After just over two weeks in release, “The Lego Movie” has crossed an astounding $275 million in global ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
With a Cinemascore of “A” and Rotten Tomatoes critical reception at 96%, it has become clear that the animated feature about an ordinary guy who faces off against a tyrant intent on super gluing the world into stasis was no mere cash grab.
Instead, the Denmark-based Lego Group has generated a series of eye-opening object lessons for such American counterparts as Mattel and Hasbro, at least when it comes to big-screen extensions of their intellectual properties.
While Mattel has sputtered at the gate with such tent pole features as Masters of the Universe and Hot Wheels spending the past decade in development hell, Hasbro jockeyed forward with “Transformers” ($2.7 billion global franchise gross) and “G.I. Joe” ($678 million global franchise gross), but then stumbled with “Battleship” and the recent loss of its overall deal with Universal Pictures. Interestingly, while the “Transformers” films led to brief spikes in toy sales for Hasbro, overall sales of both Transformers and G.I. Joe toy lines have dropped off steadily in the past two years, even as Lego sales have soared.
Now the #2 toy company in the world, behind Mattel, Lego is teaching us what we all should have known in the first place: that a story can be told about virtually anything—even a pile of interlocking bricks—and all we need to do is remember how we told stories to ourselves with our toys … the best stories ever.
Lesson 1: Lego has been practicing sustained multi-platform storytelling since 2000.
Inspired by “Star Wars,” Lego became the first toy company to use transmedia storytelling techniques, launching its Bionicle line in 2000 not with a wave of toys, but with a series of webisodes detailing the world and back story of an ancient race of bio-technological warriors.
Centralizing everything kids needed to know about Bionicles on a website (recently shut down after a more than 10-year run)— about toys, books, comics, and animated films — Lego offered fans a carefully orchestrated fully interactive universe. The campaign captured the imagination of ‘tween boys, reversing a ten-year downturn for Lego by generating over $161.7 million in 2001, and going on to become a billion dollar juggernaut over the next decade.
Lego followed this up by teaming with Warner Bros. and generating a video game line that leveraged licenses like “Harry Potter,” “Batman,” and even the non-WB “Star Wars,” specifically targeting younger kids with easy gameplay, spirited adventure, and light-hearted humor. The style and tone of the games found their way into more original Lego I.P.’s, such as "Ninjago"and the current "Legends of Chima" animated series, which are both airing on Cartoon Network. Both shows immediately triggered big toy sales. With their Warner Bros.partnership a success, and their cross-platform development process fine-tuned, Lego saw profits spiral to new heights, with profits rising 35% to nearly $1 billion in 2012.
While both Mattel and Hasbro have strong records in television and direct-to-video franchise extensions, the results have been more scattershot. After announcing their new Playground Productions late last year to produce film and television projects in-house, Mattel has started to groom “Monster High” (teen daughters and sons of such classic villains as Dracula, the Wolf Man and The Mummy cleverly made over as high school fashionistas), as a theatrical feature.
A smash property that now consistently outsells Barbie, Mattel has generated a wealth of “Monster High” media, but the content has been presented in a mishmash of styles and versions. Key characters look and behave quite differently depending on what TV movie you’re watching or book you’re reading. With little consistency to work with, the producers of a “Monster High” theatrical feature will face the tough challenge of essentially starting from scratch.
In 2010, Hasbro redoubled their efforts to reconnect their Transformers franchise with the toy line’s target market of ‘tween boys. The company commissioned a 400-page realignment of the franchise’s tangled 30-year mythology, sometimes called "The Binder of Revelation," and successfully relaunched the story world across games, comics, and an animated series on their Hub channel.
At first existing uneasily with the franchise’s live-action feature film sibling, the movies (directed by Michael Bay) have actually begun to drift closer in tone and continuity to Hasbro’s homegrown transmedia effort. It remains to be seen whether the June 2014 release of Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” pushes sales of Hasbro’s toy line to new heights.
Lesson 2: Lego sees its products through the eyes of its target consumer: Kids.
While the “Transformers,” “G.I. Joe,” and “Battleship” movies switched up their target audience to leverage the ostensibly more lucrative teen and young adult market, each sacrificed some or all of the core values that made the toys so resonant with multiple generations of kids. Heart was exchanged for violence, wonder for bombast.
By all accounts, the Lego company was founded out of a genuine concern. The carefully designed bricks played to children’s natural curiosity, imagination, and creativity. Their original corporate motto was, "Only the best is good enough."
Some have argued that the company has sold out over the past ten years or so, cashing in on popular licenses, including detailed instruction booklets so that, like worker drones, kids can build precise replicas of Batmobiles and Millennium Falcons.
But “The Lego Movie” cuts down this theory with wild abandon. Operating in tandem—more closely than Hasbro or Mattel has ever worked with Hollywood creatives—Lego and the filmmakers created a villain in Will Ferrell’s Lord Business who directly subverts the brand’s core ethos. Emmet, the film’s hero, must learn to toss aside the “instruction book” and open his mind to creative solutions to the challenges he faces.
Contrary to accusations that the film is anti-capitalist, “The Lego Movie” is far more concerned with the limitations adulthood imposes on our worldview, and how most answers in life come from the openness and innate desire for interconnectivity that we experienced as children.
Who can argue with this? It’s why the film, like the best Pixar movies, has experienced Hollywood’s Holy Grail of “four-quadrant” appeal (adults, kids, females, males), but it’s also why Lego’s core market segment is walking out of the theater convinced the movie was just for them. Will they feel the same way about Adam Sandler’s "Candyland"?
Lesson 3: Lego has a sense of humor.
Strangely, toy adaptations have a history of dead seriousness. The first “Transformers” animated feature actually killed off noble hero Optimus Prime, leaving kids shocked in the aisles. Most of the laughs coming out of Bay’s series happen when something is violently smashed. “Masters of the Universe” wore a cloak of camp around its gloomy heart, and “Battleship” sank under the weight of its grimness.
“The Lego Movie” brightens the picture, boasting humor like that found in such Marvel Cinematic Universe films as “Avengers” and the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy." Screenwriters Chris Miller and Phil Lord intuited that the humor in the film should come not at the expense of the brand or story world, but as a byproduct of fly-on-the-wall observations of how kids play with Lego toys. Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius has a staff made of a used lollipop; floating characters sometimes dangle into scenes on strings; sound effects sometimes seem to be voiced by a kid motorboating his lips.
Lesson 4: Lego (mostly) understands pervasive media.
True to their corporate narrative (and transmedia history), Lego has allowed and even promoted the online expression of the brand’s myriad fans. Millions of handmade Lego animations can be found on YouTube. Memes drawn from the movie are cropping up on Facebook pages and mommy blogs. A well-timed raft of Lego-ized Best Picture nominee posters went viral from marketing firm Old Red Jalopy. Lego’s own website invites fans to "Direct Your Own Trailer," and “Create Your Own SigFig,” where you can upload a photo and turn yourself into a Lego figure. Outside of official channels, Hasbro and Mattel have kept a cool distance from fan expressions around such perennials as Barbie and Littlest Pet Shop.
But Lego faltered when it came to a full commitment to take the brand into cyberspace. In a rare moment of conservatism, the company allowed Swedish publisher Mojang wide berth to introduce brick-building game Minecraft in 2011. The game went on to achieve huge primacy in the digital market, selling over 35 million copies, and driving the global ‘tween set to distraction. Lego has since found itself licensing Minecraft to offer customers a meatspace version of the game.
Lesson 5: Lego has an Ace up its sleeve: Transtextuality!
Walk across any Disney theme park in the world and you’re likely to see your favorite fairy tale princesses rubbing elbows with Pixar characters, Captain Jack Sparrow staggering past the Dumbo ride. We smile at these juxtapositions, because each has meaning to us, to our kids, and seeing them mixed around us hearkens to the tossed salad of books, toys, and media in our childhood bedrooms.
When we were small, Chewbacca could team up with Snake Eyes and your sister’s My Little Pony to take down a rampaging plastic dinosaur, and it all made perfect sense. With no knowledge or care about studio politics, trademarks, and copyrights, we are born “transtextual”—characters and story worlds, reality, and fantasy all flow through our minds in a single, happy stew, like Disneyland.
Of course, this joy is smacked out of us by sneering older brothers and sage parents, but we can’t help but cheer when Bugs Bunny meets Mickey Mouse in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” or when Mr. Potato Head cracks wise with Slinky Dog in the “Toy Story” films. “The Lego Movie” cleverly builds on this precedent, making Batman a major character, and boasting hilarious but meaningful cameos by Gandalf, Han Solo, Shaquille O’Neal, Dumbledore, a Ninja Turtle and Abraham Lincoln, among others.
Lego pulled this off as a by-product of the brand’s good will among creators, and profitability among stakeholders. Jon Burton, managing director of TT Games, the Warner Bros.-owned developer of Lego video games, told Hollywood Reporter, “That kind of dealmaking should be beyond the realms of possibility, but with Lego, it gets done.” In effect, just like what happens at the climax of “The Lego Movie,” the Lego company has succeeded at ungluing imagination, and that ought to school us all.