Geek Tycoon: 'Napoleon' Is Cool With Retailers

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

In the telling first moments of "Napoleon Dynamite," nerdy Napoleon makes his way to the back of a school bus. A younger kid seated across the aisle watches him intently.

"What are you going to do today, Napoleon?" he says in a monotone.

Napoleon's drooped-lip reply gushes with melodramatic teen-geek angst: "Whatever I feel like I wanna do! Gosh!"

Ever since the quirky indie flick about an Idaho high school dweeb emerged last summer as one of the strangest and most unexpected blockbusters in years, "Napoleon Dynamite" started doing just that in the marketplace -- whatever it feels like it wants to do! Gosh!

From the now-ubiquitious "Vote for Pedro" T-shirts to hundreds of other new or soon-to-be-released licensed products, "Napoleon Dynamite" is suddenly an oddball leader in back-to-school sales.

Made for a reported $400,000, the cult hit grossed about $50 million at the box office, then added another $104 million in DVD sales. While retail figures aren't available, Napoleon wear -- the T-shirts, sweatshirts, knit tops, underwear, etc. -- have become the strongest selling licensed products in the teens' and boys' mass marketplace.

And a stunning array of other licensed accessories and novelty products are available or on the way, including bed linens, backpacks, tote bags, Velcro wallets, calendars, lamps, lunch boxes, flip-flops, and playing cards.

"It is a testament to the power of fans and to hitting a nerve in pop culture," says Elie Dekel, executive vice president of licensing and merchandising at 20th Century Fox, the distributor. "This film continues to resonate and get stronger over time."

The retail onslaught began modestly last October, when the film was still catching on. One simple T-shirt design -- "Vote for Pedro" -- went on sale at Hot Topic, a mall-based retail chain in 50 states that specializes in apparel, accessories and music for teens. Since then a half-million Vote for Pedro T-shirts have shipped.

Now Hot Topic carries more than 150 Napoleon Dynamite products. Heck, yes, you can get a $19 "Your Mom Goes to College" T-shirt there, or a $2.99 "Sweet Dance Moves" notebook for school. The store's Web site sells Napoleon Dynamite fridge magnets, air fresheners, postcards, pins, trucker hats, wristbands, fleece throws, posters, bookmarks, stickers, keychains, shoelaces, wristbands and lip gloss -- all lifted from scenes or inspired by its oddly funny catchphrases that are now the daily retorts and subculture code of fans.

Just back from the MAGIC apparel show in Las Vegas this week, Dekel says the annual fashion trade show was abuzz over the phenomenon. "They are all getting reorders and the retailers are looking for more and more product," he says.

"It will have a nice little run and, in all likelihood, will have a short life and until the next slightly off-kilter thing comes around," says Martin Brochstein, editorial director of the Licensing Letter, a executive newsletter covering the consumer licensing business.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company