Pokémon craze moves to theaters
November 11, 1999
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Japan's "pocket monsters" already have invaded the backpacks, schools and free time of children in many parts of the United States. Now, with Wednesday's release of "Pokémon: The First Movie," the franchise promises to throw its weight around the box office as well.
Variety reports that with 2,901 screens scheduled for the film's opening, "Pokémon" may turn in one of the best post-Labor Day single-day debuts for an animated picture. Currently, the record for a Wednesday animated-film debut at this time of year is held by "Toy Story." AC Nielsen EDI says that film earned $4.8 million on its opening, the day before Thanksgiving 1995.
Some analysts say the film will be the biggest children's picture of the year, and could gross as much as $150 million in the U.S. box office alone.
The popularity of the opening is also indicated by a run on the special-edition trading cards being given away with each film ticket sold. "Pokémon" distributor Warner Bros. -- like CNN.com, a property of Time Warner -- says opening attendance on Wednesday was so high that theaters were running out of the cards.
"We believed our generous supply of many millions of cards would last at least the first week," read a news release from Brad Ball, president of domestic marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures. "But the fact that we now find ourselves nearly tapped out after only one day just reinforces our belief in the tremendous appeal of both our movie and the entire Pokémon phenomenon."
Tickets to the Mann's Chinese Theater premiere in Los Angeles were a hot commodity, with the Warner Bros. switchboard taking about 70,000 calls a minute on Monday morning after a televised offer for free tickets to Mann's. The avalanche of calls crashed the studio's voice mail system. By 2 p.m. the studio was still getting 40,000 calls a minute.
Even a Times Square billboard advertising the film proved to be a hot commodity. When auctioned on eBay, bidding for the billboard closed Wednesday at $1,225. The proceeds are to go the Boys and Girls Club of America.
"I think that parents are desperate to try to get involved in the world that their kids are involved with nowadays with Pokémon," says Norman J. Grossfeld, producer and English-adaptation writer for "Pokémon: The First Movie."
"So I think that the movie is their first opportunity to actually go and participate with their kids in Pokémon."
Parents divided on game
The franchise -- controlled by Nintendo of America and originated in Japan -- is a marketing coup the company estimates at being worth some $6 billion worldwide. It's driven by a host of kid-popular products. Video games, a TV cartoon and, of course, the collector cards all center around a universe of 151 characters with oddball names like Pikachu and Jigglypuff.
And kids are so eager to collect and trade the products (slogan: "Gotta catch 'em all") that many schools, equally eager to keep their students' attention focused on learning, have declared themselves Pokémon-free zones.
Part of the success here may lie in the appeal of Pokémon for both boys and girls.
"We're hearing from parents: 'Yes, this is great,'" says Beth Llewelyn of Nintendo of America. "And they start playing it with their kids because that's the only way they can understand it. So we're getting moms and dads and kids playing together."
But school officials aren't the only adults concerned about the Pokémon craze. While some parents study up on the Pokémon universe, others worry that their children are falling into a dangerous world in which fantasy and reality become blurred.
"Children are obsessed with it," Christian News columnist Berit Kjos told "CNN TalkBack Live" this week -- an assertion borne out by reports that a 9-year-old boy slashed a 13-year-old boy in the leg with a carving knife Tuesday night on Long Island, New York, in a dispute over the trading cards.
"I'm hearing from public schoolteachers, Christian schoolteachers and parents," Kjos said, "that children don't want to put the game aside. If they're in the middle of a trade, they don't want to come in to class. They don't want to sit down and have dinner with the family. They don't get their homework done."
And while other toy trends have come and gone, she says she sees signs that Pokémon may be different. "We have a technology now to draw children into a virtual reality that we've never had to battle before," she says.
"Now, I realize that there are positive elements such as learning math, learning economics, team spirit, learning to train and be patient with your Pokémon. But all of these are part of a fantasy. That takes the place of reality for many of these students and children, and it does separate them from parents in ways I don't believe are healthy."
Despite concerns, future looks bright
Nintendo says that in designing its marketing campaigns, it gives a great deal of thought to the effects of the campaign techniques on children.
And, says Nintendo of America's Perrin Kaplan, kids shouldn't be bringing their Pokémon toys to school. "Nintendo really strongly believes there is a place for entertainment," Kaplan says, "but it doesn't need to be 24 hours a day."
While some parents say they fear their kids will be too deeply immersed in Pokémon fantasy, others say the concern should be on parental discipline.
As schools tell children that the cards are inappropriate in the classroom, "parents have to do the exact same thing at home," says Ian Punnett, a talk show host and seminarian. "There is nothing that you could give a child that's going to come with a built-in governor that's going to keep the child from becoming automatically obsessed with it."
A few "older kids" are fighting back with a little humor on the Web. Hecklers Online offers a series of 10 "new" Pokémon creatures -- decidedly fabricated and in no way connected to the franchise -- for the amusement of adults, say trading-card-weary parents at the end of a hard day among Mewtwo fans.
But it does appear that even better -- as in more lucrative - times are ahead for the legit Pokémon juggernaut. Thousands of people turned out for a Pokémon gaming tournament in southern California recently. More products are on the way. And as the film's title implies, a second Pokémon film is in the pipeline. It should arrive from Japan for a summer 2000 release in the United States.
Did Nintendo ever guess that Pokémon would become such a hot commodity worldwide? "I think we felt that it would be very popular," says Nintendo's Kaplan, "because kids in Japan really fell in love with it and still are in love with it.
"I guess we didn't think that the height of it was going to continue to go even higher to where it is right today."
CNN Entertainment News Correspondent Jim Moret contributed to this report.
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