Barbie, Hot Wheels, G.I. Joe toying with Hollywood

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NEW YORK -- With children spending less time playing with toys and more time consuming media, toy manufacturers have become increasingly involved in the production of entertainment -- producing their own DVD content, music CDs and even the occasional TV series.

Now, toy companies are taking entertainment initiatives to the next level, turning toys into live-action movie stars. "Bratz: The Movie," inspired by the successful fashion doll line from MGA Entertainment, opens Friday, coming on the heels of the blockbuster success of "Transformers," based on the hit 1980s toy line from Hasbro.

Other toy-inspired movies in production or development include "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery," based on Mattel's American Girl high-end doll line; a second "Bratz" movie scheduled for fall 2008; and a film about the Robosapien animatronic toy line from Wow Wee Ltd. "Bratz" and "Robosapien" are being produced by Avi Arad, the former CEO and chairman of Marvel Studios who turned Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men into boxoffice gold.

While such companies as Mattel and MGA have produced most of their DVDs in-house in recent years, they are turning to Hollywood talent for their chance on the silver screen. With the success of "Transformers," which has grossed about $540 million globally since its July 3 release, the drive to make movies about toys has gained speed.

Mattel, which in November said it had no plans to make any feature films, now said it is in talks with top Hollywood talent for theatrical releases about Barbie and Hot Wheels, whose movie option with Sony Pictures expired this year. A movie based on Mattel's 1980s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy line is in development at Warner Bros. Pictures, with Joel Silver attached to produce, sources close to the studio said.

"As a fellow toy company, we're thrilled with the success of 'Transformers,' " said Richard Dickson, Mattel Brands senior vp marketing, media and entertainment, worldwide. "Its success certainly has added momentum to the discussions that we've been having about our own properties being executed as theatrical releases."

Mattel is even discussing bringing some of its game and puzzle brands to life through entertainment; it's in talks with Hollywood partners to turn Magic 8 Ball into a theatrical release and its popular Uno card game into a TV game show. Dickson said Mattel expects to announce an Uno TV game shortly and a new option for a Hot Wheels movie before year's end.

Hasbro, repped in Hollywood by WMA, is in discussions with Paramount Pictures about a G.I. Joe movie produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and is considering films or TV shows for its Ouija Board, Candy Land, Clue, Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly games.

Arad said he also plans to start production next year on a film built around a toy line that he designed for MGA called Rescue Pets.

Clearly, such companies as MGA and Wow Wee are hoping Arad, who started his career in the toy industry and has designed hundreds of toy products, can work the same magic with toys as he did transforming comic books into blockbuster films.

"Avi understands the world of technology and the world of toys I believe like no one else in the film business," Wow Wee CEO Richard Yanofsky said. "With his understanding of what we are doing in the world of robotics from his toy roots coupled with our brand awareness with Robosapien, it was logical that we would extend (Robosapien) to a full-blown story."

For their turn on the silver screen, toy companies like Wow Wee are turning to established Hollywood talent. "We had a lot of creative input into the whole movie, but we thought it was important to go to an experienced filmmaker like Avi Arad," MGA Entertainment CEO Isaac Larian said.

For "Transformers," Hasbro partnered with DreamWorks, Paramount, producer Steven Spielberg and director Michael Bay; for "Kit Kittredge," American Girl teamed with Julia Roberts' Red Om Prods., HBO Films and Picturehouse; and for "Bratz," MGA teamed with Arad, Crystal Sky Pictures, Lionsgate Films and director Sean McNamara, executive producer of such Disney Channel hits as "That's So Raven" and "Phil of the Future." McNamara also is slated to direct the "Robosapien" film and the second "Bratz" movie, which also will be distributed by Lionsgate, Arad said.

While toy company executives are being credited as executive producers on many of the films, the fact that the studios and production companies are underwriting the filmmaking costs is generating even more interest from the toy industry.

From Hollywood's perspective, the success of "Transformers" means hot toys and their built-in brand equity could be the fodder for the next wave of movie franchises. "If there is brand awareness at least you have a fighting chance to get an entertainment property across and make a successful movie," Arad said. "One of the advantages of branded movies is that they lend themselves to sequels and sequels can be a very lucrative business. If you want to mitigate the risk and you want to start the project feeling you've got so many tickets sold on opening weekend -- which is becoming essential to the success of a movie -- then you're better off making a movie about something there is a level of interest in out there. It's just simple economics."

But Arad also warned that not every toy line can make it on the big screen. "Now that 'Transformers' was so successful, I think you'll see a very aggressive posture into this area," he said. "But it's very important to remember 'Transformers' was always one of the greatest toys ever created with a huge history of a TV show. Michael Bay made a fun, humorous movie, so all the elements were right. It doesn't mean if you just go out there and pick up any other toy it will succeed."

There definitely are risks for toy companies in going the route of feature films versus much safer DVDs. A film that tanks at the boxoffice could hurt sales of successful brands that toy companies rely upon for profits. That risk is what has led to Mattel's caution in giving the green light for a feature film about its 48-year-old iconic Barbie brand.

"Our brands last a lot longer than studios potentially need movies to last," Dickson said. "Where the brand goes and how it's done could make or break our brand. You can imagine the interest in doing a theatrical release for Barbie, but our intent is to make sure we map it out very strategically for longevity, brand enhancement and ultimately sales."

Even when producing their own DVD content, toy companies have partnered with studios for distribution, and when necessary with outside production companies. Hasbro and Mattel actually partnered with production companies as far back as the 1980s when the focus was on animated TV shows and even a few animated films based on properties such as Hasbro's Transformers, G.I. Joe and My Little Pony and Mattel's He-Man.

But it wasn't until 2001 that Mattel and MGA started to get into productions of their own, mostly with direct-to-DVD content. Mattel launched its own in-house entertainment division that year and since then has sold 40 million copies of 10 Barbie DVD and VHS titles, generating more than $700 million in revenue. It also has released DVD titles for its Polly Pockets, Little People and Max Steel toy lines and produced the Hot Wheels TV series "Acceleracers," which aired on Cartoon Network and also was released on DVD in 2005-06.

MGA introduced its Bratz doll line in 2001. About two years later, it launched a division of the company dedicated to producing direct-to-DVD titles, TV series and other forms of entertainment featuring its toy lines. It has since produced 10 DVD titles, four music CDs and two TV series.

In addition to filmed entertainment, toy companies also are now focusing on live stage shows and Web site content, which is being viewed as one of the most important entertainment platforms for their brands going forward.
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