled “thousands of properties” on a world-wide basis. Wright’s department licenses King’s titles and receives royalties on a 50-50 basis. Products include such items as ‘Popeye Popcorn” and “Beetle Bailey” toys. Foreign language children’s books are a big seller. It was learned that King’s Special Services grossed a measly $35,000 in 1935, mostly from toys — ”but has come a long way since then.” “We’re a separate department,” said Wright when queried about costs, “we pay our own rent, light and heating bills.”
New films (live-action animated) will be based on “Prince Valiant” and “Mandrake the Magician.” These two will have the “for kids from eight-to-eighty” appeal that McLearn feels characterizes both the syndicated comics and “Yellow Submarine.”
Some other upcoming King films are far removed from the comic strips, McLearn mentioned as examples: two stories from the classics: “The Bluebird,” by Maurice Maeterlinck and “Don Quixote.”
Just as King had more than three years of negotiating to recover picture rights to “Blondie” from Columbia Pictures in order to syndicate the package of old films as well as shoot its current CBS TV series, so the firm has acquired film rights on “Valiant” back from 20th Century-Fox which made a live-action feature of the pageboy-bobbed cartoon-strip hero 14 years ago.
The fact that these three features all have comic-strip origins or influences is only coincidental, Jerry Berger said. “Right now we have access to five of the best-selling adult novels of the past few years, which we’re working on making into films” but final rights are still being negotiated, according to Berger.
King’s entrance into feature production was conceived two years ago, but full-scale operation was not really implemented until Berger came to the shop early this year.
Another comic character to become a movie star is “Good Ole’ Charlie Brown.” Cinema Center Films—a part of CBS — negotiated to do a “Peanuts” movie. According to Harry Gilburt, vice president of United Features Syndicate, which handles “Peanuts” for Charles M. Schulz, the film will be released “in late ‘69 or early ‘70.”
‘Peanuts’ Makes Millions
According to the top-selling syndicated cartoonist around today, ‘Peanuts’ pulls in $20-million per year.” One writer has said that taking a look at the “Peanuts”—Charles M. Schulz industry, is “pretty much like taking a look at the U.S. Treasury on a clear day, say April 16.”
The latest “Peanuts” product is a hard-cover collection of cartoons about “Charlie Brown,” called the “Peanuts Treasury.” The publishers, Holt, Rinehart & Winston have printed—as a starter—100,000 copies of the book, which is selling for $4.95 — and, no doubt, will last no longer than halfway through tomorrow.
Sticking just to “Peanuts” books and disregarding the millions who follow the strip in newspapers or have seen “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” on stage, the figures are astronomical. Holt began publishing the books in 1952 and has sold 8 million copies. Fawcett Publications, also Peanuts vendors, have sold 33 million copies. The New American Library, which has a few “Peanuts” titles of its own, has sold 3,670,000 of these. In California, Determined Publications, which actually was founded with a “Peanuts” book — “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy” — has had sales of 3 million-plus copies over the several titles it commands.
Last but not least, the Presbyterian publishing house of John Knox Press in Richmond, Va., has had one title, “The Gospel According to Peanuts.” To date paperback sales have exceeded 820,000 and hardcover sales, 14,000. Bantam paperback sales of the same, 800,000. And as a postscript to this, Harper & Row recently brought out a new book by the man who did “The Gospel” — Robert L. Short. It is called “The Parables of Peanuts.” Reporting sales of other “Peanuts” properties (dolls, greeting cards, sweatshirts, stationary, pillows, etc.) would fill one entire magazine, if the figures were available — which they aren’t.
United Features has “over 1500 clients and syndicates about 50 features.” “Our licensing program,” said Gilburt, “is one that we have developed over a period of years and is an integral part of our syndicate operation.” James S. Hennessy, United’s business manager, is in charge of the merchandising department.
In an E&P round-up query of newspaper syndicates regarding their merchandising operations a great deal of pertinent information was gleaned.
“We have always been interested in merchandising our properties and will continue to explore every possibility to do so,” said Henry Raduta, manager of Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, which services “approximately 1400 newspapers” and offers “approximately 150 different features.”
“We have,” said Raduta, “no formal merchandising department as such, and there are no specific budget allocations for this phase of our operation. When an idea for a commercial application occurs to us we follow through and spend whatever time and money is necessary in an attempt to bring it to realization. And, of course, we are sought out by those wishing a licensing arrangement or option.
“Generally speaking, we license specialists, under a royalty arrangement, to represent us, but in some cases we’ve approached manufacturers, agents or publishers directly and worked out contracts or options on a percentage basis.”
“We’ve always been diversified,” added Raduta, “to the extent that we’ve sold movie, tv, radio, comic book and merchandising rights to our features providing we hold these rights, no direct endorsement was involved, it did not violate good taste and was not detrimental in any way to the property in question.
“In the last two or three years, however, there seems to have been increased activity in the merchandising area and we suspect this is due, in no small part, to the tv and merchandising success of ‘Batman.’ Many inquiries were made about the availability of our properties shortly after ‘Batman’ zoomed into the ratings.”
CT-NYNS offers a 50-50 royalty split to authors as do many of the syndicates’ and has “no set budget for the exploration and development of merchandising rights.”
To cite a few examples of the features involved Raduta said: “In the case of ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ for instance, we have assigned movie, tv and book rights. There are also Annie dolls, posters, games, etc. On ‘Brenda Starr,’ we are negotiating for movie and tv rights; there is a wig deal and there have been dolls and comic books. A motion picture-tv option on ‘Terry and the Pirates’ has recently been completed. A drug company used Annie in a mailing campaign recently and Du Pont used Annie in a New York Times Magazine ad.”
One off-beat merchandising scheme sputtered this year. “A manufacturer of women’s apparel approached us with a plan to merchandise a ‘Little Orphan Annie’ paper dress,” said Raduta. “The female owner of the company called on us modeling a sample of what she had in mind—an exact replica of Annie’s bright red dress, trimmed in white . . . but made out of paper. As she sat down to outline her proposal there was the embarrassing sound of paper being torn. With her face as red as the dress she was wearing, she backed out of our office and that was the last we saw of her. We presume she is still trying to perfect her idea in an effort to save face—or at least provide us with a happier ‘ending’ to our story.”
Saying that “we expect to expand our merchandising operation,” Raduta added: “We are interested in this phase of our operation and have always been anxious to increase activity in this area. We will not compromise our high standards, however, in order to merchandise our various properties.”
E&P Story Helpful
William H. Thomas, president of Columbia Features, which offers 45 features to “approximately 1000 newspapers,” says candidly that “yes, we are diversifying into merchandising whenever possible.” His reasons “are pretty much the same as other syndicates: additional revenue.”
“Most of our merchandising,” said Thomas, “involves publication in book form of material initially released for newspapers—about one-fourth of our authors and/or artists having been published in this medium.”
Earlier this year Columbia entered into negotiations with a major network tv program for one of its new authors to appear as an authority in her field on the show. “Also,” added Thomas, “a major book publisher has requested an option on her material for a book to be developed
from the regular newspaper columns. Interestingly, both these developments began within a single week after announcement of the feature in E&P and as a direct result of that article.”
Thomas said Columbia “does most assuredly intend to expand its operations into the merchandising field, whenever possible and wherever applicable. We do not, however, intend to do so if there were the possibility that the quality and importance of the features as they affect newspapers would be compromised.”
Designed to Aid Papers
Newspaper Enterprise Association, which sells “75 regularly scheduled features (and at least one special or seasonal feature each week at no extra cost) to more than 750 daily newspapers, does not have an internal merchandising department, but it does have agents which represent the company in sale of comic characters for use on commercials such as toys, clothing and novelties. The activities of these agents are supervised by general manager Meade Monroe, who works with Boyd Lewis, the syndicate’s president and editor.
“We have not found it necessary,” said a syndicate spokesman, “to get into the food, toy or clothing business to maintain NEA’s profit picture.” Although the syndicate is “expanding efforts to increase revenue from longstanding merchandising and licensing programs, the bulk of NEA’s resources and talents are directed at producing new services and products especially designed to help newspapers.”
The syndicate is “constantly seeking and investigating new acquisitions which we believe would be strengthened under our management and through our access to the newspaper market.”
The acquisition by NEA in 1966 of The World Almanac and Book of Facts is probably the best example of NEA’s diversification policy. Since 1958 the Almanac had been sponsored in one city by one newspaper. The 1967 edition under NEA ownership was co-published for nine major market newspapers. For the 1968 centennial edition, the number was increased to 33, and next year 57 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada will be co-publishers of the Almanac.
Other publications are printed by the syndicate’s publications division which is headed by Richard W. Johnson and is mainly concerned with “creating exclusive Reader Service Books for newspapers to offer readers.”
“Emphasis,” says NEA, “is placed on producing books filled with information not readily available elsewhere. Thus newspapers can perform a true public service in offering them to readers.”
NEA titles which have thus far proven successful: The 1969 Guide to College Selection; What You’ve Got Coming From Medicare and Social Security (700,000 copies sold through newspapers and on newsstands); Cut Your Own Taxes (average sales of 100,000 copies annually since 1965) and some others, which are selling briskly.
NEA grants licenses, which “are selectively granted for the use of NEA comic characters after carefully screening to make sure that the interests of our newspaper clients are protected as well as promoted.”
Negotiations are underway for using several NEA comic characters in animated tv cartoons, including “The Born Loser,” “Alley Oop,” “Major Hoople” and “Freckles.”
“Alley Oop” is under option for a Broadway musical production.
Robert C. Dille’s National Newspaper Syndicate, Chicago, offers “about 35 features,” and services “about 650 client newspapers.” Dille said his syndicate is diversifying “in a very minimal way. Increased top management time is being devoted to the development of secondary avenues of income, such as merchandise and book reprint development of our trademarks and feature characters. The reason for this is obviously increased profit.” As is the case with some other major syndicates NNS works with a number of “agents” who are expert “specialists in merchandising and packaging and publishing.”
“A hidden benefit of this,” said Dille, “has been the cross fertilization of ideas and inter-related benefits of the agent giving us ideas for newspaper features and our giving him trademarks to develop in the merchandise field. We are working with two film production companies, one of which becomes a middleman and cuts into our share. They are actually producing a feature film for ‘Buck Rogers,’ but they are doing it for MGM. In return we have a number of options in the newspaper field for their feature film and television materials.
“Not so long ago we turned ‘Marmaduke’ and ‘Woody’s World’ over to Weston Merchandising Corp., in New York, and we received the rights to Twiggy. On a number of other features we are working with Toni Mendez Inc., a merchandising and publishing agent, and once again the field has been reversed and we have taken on property she was representing. This, to us, is one of the chief benefits. We get the benefit of their thinking and other properties in return for some of ours. And it broadens our thinking without dissipating the energies and talents of our limited staff.”
Dille pays authors 50% of the net income. “We treat agents’ fees, for example, on merchandising income, as we would treat mechanical expenses on feature income. It comes off the top. Where a party has come to us through a merchandising organization as in the case of Twiggy and Arnold Palmer, for example, we do not participate in the development of trademark for merchandising or reprinting books, but our responsibilities, are increasingly limited.”
“As a sidelight to this business of cross-fertilization and securing of features from the agents to whom we are granting merchandise rights,” concluded Dille, “we find the generation of income to be about equal. We are paying them as much for the rights to material they offer us as they’re paying us for the rights we are offering them. In the long run, we’ll expect to be deriving substantially more income from them, inasmuch as we have only a newspaper outlet and they have all the publishing and merchandising world.”
“Our merchandising is very specialized,” said Dille. “We take the best of our features and try to put them into book form. This has been the most successful merchandising for us. The cost for us is little and returns are gratifying. It was Louis Bromfield who taught me years ago ‘to milk old properties.’ This cannot be done in the newspaper field but it can be done in books which are not published for one day only.”
“Our biggest problem,” said Dille, whose syndicate offers 20,000 features from his backlog and produces about 1,000 a year and has a yearly overhead of from $125,000 to $150,000, “is to find young people who could continue this work in the future. This is a very specialized field and very few people know how to run a newspaper syndicate.”
Small, but Solid
Kurt Singer’s syndicate (Singer Features), which is “in the heart of Disneyland” in Anaheim, Calif., bills itself as a small but solid newspaper syndicate, operating for 14 years.” Singer said he has “about 300 regular clients and subscribers. And we service about 100 additional clients on special projects in the field of comic strips, books, pictures, and color transparencies.” Singer’s products are represented in 50 countries throughout the free world and in Communist Yugoslavia.
“Yes,” said Singer, “we are diversifying and have done so for many years. We are diversifying through investments in other companies and through the book and comic book field.”
Singer’s merchandising department is about 50% of his operation, and he is personally in charge. Although he would not give actual dollars and cents profit figures he said that “one feature sold to a New York newspaper might bring you a few hundred dollars. A book compiled by us based on our own features will bring many thousand dollars.”
Fees for the authors of the publications Singer merchandises runs somewhat different from the other syndicates. “We operate on a 50-50 basis with unknown authors,” said Singer, “on a 60-40 basis with dependable authors, and if it comes to the sons of Zane Grey and others who administer their father’s literary properties, we work on a 20% basis on books and 40% basis on syndication.”
“Another way of dealing with authors is through estates,” said Singer.
“We made a contract with the copyright holders to the old Liberty Magazine which was originally a MacFadden publication, and edited by Fulton Oursler. According to this agreement we have rights of 18,000 literary properties, both here and abroad. In the old days all rights were bought and we found ourselves suddenly in the possession of copyrights to authors like Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, Philip Wylie, and many others.”
In Groping Stages
Even the smallest of syndicates has diversification plans. Tiny Features Inc., of Hartford, Conn., which has two features running in 70 newspapers, “definitely” plans to enhance its income. “We’re in the groping stages right now,” said Brinton T. Schorer Jr., the syndicate’s vice president and editor, “but in order to do so we must first develop distribution facilities outside our participating newspapers. Eventually, we expect to have books, games, puppets, and buttons which stem directly from our basic feature. We could, if we had distribution, produce a number of items for sale immediately.”
We found at least three syndicates which had no plans of entering into the lucrative merchandising business.
“We are not diversifying. We are not in merchandising. And we have no plans in the foreseeable future for such diversification. This applies to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, General Features Corp., and the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post News Service,” said Rex Barley, who heads all of them, adding:
“The reason for our lack of entry into the merchandising business is, I believe, because our organizations have always been primarily in the business of syndicating personalities and editorial material rather than properties.” Barley said the syndicates he heads “are in the comic strip and panel business only to a small degree in comparison to our personality columns.”
“Moreover,” he added, “we have always taken the point of view that our primary responsibility is to give editorial service to our newspaper clients and once we fail in this or dilute our service, we might as well go out of business, no matter how widely we diversify.”
“I think,” said Barley in what he called his ‘minority report,’ “syndicates and newspapers for too long considered television to be an insignificant competitor to their detriment. We have always steadfastly refused to sell our features to television whether the request has come in the form of making our news service available to a television network or station, or whether it is in the form of allowing one of our feature characters to sell bread, automobiles, or gasoline for Madison Avenue or be converted into a situation comedy.”
Newspaper Editors Comment
But what do newspaper editors think of all of this wheeling and dealing? Stanleigh Arnold, Sunday and Features Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, has contracts with 43 syndicates and buys approximately 100 features and comics. What do his readers think of diversification schemes? “I haven’t the foggiest idea,” said Arnold, “at least within this context. That is, it would take an unperceptive reader not to notice the ‘Schroeder’ sweatshirts and ‘Snoopy’ for President bumper stickers, but I doubt that the reader who sees these things thinks of them as ‘diversification.’ So long as the feature is not downgraded by the spin-off products and promotion, I don’t think any damage is done.”
Are the syndicates doing a good job for newspapers? “It’s hard to imagine the syndicates doing a better job in serving us,” said Arnold. “All that we ask is that any given feature maintain at least as high a quality as that which impelled us to buy it—and that mailings be made in ample time. Except in rare instances, both these requirements have been met by the syndicates serving us.”
No Bearing on Features
Philip H. Love, Feature Editor (and columnist) for the Washington (D. C.) Star, does business with about a dozen syndicates regularly and “a few others irregularly,” buying over five dozen features and comic strips.
“My personal guess,” said Love, “would be that the syndicates’ diversification ‘schemes’ have no bearing on the quality of their feature offerings. The syndicates would be foolish to let this happen—unless they want to get out of the feature business altogether. With competition as stiff as it is, I would think the syndicates would do everything possible to maintain quality, diversification or no diversification.”
Love joins Arnold in pooh-poohing any concept that the readers might be dismayed by syndicates’ diversification. “I wouldn’t be concerned. Do you know any ordinary person who is upset about diversification in other businesses or industries? I don’t.”