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“Pokemon: The First Movie” Interview

SANTA MONICA, Calif., Nov. 7, 1999 — “It’s a hobby of mine,” says the little blond businessman, in the middle of a Pokémon trading deal at Santa Monica Place. “And when I collect them all I’m gonna sell them and see how much money I get.”

With nearly 800 cards under his belt, the young man likely increased his retirement fund at the trading-card portion of the shopping center, where Nintendo held its Pokémon’s Training Tour ’99 Nov. 7. The event drew an estimated 9,000 to play in the Game Boy tournament, buy merchandise and trade cards, all a promotion for “Pokémon: The First Movie,” which opened Nov. 10.

The craze began in Japan, where Pokémon (short for “Pocket Monsters”) was introduced as a game for Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1996. Players attempt to find, “catch” and train 150 different characters (with names like Pikachu and Geodude) which compete against each other. It spawned comic books, toys, cards and a hit television series.

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Soon after, Nintendo of America bought the rights to the Pokémon franchise and dubbed the TV show into English, airing it in syndication in September 1998, where it immediately topped children’s television ratings. It launched the game in U.S. markets a few weeks later, and its demand has been the main reason Game Boys are No. 1 in the video-console market this year, outselling Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s N64 combined, according to Bloomberg News.

“There really isn’t any other game that’s quite like this one,” said Team Nintendo. “It has the adventure aspect of a role-playing game because you’re maneuvering through this incredibly large world. You’re interacting with it, you talk with people, you’re reading signs for different areas of it, exploring areas. Then it also has a collecting and trading aspect.”

Warner Bros. smelled enough money to buy the exclusive rights to the TV show in January as well as the film, which was previously released in Japan and racked up its fourth-highest gross last year.

“It’s a great story, first and foremost,” said Norman J. Grossfeld, who produced and co-wrote the English adaptation for the film. “When the Game Boy was released, it was really based around the story of a trainer who wanted to become a Pokémon master. It was perfect for a TV series. In Japan they developed it in to the series, and an extension of the series is the movie.”

The U.S. release ensured box-office stardom with a merchandising gimmick: With admission, each ticket gets one of four new trading cards, only available by attending the movie or making a selected purchase at the Warner Bros. studio store. So for children to collect all four, they’ll have to watch the movie again. A $22-million promotional tie-in with Burger King also kicked in, offering plastic “Pokéballs” (what a trainer uses to catch the creatures) with toys and trading cards.

“Pokémon: The First Movie” opened with a five-day gross of $51 million, and as the title indicates, there are plans for more Pokémon films.

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“In Japan this past summer, the second movie was already released,” Grossfeld said. “Our plans are to bring it to the States in the year 2000.”

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