Although toys, games, and video games have inspired entertainment for nearly 40 years, the results have been consistently mixed. Whether it was the animation boom of the early 1980s that brought properties such as Care Bears, Transformers, and G.I. Joe to TV sets and movie theaters, or much less successful attempts — like the live-action Masters of the Universe movie from 1987 — the trend has continued to ebb and flow. Now, with more networks and streaming platforms than ever before, audiences and distributors are hungry for fresh content that intellectual property (IP) holders are ready to provide.
CLASH OF THE TOY TITANS
At Mattel, a large component of the company’s strategy hinges on building content divisions into powerhouses that can develop both scripted and unscripted content based on its IP through a variety of external production partners.
“This is not just about selling toys,” says Mattel Chairman and CEO Ynon Kreiz. “The mandate, first and foremost, is to create great, quality movies and compelling TV content based on our franchises that people want to watch.”
Animation has been one area of early success for Mattel, particularly on Netflix, where Barbie content has grown to include an ever-expanding range of series, specials, and films. According to data from The NPD Group, the release of new Barbie content is charting a direct correlation with increased traction in the doll aisle.
Mattel Television has more than 25 projects in development, including game shows based on UNO and Whac-A-Mole, a reboot of Monster High with Nickelodeon, and the reality competition series Barbie Fashion Battle. Mattel Films has 11 projects in development, including those based on American Girl, Hot Wheels, Magic 8 Ball, and View-Master.
Additional projects, including this year’s preschool reimagining of Thomas & Friends and a pair of Masters of the Universe series for Netflix, are part of Mattel’s new business model that leverages its IP catalog while creating little to no risk financially. This way, Mattel can lean on third-party companies to finance each project in development.
“With our strategy, for both film and TV, we have the flexibility to work with the right studio and distribution partner on the right project, on the right terms,” Kreiz says. “This allows us to develop and produce multiple projects concurrently, at scale. We believe we have in place the right economic model, which is not dependent on capital investment from Mattel, while we still retain economic upside for both our film and TV businesses.”
While Mattel continues to work with external partners, Hasbro has taken a more direct approach: The company bought a studio and hit the reset button.
With the acquisition of Entertainment One (eOne), Hasbro is plotting a bold future in which it can develop and produce content based on its own IP and then take a platform-agnostic approach to distribution.
“With eOne’s infrastructure, we have full control over creative and production,” says Olivier Dumont, president, family brands, eOne. “We can drive our own timelines and we’re able to unlock the profitability of our Hasbro brands across the entire value chain.”
On the TV front, Hasbro previously tested the waters with The Hub Network, a 50/50 joint venture with Discovery Communications that launched in 2010. While the network launched the massively successful My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic series in addition to other Hasbro toy-inspired series, Hasbro divested itself from ownership in 2014.
Dumont says that the economics of keeping as many services in-house as possible is allowing Hasbro to focus more resources toward storytelling.
“From a creative standpoint, [the idea is that] our team of experts can very thoughtfully nurture and develop our brands across media,” Dumont says.
Hasbro and eOne are developing new projects based on G.I. Joe, including a live-action series for Amazon Prime and Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins in theaters July 23; four Transformers films; and a My Little Pony series for Netflix this fall. Dumont says that the company has more than 30 properties in active development.
“Our creative teams are partnering with storytellers who bring fresh perspectives and can transform how our fans engage with our brands,” he says. “Beau Willimon (House of Cards) is working with us to develop a premium scripted series based on Risk, and writer/director Jonathan Entwistle (I Am Not Okay With This) is at the helm of the reinvented Power Rangers film and TV universe.”
NEW PLAYERS AND CLASSIC BRANDS
Last fall, Spin Master split into three distinct “creative centers”: Toys, Entertainment, and Digital Games. Following successful co-productions, the Toronto-based company launched its fully owned IP Mighty Express and appointed Jennifer Dodge to lead Spin Master Entertainment as president. This August, Spin Master’s first feature film PAW Patrol: The Movie will hit theaters.
Michael Goodman, founder of the MLGPC licensing agency, recently came on board with The Nacelle Co., producer of The Toys That Made Us series, to identify toy properties for its development and production slate.
“Every toy and game that was ever brought to market holds a place in someone’s heart and mind,” Goodman says. “I believe that if a network or streamer is given the choice between greenlighting a show based on a product with a history of sales — with potential for a built-in audience with co-viewing potential — and a show based on a brand new IP without all that history, I would think that the logical choice would be the former. Nothing is ever a sure thing, but this is a way of hedging your bets.”
Cross-generational nostalgia factor is a big element behind a recent deal that Wham-O — the maker of Frisbee and Hula Hoop — inked with Critical Content. Slip ‘N Slide Island is a competition series inspired by the classic water toy that is expected to arrive next year.
Even Slinky, which almost made it to theaters a decade ago, is getting a movie. Filmmaker Tamra Davis (Billy Madison) is developing a biopic based on Toy Industry Hall of Famer Betty James’ rise from at-home mom to successful CEO.
VIDEO GAME PROPERTIES LEVEL UP
Traditionally, video games have had a rough go at making the jump from pixels to multiplexes. Super Mario Bros. (1993) failed to connect with audiences and was even disparaged by members of the cast and crew for decades. Still, the film has become a cult classic, and next year, Mario and Luigi are set to star in a big-budget animated film from Universal’s Illumination (Despicable Me).
Warner Bros., Nintendo, and The Pokémon Co. International brought Detective Pikachu to the big screen in 2019 and found that the little, yellow Pokémon was nearly universally loved. It became the first video game movie to hold a “Certified Fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes until The Angry Birds Movie 2 and the Blue Blur showed up.
Despite a very public backlash that led to a redesign of the title character, SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog sped into theaters last February via Paramount Pictures and became the biggest family film of the year, taking in $319 million globally, according to Box Office Mojo. Now, with a sequel on deck, Sonic is the true definition of a transmedia property that plays well across all screens and has a flag planted firmly in the toy aisles.
“Some of the main challenges we face when working across multiple mediums is staying consistent within the existing storylines of the Sonic universe and maintaining Sonic’s signature characteristics, such as his appearance and playful attitude,” says Ivo Gerscovich, chief brand officer, Sonic the Hedgehog, and senior vice president, SEGA of America. “Toys are most successful when they accurately capture the action of the source material. Sonic lives in movies, animation, video games, comics, and more, and in each of these media, we work hard with our partners to ensure that the play pattern translates well into the toys.”
Gerscovich says that fans can expect a robust line of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 toys from Jakks Pacific next year.
Over the next 18 months, several video game-inspired titles are on deck, including a film based on the PlayStation hit Uncharted, a theatrical reboot and a Netflix Original Series based on Resident Evil, and a Blumhouse adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy’s, in addition to a movie based on Mortal Kombat that debuted in mid-April. In addition, more than a dozen high-profile games are said to be in various stages of development.
It’s taken decades to get here, but the modern relationship between toys and entertainment has evolved around one common factor that every company seems to agree on regardless of their approach: Film and TV projects are no longer looked at as toy commercials. With quality content and storytelling, sales will come naturally and organically.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!