What does Mattel know about the movie business? More than you might think. Toy companies are so intertwined with the Hollywood creative process these days that studios often bring in big names like Mattel for feedback early in the development process of big blockbuster films. Why? Because toy makers and film makers are a match made in marketing heaven. Studios get access via manufacturers like Mattel, to the prime audience for some of their big blockbusters, ie. kids. And toy companies get to tap into beloved (or soon-to-be beloved) big screen characters. With the explosion in comic and video game screen adaptations, the partnerships have become so close between the two industries that toy execs, like Doug Wadleigh, senior vice president of franchise development at Mattel, has access and input into the film industry's biggest (and sometimes most secret) upcoming projects, up to 18 months before they hit the big screen.
From Hasbro to Mattel and Jax, toy manufacturers spend millions bidding on the hottest upcoming movie brands, hoping to nab the next must-have action figure or huggable plush. Toy shelves are already stocked with products for upcoming titles like Cars 2, Transformers 3 and a box office rookie, The Green Lantern, which opened last week. Based on the long-established comic by DC, the Warner Bros. film stars Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, and if the studio and Mattel get their wish, children will not only beg to line up at the theater, they'll plead for Lantern action figures and other products Mattel has spent more than year designing.
For studios, affiliated merchandise can be an essential ingredient of a film's profits, particularly with superhero blockbusters which are phenomenally expensive to make (The Green Lantern cost more than $200 million to produce, for example). Successful corresponding toy lines are valuable to a film's marketing scheme not only for royalty fees paid to studios, but because of the brand visibility they produce in toy aisles.
The toy maker-film maker relationship is so co-dependent, toy execs like Wadleigh are among the first to read a potential summer movie script. "We want to know what's in development, what talent is attached and how important that film is to the studio," he says, adding that if he spies the right elements, Mattel will bid on the merchandising rights for that film. "Studios are now coming to us earlier than ever in this development process to let us look at the materials, asking us to give them open and honest input as to why the film can translate into toys or not," he says. "It's ultimately their decision whether or not they want to adjust it to be more to be more toy friendly based on that input."
If know what to look for, you can see a toy maker's fingerprints on big budget films like Green Lantern. Artists from both sides of the collaboration will often work together on designs for the film accessories, mainly gadgets and vehicles. "Yes, we're the studio and we're the closest to the people making the movie, but we integrate Mattel at the earliest stage with the film's producers, the director and the art director," Brad Globe, President, Warner Bros. Consumer Products. "We both know the important thing is to translate the movie's elements into something the kids can play with."
For The Green Lantern, this meant making sure the film's centerpiece, The Green Lantern power ring, would be a must-have for kids wanting to join up with the Green Lantern Corps. "This ring can create anything that The Green Lantern imagines. Our challenge was to develop a unique technology to bring that idea to life," Wadleigh says. "We pioneered a new technology we call Battleshifters, which basically is an origami-like technique that can turn one toy into something else completely different with a touch of a button to replicate what kids see on the screen."
Somewhere in this process is the ultimate tug-of-war between directors wanting to create an edgier, cooler superhero film and companies like Mattel, who must make sure movie themes are, in fact, kid friendly. Mattel, a partner with Warner Bros. on its DC films, didn't sell as many toys for 2008's The Dark Knight, a PG-13 rated film, as its record-shattering box office revenues would suggest. Instead, the main focus of the line was on collectables, not role play items for kids because the film was so dark in theme that many parents didn't bring younger children.
Merchandising contracts for film characters established successful toy track records go high six figure amounts, though details of the deals themselves are often kept secret. Toy sales for new film franchises are unpredictable and the royalty fees paid to the studios are predictably lower, which means The Green Lantern is an appealing project for Mattel. Toy and family entertainment expert and editor of TimetoPlayMag.com, Jim Silver, estimates The Green Lantern brand will guarantee Mattel about $20 million in toy sales, costing the company maybe $2.5 million in royalty fees paid to Warner Bros. for the film's licensing, with a possible bonus if sales reach a higher amount. Though there's no predicting if the film will actually perform well in theaters, a $2.5 million fee won't break the bank for a $5-billion-a-year company like Mattel even if there isn't a big payoff.
According to Silver, $20 million in expected sales for the The Green Lantern is conservative compared to the huge amounts toy companies put against some of the long-standing franchises."Star Wars guarantees $500 million in sales a year. The Green Lantern is probably just 1/25th the size of that property and probably only 1/10th of a Spider-Man deal." But even Spidey was the new kid once, meaning these newer franchises can be low-risk, high-reward spins on Mattel's roulette wheel. "Everyone wants to find the new Spider-Man," he says, "but if it doesn't perform, it won't really hurt them."
For bigger projects with bigger price tags, toy companies are far more cautious. "They don't take risks," says Warner Bros.'s Globe. Brands like Mattel work along side studios to push their new films into the gotta-see-it, gotta-have-it stratosphere of success. Both companies are hoping Green Lantern has what it takes to make it. "It's fortunate that Spider-Man got pushed [to a later release date]," Globe says. "We still would have done well, but not having that in front of us opened the door."
And what if the film tanks at the box office? Or, as in the case of The Green Lantern, it gets some scathing reviews? History shows that a bad opening weekend doesn't necessarily ruin a franchise's chances with kids who are both the target audience of the film and of course the toys. "It really doesn't matter what the critics say," Silver says. "If kids go to this movie and they like it, it'll translate into toy sales. It's about movie performance, not reviews." With a disappointing opening weekend haul of just $52.7 million the lowest opening performance of the three major superhero films to open this summer meaning The Green Lantern has a way to to go before it makes a return on its $200 million budget. But there's always DVD sales and who knows, maybe kids will find the power ring better than the film?