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Universal thinking: LicensingSource talks to Paul Bufton, vp EMEA, NBCUniversal

Entertainment studios have had their own unique set of challenges to face during the pandemic. For NBCUniversal, its usual two-year planning cycle meant that content was already in the pipeline, ably spanning the gaps created between its franchise movies, while the company also discovered a more agile side to its business, as well as a whole new appreciation for the flexibility and creativity of its team, licensees and retailers. sits down with Paul Bufton, vp EMEA, to find out more.

“Of course, it has been a challenging year but there are many positives,” begins Paul Bufton, vp EMEA at NBCUniversal Media when Source asks how 2021 has been for the entertainment giant so far. “Since we are usually locked into a two-year planning cycle we are always intently focused on the future. That is the nature of the business, and in this case it was really beneficial because it gave us all a way to focus.”

This year’s highlights, Paul explains, are how the company has been able to sustain interest and connection to some of its tentpole franchises. Covid may have disrupted movie release schedules across the globe, but Universal’s ‘always on’ model means that it was more than capable of continuing to reach consumers.

“Jurassic World has been an incredible standout and that was helped by the global launch of Camp Cretaceous on Netflix,” Paul continues. “That amazing series and the way it has bridged the gap between major movie events has just been tremendous. I think fans of Jurassic Park gravitated towards something familiar at that time, but it also brought in a new audience that was looking for new, quality series during a time when, frankly, their entertainment options were unfortunately limited. What they found was a really well executed and creative series that has further stoked interest in the franchise in general.”

The toy category has been key for Universal over the past 18 months, with Jurassic World among the brands performing well.
The toy category has been key for Universal over the past 18 months, with Jurassic World among the brands performing well.

In terms of categories, toys did extremely well, says Paul, as did the company’s softlines business. “As well, Minions is very strong in grocery and that provided us with a consistent source of growth as grocers stayed open throughout the lockdown.”

A positive to come out of the pandemic and the challenges it caused, is that the company is now much more agile and more able to change course if needed. “There is always a ‘Plan B, C and D’ now!” says Paul. “We have never been more prepared for the different possibilities and that is such a huge positive.”

Certain things were also accelerated due to the events of the past 18 months, Paul continues: “For example, we appointed an e-commerce manager, something that we always had planned to do but was sparked by the shifting tides. We also are more focused than ever on building out the digital experience in all facets of the business. If the past 18 months taught us anything, it’s that the digital experience, that touchpoint, has to be foremost in every aspect from content distribution from retail to PR and marketing.”

Minions: The Rise of Gru will be hitting cinemas in 2022.
Minions: The Rise of Gru will be hitting cinemas in 2022.

A whole new appreciation for the flexibility and creativity of both its own team and its partners has also come to the fore. “In a way, it confirmed why we chose these partners in the first place. In time of crisis the cream rises and without exception our partners all came through with new plans and new ideas. I would say there was a real solution mindset,” offers Paul.

Retail partners, Paul continues, have also been just as willing to put in the work to pivot and adjust when necessary: “It is astonishing how fast certain programmes were able to migrate online and still retain their power and connection. It is an ongoing process, though. Things are not back to business as usual. We aren’t going to be turning the clocks back on this – the retail experience is going to different and it is our job, along with our retail partners, to work out exactly what those changes are going to look like and how best to work with them.

“The full integration of e-commerce and in-person retail is really a seismic change in the way to do business, but I’m confident that we are up for the challenge. It’s actually rather exciting to be a part of it.”

Paul describes Gabby's Dollhouse as 'preschool programming for the modern era'.
Paul describes Gabby's Dollhouse as 'preschool programming for the modern era'.

Paul’s excitement for 2022 and what Universal has to offer is also palpable. For starters, two of the biggest movie franchises will be back on the big screen in Jurassic World: Dominion and Minions: The Rise of Gru. “Both franchises will be drafting off strong performances during the previous year and a half, that I think it will really help build the excitement and anticipation for the latest movies,” says Paul. “Both also have such wide appeal, too.”

Then, there is Gabby’s Dollhouse, a new property which Paul describes as “preschool programming for the modern era”. Featuring a mix of live action and animation, Universal is already seeing positive early results from the US and Mexico, with Spin Master the first partner on board. “We will be trickling that out more robustly in the back-end of ’22 and going full scope with it in ‘23.”

2022 also marks the 40th anniversary of E.T, with Paul commenting: “There is a whole generation that can remember seeing E.T. in the theatre for the first time and what kind of experience that was. It also aligns nicely with the current trend of ‘80s nostalgia. But, for us, it starts with the film itself and it really does stand up as a landmark achievement.”

Such is the nature of an entertainment giant like Universal, Paul and the team are already starting to look even further ahead and make decisions on 2023.

“Overall, we couldn’t be more excited, I’m sure you can tell. We have such great positive momentum and it’s great to go back to doing what we do best,” he concludes.

This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2021 edition of Licensing Source Book. To read the full publication, click on this link.

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