Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the DUNE: PART TWO Popcorn Bucket (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Courtesy of Zinc

Boxoffice Pro speaks about the burgeoning concessions collectibles business with Rod Mason, the vice president of business development at Zinc Group and Marcus Gonzalez, the global creative director of entertainment marketing at Zinc group; a company that specializes in licensed items and concession materials. They’s done a number of different popcorn buckets in the past, but none have gone viral in quite the same way as the Dune: Part Two popcorn bucket.

Let’s start with the beginning of the design process, of getting the brief from AMC, from Warner Bros. What was the process like for that?

Rod Mason: We try to work about 12 to 14 months out from the launch of a movie. What happens, is that we secure the license, the IP, from the studios. In this case, it was Legendary Pictures. They gave us all the assets and then Marcus and his team go to work on the brainstorming part of the business.

Marcus Gonzalez: Basically we have two directions that we approach things at. We’re given the seller guide and some assets, sometimes some backstory about what’s going on, sometimes not. Of course, with Dune it’s a little bit easier. The challenge here was the bespoke 3D. The 2D stuff is easy, you know the flat art is going to be printed on a tin or something, but the customized stuff is a little bit more challenging. So you start going back and forth: what’s iconic in the books, what’s iconic in the films. My team and the studio were just shooting around what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. We couldn’t quite figure out what to do, but we just kept going back to the worm. We talked about doing the pain box and we talked about doing some other things, but we just kept going back to the worms [saying], “We know the worm is one of the most iconic things in the movies, so what are we going to do?” We kept going back and forth, “Do we do a full worm? Do we not do a full worm.” 

Finally, we landed on, “Hey, let’s do the worm on the top and let’s take it one step further. Wouldn’t it be cool if you can stick your hand in there and take the popcorn out?” Then [it was] figuring out what we were going to do for all the teeth. So we worked through it and joked around about it and ended up landing on what we did. One of my guys ended up doing a 3D [model] the next day. We started working through that process trying to figure out if it’s feasible. So that’s one of our challenges as we go through the development process; we also want to be able to push the envelope and figure out what we haven’t done before and what’s going to be a little bit different than what we did for the previous movie. This one had a lot to do with the sensory thing of sticking your hand into a popcorn bucket to pull out the popcorn. We didn’t really think of it as an ick factor, but to some people, the mentality of the worm automatically sets them up for an ick factor, so that’s what ended up happening.

Rod Mason: This all kind of began back in 2019. We’ve always done three dimensional items. They’ve always been good, but when we first started the business here in the U.S., the biggest objection was that it doesn’t fit in a cup holder. In three years we went from ‘it doesn’t fit in a cup holder’ to doing an R2D2, which is about 18 inches tall and holds 140 ounces of popcorn and 44 ounces of drink. That was done for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. That then set the table for a lot of this stuff, because we did that for AMC exclusively. We don’t divulge the numbers, obviously, but they did a lot of these. They bought them for x and they sold them for x plus y, y, y, y, y, y, y and made a lot of money.

They realized that from a business model, this was actually very good because of how the cinema business works; they don’t make a lot of money from the ticket sales, they make it from their concessions. This was a good way to encourage collectors to come in. Then we all know what happened with the pandemic. Since then, it’s been AMC, Cinemark, and Cineplex in Canada, who have all pretty much committed to doing these larger popcorn containers, because they know it makes them money. Now we’re doing a lot of development for Regal too, because they’re the last to come to the table, but they’re now getting in. So you will see a lot more of these things.

How did Zinc get started in the merchandising field? Was the focus always on movie theaters?

Marcus Gonzalez: In my previous life, I worked at Disney, developing a lot of things for theme parks, and it was the same challenge — we needed to stack and we needed to nest and we needed to do all these things, but then at the end of the day, the product was so cool that guests wanted it.

Rod Mason: We do a lot of business with Disney theme parks and also Universal and a few others like SeaWorld. What they’ve recognized is that if they do something in one of their parks, it’s the only place you can get it. We’ve tried to take that model to the cinemas. It’s like anything, it takes a little while for people to realize this is a good idea. And now everybody’s realizing it is a good idea.

Did you get any notes? Did anyone see the final design and ask questions?

Rod Mason: In licensing, there are a lot of approval steps during the process before you get to a finished product. This was reviewed by us internally, by the licensing house Legendary Pictures, it was also reviewed multiple times by AMC. This sat in our office for months and no one made a comment [Laughs.]

Concessions merchandising has been around for decades. There’s so many different ways to literally think outside of the tub in bringing these concepts together, but rarely do they go viral. When did you first start hearing rumblings that this might have a life outside of the original intentions?

Rod Mason: We didn’t know about the Saturday Night Live skit until after it came out. In fact, I don’t think Legendary Pictures even knew about it.

Marcus Gonzalez: That skit came out and one person made a comment and the next person made a comment. By the next morning, the SNL broadcast had been edited to just that skit. That’s what ended up going around, but by the next day, [people were saying] “Hey, isn’t this you guys?” There was the first picture that someone got that was supposedly a candid behind-the-scenes photo. That gained some momentum and there were a lot of Reddit posts and stuff. Then it was just one thing after the other, you had the Jimmy Kimmel [monologue] and then all sudden SNL.

Can you talk about the embracing of the concept? It seems like this is going to be a collector’s item. There’s an excitement among moviegoers about getting their hands on this item.

Rod Mason: I think it’s pretty clear that we live in an age of social media and instant gratification. If you can actually say, “I’ve got the Dune popcorn bucket,” it kind of elevates your coolness, if you will. From the perspective of the partners, when it first hit and it first started going viral, there was a little bit of concern for all parties. I mean, let’s face it, you can’t stop a breaking wave, you’ve just got to go with it. It’s interesting reading the comments on these social media posts. Some people are like, “Oh, whoever designed this needs to get fired,” and “It’s the worst piece of marketing ever.” Then somebody else is like, “Oh my god, it’s the greatest piece of marketing ever because everybody’s talking about it.”

What are some of the other custom popcorn boxes you’ve done in the past?

Marcus Gonzalez: Last year we had a few big ones that ended up being very popular. One that always resonates with me is the 20 sided dice for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. That was actually also a random pitch. We were at the licensing show the year before last and we met with Hasbro. We were working on, “Do we go after this? Do we go after that? What are some interesting titles?” We met with that team and I just quickly doodled a few things on a piece of paper. I said, “Could we do a 20 sided die as a popcorn bucket?” It wasn’t directly tied into the film, but it was tied into the Dungeons & Dragons universe. The licensor went back and checked with their people who went up the chain to Wizards of the Coast. They’re like, “Well this isn’t something we planned for, but that’s a really cool idea, so let’s try and make it happen.” They made it happen on their end, so we ended up being able to make it happen on our end, which was really cool, because that particular one, once it came out, sold out in a matter of days.

From the designs that you’ve already brought to the market in the last several years, like the 20 sided die for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and The Super Mario Bros. Movie question mark tin–this seems to be something that is going to continue across the industry.

Rod Mason: I think you’re absolutely, one hundred percent right. We try to design with the movie in mind and the movie audience in mind. I don’t want to tell Marcus how to do his job, because he does a great job, but we really do try to design it with the movie in mind. If we don’t think it’s going to be a real blockbuster, then you’re not going to see something so iconic like the Dune popcorn bucket, the 20 sided die, the Minions airplane, or things like the R2D2, because people don’t identify with it as much. That’s where Marcus and his team are so fantastic, because they are able to put their finger on the pulse of what’s going on 12 months out. That’s no small feat.

Marcus Gonzalez: 12 months out, we may not have style guides, so the challenge is trying to also design relativity out of thin air. In this case, we knew the worm was iconic. We know that in different things, there are iconic characters or creatures or objects, and ultimately the template is making sure it has that resonant nag factor with the collectors. It’s an impulse buy for some and not for others, but going to the movie theater and going through the concession and it’s like, “Holy crap, look at that worm bucket. I have to have it.” Every time you see it at home, it reminds you of watching that movie and the movie experience. Or you tell your friends, “Look at the thing that I got.” Those are some of the basic factors that feed into a lot of the social media experience as well. It’s a matter of which one’s really going to catch on and which one’s not. In this particular case, especially because it got out a little earlier than expected, it went viral. We’ve had successes like with the 20 sided die and Super Mario Bros. where people connected with the icons of it. Again, it’s the nag factor and “I have to have it.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtesy of Zinc

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