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.

But why the groundswell? How does a decidedly unhip flick make uncool so cool and drive retail sales to take a sweet jump like Pedro's Sledgehammer bike?

"People enjoy celebrating an awkward outsider such as Napoleon" is the simplified explanation Jared Hess, the film's writer and director, e-mails from Mexico, where he's working on a new film.

Others say "Napoleon Dynamite's" cultural momentum runs deeper -- and richer. Neil Feineman, Los Angeles-based author of "Geek Chic: The Ultimate Guide to Geek Culture," calls the film "a cultural touchstone" for the younger generation. "Napoleon became the everyman for a huge subculture of kids, in particular, who saw themselves in that movie and who love this guy," he says. "They deeply got the joke. Somebody got it right."

And, adds Feineman, "that's gotta be a gold mine."

It is for Jay Kamhi, whose daughters dragged him to see "Napoleon Dynamite" last fall, then begged him to make a talking Napoleon doll. "I loved the movie," says Kamhi, "but I told them I didn't know how many other people are going to buy a Napoleon Dynamite talking doll."

Kamhi has been in the novelty manufacturing business nearly 30 years. His latest big seller is his talking SpiceMice, more than a million sold. Last week, his company, Kamhi World in Clearwater, Fla., began shipping the 7 3/4 -inch, $14.95, Napoleon Dynamite talking doll. Press its button and hear 18 Napoleon sound clips from the movie. Same for the Napoleon Dynamite Talking Pen that spouts off seven lines -- like "Freakin' idiot!" "Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner!" and "Sweet!"

"We're getting bombarded with orders," says Kamhi, estimating he has 100,000 orders from his Web site and stores such as Urban Outfitters and Spencer Gifts. "It's like the fans have their own little rapport with this character."

But not all do. Representatives of the Arc of the United States, a leading advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities, recently asked 20th Century Fox to stop production and retool existing stock of the talking Napoleon dolls and pens. The group took offense to the phrase "You guys are retarded," a line Napoleon utters at his oddball Uncle Rico and brother.

"Arc made us aware that this was alarming to them," says Dekel, explaining that 20th Century Fox responded by ceasing manufacturing of the items to change the sound clips. "We feel it was the right thing to do." (On eBay last Wednesday, one buyer spent $73.25 on one of the talking dolls, offending quote intact.)

Another collectible, of sorts, is Napoleon's "Jet Ranger 206" T-shirt with the image of a helicopter and mountain. Randall Sowa, a helicopter mechanic, and his graphic designer partner Phil Goettl, designed that shirt in 1983 to sell to hardscrabble helicopter crews exploring for oil in Rockies. Every year, they'd make another design to supplement their income. All told, they sold a couple of hundred.

Co-director Jerusha Hess, Jared's wife, found one of those shirts, size XL, good condition, at a Salt Lake City thrift shop and used it in the film. "I came away stunned that our shirt was pulled out of someone's ragbag and paraded front and center in an odd film," says Sowa, of Grapevine, Tex. ". . . I realized the shirt would become a cult icon."

Since then, Sowa has revived his original design and sold 23,000 of the $15.95 shirts from his Web site. "It really hasn't let up," he says, attributing the fervor to people identifying with Napoleon. "All of us are that character at one point in our lives."

But the bizarre irony, he says, is that "a shirt originally sold to a dynamite-toting, hard-living, helicopter-riding, migrant, seismic junkie would end up infinitely unforgettable on the back of a geek of geeks.

"You can't plan for that kind of stuff to happen."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company