Landmark Studio Group’s David Ozer on the brand potential of cult hit Willy’s Wonderland

We caught up with David Ozer, CEO at Landmark, to learn more about the film’s potential in sectors like apparel, publishing and toys.

Following the successful premiere of Willy’s Wonderland earlier this year, Landmark Studio Group hired Radar Licensing to develop a worldwide consumer products push around the horror thriller.

The film stars Nicolas Cage as a quiet loner trapped inside a theme park fighting off possessed animatronic mascots and has already amassed a cult following.

We caught up with David Ozer, CEO at Landmark, to learn more about the film’s potential in sectors like apparel, publishing and toys – as well as find out if the studio has other projects ripe for brand extensions.

David Ozer, Landmark Studio Group
David! Great to connect. To kick us off, how did you get involved in the movie business?

I’ve been in this business for 35 years and I’ve always had a love for media – TV, film, radio… My first real job actually was selling radio advertising. I did that for a little bit and then had an opportunity to get into television. It was fun because you were creating content and figuring out ways to distribute the content. At first, I was focused on the US, and then I got more into international and co-productions. I then moved into features as well.

Landmark Studio Group is a subsidiary of Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment. We have different verticals, including Screen Media – a big theatrical distribution company. That really allowed us to expand into producing theatricals, and Willy’s Wonderland is the first feature that came through the company.

Has the film industry’s relationship to brands changed much since you’ve been in it?
It’s tricky. With the growth of streaming, everyone is looking for original content at the moment. The biggest challenge is how do you promote it. I try to find ideas that will make noise and generate enthusiasm in the fandom base.

My previous job was launching and running IDW Entertainment, which was a division of a comic book publishing company. We created the series Wynonna Earp, which eventually created a huge fandom for the SYFY Channel and Netflix. When you see these shows launch and you see excitement building, the fans become your marketing machine. They promote your project, and it becomes part of their lifestyle if you do it right.

David Ozer, Landmark Studio Group
That’s what I aim for when we’re looking at new features and new shows to develop. It’s all about engaging with fans and the community. It extends to casting too. When we’re casting for a TV series, the cast knows that when that show premieres, we want them on their social platforms interacting with the fans.

I also worked on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, based on the cult favorite books by Douglas Adams. It had a built-in fanbase, and IDW eventually created a comic-book series around that too.

That brings us nicely to Willy’s Wonderland, because I feel like horror fans were talking about this film long before it debuted.
That’s funny because we had just launched Landmark in October 2019, and in December, I got a call from Screen Media saying they had a project that needed to get into production ASAP because Nic Cage was involved, and he had to be in production by a certain date. I read it and immediately thought it was fun and very different! We jumped on it right away and by February, we were filming.

The nutshell premise is Nic Cage taking on evil animatronic characters. Did you think it had wider brand potential from the off?
For that film, it was all about the execution. When you read a script like that, you know you can’t take it too seriously. It’s Nic Cage taking on animatronic characters that come to life in a family fun centre!

David Ozer, Landmark Studio Group
We had a lot of fun putting the film together, but we did not go into this thinking it would lead to merchandise and product. I knew it would draw fans in, but I only really grasped its brand potential when, during production, people kept trying to grab the Willy’s Wonderland t-shirt that Nic wears in the movie. They were all saying: “I’ve got to get one of those t-shirts.” We actually ordered more for the crew! At that point, I said to the guys at Screen Media: “We’ve got to start selling these things!”

Once the marketing started to hit for the film, and the poster has Nic in his blue Willy’s Wonderland t-shirt, we knew we had a strong start to build a licensing and merchandising campaign.

What is it about the t-shirt that has made it so popular with fans – and the crew?
It has a real retro Eighties appeal. The logo is old-school and that’s part of the charm. You’re not walking around with the movie poster on your chest; it’s a smart, fun, well-crafted logo.

T-shirts aside, what sort of brand extensions do you have planned for Willy’s Wonderland?
The animatronics are amazing, so I’d love to see things based on them come out. We’re looking at categories like action figures, apparel and publishing.

David Ozer, Landmark Studio Group
Away from Willy’s Wonderland, are there other projects that you’re working on that will also lend themselves to brand extensions?

Well, I think if you go into projects with an eye on ‘well this could be a board game or a t-shirt’, you’re setting yourself up for a failure, and you don’t want the content to be about that. If that happens organically, great, but for us it’s about starting from a creative place. We want to make sure we’re creating series and movies that people want to watch and that engage with a fanbase.

We recently announced a new project called Heartbeat – it’s a coming-of-age drama series set around a husband-and-wife celebrity DJ team and loosely based on the lives of real life celebrity couple DJ MOS and DJ Kiss. You’ve seen projects set in nightclubs, but not from the perspective of a DJ – plus a female DJ.

David Ozer, Landmark Studio Group
What sort of products will the show lead to – I don’t know – we don’t go in assuming we’ll have a licensing programme around it. In the genre space, it’s more common, but people aren’t going to buy a shirt of a project that nobody watches.

Heartbeat sounds like it ties into what you were saying about fanbases, because it’s loosely based on the couple’s real lives right? So, their following will likely tune in…
No doubt about it. We want to tap into their core fanbase. From the perspective of the streamers or cable, the fact that there are followers already interested in the project helps to put you on a different level to something created from scratch without inherent interest.

Candidly, that’s what we saw in Willy’s Wonderland. I kept seeing our followers increase prior to the launch of the film. We kept putting more teasers out there for fans – like clips – so that when it came to the release, we had already started building our audience. It’s the same with Heartbeat – celebrities and fans love this duo, and they have a fascinating story.

Heartbeat has come from a real-life story. Where else do you look for your next TV show or movie? And does licensing potential play a role in what gets the green-light?
We get tons of submissions, as you can imagine, but we’re finnicky in terms of what we do. We have a show in development called Shadows in the Vineyard, which is a unique story set in the world of wine and it’s based on a Vanity Fair article and a book. We’ve seen crime dramas, but we haven’t seen one set in the world of high-price wine. Our plan is to film that later this summer as a limited series.

With something like this project, I don’t think we’ll create a range of wine around it – as much as I’d love to. We’ll be limited when it comes to licensing on that one, but we’ll make a great event series.

“I knew it would draw fans in, but I only really grasped its brand potential when, during production, people kept trying to grab the Willy’s Wonderland t-shirt that Nic wears in the movie.”

David, this has been great. My final question is: How do you fuel your creativity?
I watch television, look at movies, read lots of scripts. When you see your projects premiering, and you see the fans engaging with it, that keeps us energised and inspires us to create more.

In this day and age, you’ve got to think outside the box and get creative with regards to who you partner with and how you finance it. There’s no rules anymore. The quality of television has become as good as – if not better than – feature films. It used to be the other way around. It’s an exciting time to be in the content creation business.

Great stuff. Huge thanks again David and good luck with the licensing push around Willy’s Wonderland.

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