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The retro revival a boon for business

The retro reincarnation is easy money for companies that own the rights to the productsof yesteryear, and it's even a boon for new companies, too.
Starting Nov. 30, TBS will run “The Real Gilligan's Island,” which will feature seven castaways who will work together to get rescued. “ If you thought the original cast was wacky, wait until you see what happens when we put these very different people together for real!,” touts the TBS Web site.George Lange / PRN file
/ Source: Forbes

What do The Ramones, Ms. Pac-Man, “Star Wars” and “Gilligan's Island” have in common?

They're all part of the retro reincarnation, the phenomenon of old hit music, movies, TV shows and videogames regaining popularity. The trend is easy money for companies that own the rights to these products, and it's even a boon for new companies, too.

Take Apple Computer, for instance. It's wildly popular iPod exemplifies the mindset behind the flashback media economy. The technology itself is cutting edge, but what users of the digital music player store on it — from the Beach Boys to Johnny Cash — may not be. In fact, Apple's iTunes online music service offers an extensive library of music that's out-of-print on CD, including many classics from Vivendi Universal's Verve Music Group label.

Soon iTunes will offer a U2 iPod, which is likely the first performer-branded music player for devotees since Elvis Presley and The Beatles put their names on record players. The new iPods will have the band member's autographs on them, and iTunes will sell a special download of the band's catalog of 400 songs that keeps 80s music relevant in the new century.

Retro is clearly hot. Our latest list of top-earning dead celebrities found that Elvis earned $40 million in 2003 while The Beatles' John Lennon earned $21 million and George Harrison, $7 million. Their estates should get even richer after the latest Beatles reissue — a CD box set that includes the supergroup's first four U.S. albums in both stereo and mono mixes — on Nov. 16.

It's not only old music that people are snatching up. It's also movie reissues, videogames and entire seasons of television shows on DVD. Long-awaited content is finally seeing release, such as the classic “Star Wars” movies on DVD and in widescreen format.

Retro game players across the nation are setting their sights on Atari's release of a compilation of games. It will be the largest-ever compilation release for home consoles with 85 videogames. The company has previously issued compilations of its games, but “Atari Anthology” includes rare games not seen since the mid-80s. Even if you had kept your Atari 2600 console all these years, the only way you could have played “Quadrun” or “Swordquest: Waterworld” on a videogame platform was if you had bought them via mail order from Atari way back when, or if you paid several hundred dollars for those cartridges in an online auction.

There are those who are less fortunate. A small but dedicated fan base is still clamoring for the “Rockford Files” on DVD — the television show was reissued on VHS in the 1990s and is now out of print. They're still holding their breath.

Reissued content in general is much more certain and lucrative than putting out a new product. There's already a built-in audience and less in the way of royalties to be paid. Jamie Fenton, creator of the legendary arcade game “GORF,” noted that most “classic” games were written by programmers on contract as “works for hire” for the game manufacturers, who continue to hold the rights to those games.

We estimate the market of reissued media rose 22.7 percent on an annual basis to more than $4.75 billion in 2003 — $1.74 billion in reissued music, $37.3 million in videogames, $2.85 billion in reissued movies, $125 million in reissued television shows.

On top of that, the separate retro and retro-themed mediums are crossbreeding. “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” from Take 2 Interactive Software, released in October 2002, has sold 7.8 million copies through the end of September across the Sony PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox platforms. The player's character is extensively voiced by Ray Liotta, the actor who is perhaps best known for his starring role in “Goodfellas” from 1990. Also featured are Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, “Miami Vice” star Philip Michael Thomas, “Six Million Dollar Man” star Lee Majors and lead singer Debbie Harry. The game, which is set in a mythical Florida town in the 80s, includes a period soundtrack. Steal a sports car and flip the radio on and you might catch Michael Jackson's “Billie Jean” or Hall & Oates' “Out of Touch.”

Viacom's VH1 has become a virtual mecca for nostalgic media with shows such as “I Love the 70s,” “I Love the 80s” and, of course, “I Love the 90s.” With quick commentary on the films, music, television, trends and games of those eras, these shows invigorate interest in those times — even to those who weren't there. Then there is the reality show “The Surreal Life,” which features castaways from those eras such as, Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav and former New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight all crammed on the same show.

How is VH1 doing? The end of September marked the most-viewed quarter in VH1's 19-year history, and it has ordered a “Surreal Life” spin-off to document the unlikely romance that budded between Flav and Brigitte Nielsen (Sylvester Stallone's ex-wife).

Speaking of castaways, 2004 is shaping up to be a big year for 1964's top-rated show, “Gilligan's Island.” The first season has been reissued on DVD and Time Warner unit TBS is launching “The Real Gilligan's Island” on Nov. 30.

Steve Koonin, executive vice president and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT, said that after screening the first episode he's “ecstatic with it.” In the show, seven castaways — winnowed down from 10,000 applicants — work together to get rescued and will relive some of the events from the original series. The contestants' real lives mirror those of the characters they play. The man who portrays Gilligan works at a marina and is a bit of a klutz while The Professor really is one at a university in New York.

There's no telling yet if the show will be a hit among the 18- to 49-year-old demographic that Koonin is aiming for, although advertisers including Ford Motor and Lowe's have already signed up judging by the show's Web site. If anything, “The Real Gilligan's Island” can only drum up interest for the January shipping of the DVD box set of the second season of “Gilligan's Island.”