Brian Smith and his wife, Jackie Cuscuna, operate a two-parlor chain in Brooklyn called Ample Hills Creamery and sell pints of their homemade gourmet ice cream online.
Yet this family business is also now an official licensee of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," with two limited-edition ice cream flavors: The Dark Side and The Light Side, available for purchase exclusively online. Sold in reusable plastic pint containers, the two varieties are available in limited quantities only by mail over the next three months.
So how did a neighborhood business hook up with a Hollywood studio marketing arm to become a product licensee for the most anticipated movie of the year?
Smith said it was purely a matter of luck, though PR practitioners and savvy networkers might disagree.
When one of Hollywood's biggest names is your biggest fan
Disney chairman, CEO and acknowledged ice cream aficionado Bob Iger read an article in The Wall Street Journal last year about the ice cream company, which started with just one shop less than five years ago, and expanded to a second shop and a few kiosks as well as starting up a mail-order component.
Iger was, in fact, one of the first customers to place an online order with Ample Hills Creamery.
Smith, a former screenwriter of TV sci-fi movies who also directed President Barack Obama's audio book reading of "Dreams from My Father," recognized the name when the order arrived. Along with the ice cream, he sent the studio chief an Ample Hills Creamery cookbook and a drawing of Mickey Mouse wearing an Ample Hills shirt arm-in-arm with the Ample Hills cow wearing a "Frozen" shirt, designed by the business' art director Lauren Kaelin.
Thus began an ongoing online exchange between Smith and the powerful studio chief.
"He told us if there is anything he could do to help us build our brand, to let him know," Smith said. "After I picked my jaw off the floor, I said, 'Yes, there are a lot of ways' he could help."
What does the Dark Side taste like?
A self-proclaimed Star Wars geek, Smith eventually pitched Iger on the idea of creating a couple of special flavors in conjunction with the release of the highly anticipated Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens. Iger liked the idea and passed it along to director JJ Abrams and subsequently licensed the property through Disney Consumer Products.
"Obviously, through Bob's initial interest and support, here we are," Smith said. "What's neat and what I'm proud of is that I don't think anyone at Lucasfilm was sitting around going, 'What ice cream shop can we do an ice cream flavor with?' It was our idea that we came to them with. For us, the important thing was to do something in some small way that could contribute to the narrative of Star Wars and not just benefit from it. Obviously, we benefit from having a 'Star Wars' on our pint containers, but we really wanted to do something that borrowed from my screenwriting background and telling a story with the flavors."
Ample Hills Creamery's two limited edition flavors are The Light Side, a creamy marshmallow ice cream with homemade crispie clusters, as well as a smattering of handmade cocoa crispies (to represent the dark side that still lurks within the light), and The Dark Side, an ultra-dark chocolate variety with espresso fudge brownies, cocoa crispies and white chocolate pearls (to represent the light still hiding in the dark, waiting to emerge).
Since the Light Side and Dark Side collectible pints went on sale Dec. 1, Smith reports that he has received close to 8,000 orders. That compares roughly to the total number of online orders the company has received over the past six months, he added.
"We would sell more if we could, but we have a 900-square-foot kitchen that we're making this out of, and every single pint is hand-packed," he said. "We have a team of people making 700 to 800 pints a day. There will be 20,000 pints of each, and when it's over, it's over. That's all we've printed."
Getting the word out
Smith and his wife were on hand at a recent three-day press junket in Los Angeles handing out samples of their ice cream to journalists from around the world. They also are getting word out about the limited-edition flavors through digital channels including Star Wars blogs and the Ample Hills Creamery website.
"We're going to let the word of mouth do the job for us online," he said, adding that the first orders are shipping out this week. "As customers start to get the ice cream, they'll hashtag them and post online, and that can help continue to get the story out there."
With his background in writing low-budget sci-fi scripts and growing up a fan of Star Wars, Smith said he allowed himself to dare to dream of becoming "the little ice cream shop that could do a Star Wars license."
The Light Side and The Dark Side ice cream is sold in four-packs of collectible, reusable plastic pint containers featuring Force Awakens characters and original artwork designed by Kaelin. The pints are sold only at AmpleHills.com for $36 per four-pack (two Light Side and two Dark side pints), and can be shipped nationwide.
Smith acknowledges that the price is a bit steep for the average ice cream connoisseur, but he predicts that the cost will drop as he moves his operations into a larger production facility next summer.
Already planning a sequel
Iger has remained a helpful adviser to Smith. With the help of investors, the business recently raised $4 million in equity funding to build a new factory.
"He's helped me think through how we grow while maintaining the authenticity of what we've built as well as helping to identify what is unique about the brand and how we differentiate ourselves," Smith said.
The ice cream maker said he hopes to continue his relationship with Disney and Star Wars once the licensing expires at the end of February.
"There, of course, will be more Star Wars movies, and I can only hope that we come back and that we've made Disney and Bob proud," Smith said. "If we do, I'm hopeful that in the future, and as we open our factory, we'll have more of an ability to produce on a larger scale."