All Aboard: A caboose-ful of partners hypes Thomas the Tank Engine’s film debut.

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

After two decades of entertaining kids on PBS, Thomas the Tank Engine has finally thrown the track switch and will divert into 2,000 movie theatres this month when Thomas and the Magic Railroad, a Destination Films release starring Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin, and Mara Wilson, pulls into cinemas with a fairly lengthy list of promotional partners on board.

Washington, DC-based Amtrak will hype a Magic Railroad contest in 25 markets and on trains with special fares and sweeps signage. The company will use the effort to reinforce the fact that it offers discounted children’s fares. “Kids can’t get discount seats on airplanes,” says company spokesperson Karina Van Veen. “And this is a good opportunity for us to get the word out that they do on Amtrak.”

Amtrak has tied to movies before. It ran an effort last year tagged to New Line Cinema’s The Bachelor. The Magic Railroad sweeps dangles grand-prize trips for four to London and Ixtapa, Mexico. Other prizes include film merchandise, toys, and train tickets.

Meanwhile, QSR partner Subway, Milford, CT, will use Thomas for its primary summer marketing effort, a seven-week (July 10 to August 20) Kids’ Pak premium offering four different toys that hook together to create a full train set. Local TV spots support, as do in-store static clings, posters, table tents, and counter cards.

“This property has a halo effect,” says Chris Carroll, Subway’s marketing director. “It allows us to target both kids and parents.”

Subway, which links with television properties more frequently than theatrical releases – it will break a four million-premium promotion with Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls in late August – will first roll out the effort in all 15,000 U.S. and Canadian restaurants, then move overseas to follow Thomas’s release around the globe. The drive will mark Subway’s first major overseas promotional push.

Wynnewood, PA-based educational toy retailer Zany Brainy will also get involved with in-store events staged all month in many of its 80 stores. (A life-size Thomas road model is currently touring East Coast locations.) A sweeps will deliver various trips and prizes. Shelves will be stocked with movie merchandise. A 1.7-million piece direct-mail drop and 60,000 in-store catalogs support.

New York City-based Nickelodeon will mount a marketing campaign to cross-promote Magic Railroad with Shining Time Station, the Thomas series, which debuts this summer for a limited run during the Nick Jr. programming block.

“We take a different approach to marketing when it comes to Nick Jr.,” says Nick Jr. senior vp Brown Johnson. “Our audience is still trying to figure out the difference between ads and shows,” so the company has to take a simple approach to promotions. Thus, Nick Jr. will run behind-the-scenes spots from the movie with kid actor Mara Wilson, and will host an on-air sweeps in which kids can win a home train-themed party for 50 people.


The various efforts have been fairly well integrated, with Amtrak and Subway working with Zany Brainy, Club Med offering trips for the Zany Brainy and Amtrak sweeps, and virtually everyone putting Thomas links on their home pages.

But this train has just started rolling:

– Rochester, NY-based Eastman Kodak Co. will join the fun with an in-theater campaign providing kids with Thomas doodle cards, magnets, and buttons. Themed kids trays and special popcorn and cup packaging will also be distributed.

– Some 27,000 education kits containing fun information and bookmarks are being distributed to 82,000 school classrooms around the nation by book publisher Random House, Inc., New York City. Discount coupons on Amtrak are also enclosed.

– Kmart gets an account-specific on-pack nod via thousands of Thomas videos polybagged with a train toy.

– Large movie standees are being erected in Grand Central Station and FAO Schwarz’s flagship store in New York City. And 2,500 independent toy stores are handing out Magic Railroad posters.

– Santa Monica, CA-based Destination Films is setting up “Meet Thomas” events in 60 markets with games and giveaways. The field efforts will hit local fairs, summer reading programs, and kid’s sports events.

Minneapolis-based Johnson Grossfield handles for Amtrak, Subway, and Zany Brainy. Other efforts are handled in-house. Merchandise licensees include Hasbro/Milton Bradley, Briarpatch, and Ravensburger. Items include puzzles, board games, and apparel.

Thomas the Tank Engine first emerged in England out of an obscure series of 1940s children’s books written by the Reverend Wilber Awdry. The train hit the U.S. in the early 1980s, and has reached 123 countries globally. The film will be released in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, Portugal, and the Middle East.

The movie blends live-action, digital effects, and traditional model animation for Thomas’ usual blend of song, story, and life lessons. Destination is already developing a sequel, says vp-national promotions Rachel Cadden.

Next stop for the studio’s promotions team, however, is recruiting partners for Ring of Fire, a rodeo movie that will premiere in October. Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser, Wrangler Jeans, and DeWalt Tools are reportedly interested.


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