'Panda' guy gets new toy

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John Stevenson, co-director of "Kung Fu Panda," has felt the power of Grayskull, signing on to direct "Masters of the Universe," Warner Bros. and Silver Pictures' live-action version of the popular 1980s cartoon and toy line.

The show, made in partnership with Mattel, was known for the image of blond Prince Adam standing atop a mountain, uttering the magic words, "By the power of Grayskull — I have the power," and turning into the heroic He-Man. He and his allies — Battle Cat, Man-at-Arms and Orko — defended their planet Eternia from the evil forces of Skeletor, who tried week after week to conquer the fortress Castle Grayskull, which imbued He-Man with his powers.

Justin Marks penned the script, which skews more toward gritty fantasy and reimagines Adam as a soldier who sets off to find his destiny, happening upon the magical world of Eternia. There, Skeletor has raised a technological army and is bent on eradicating magic.

Joel Silver is producing. Warners' Matt Reilly is overseeing for the studio.

Barry Waldo, Mattel's vp worldwide entertainment marketing and strategy, will executive produce.

Waldo said Mattel uses visual brainstorming and "design ideation" when creating toys, and the company took a similar approach in its search for a director. In consultation with Warners, prospective helmers were brought to Mattel's offices in El Segundo, Calif.

Mattel looked for qualities indicating that "we share some early common ground, that the candidate has a strong passion for it — or least shares the same passion we do — and has a strong vision within and outside the current script, which shows us they are leaders," Waldo said.

He added: "'Masters of the Universe' was a billion-dollar franchise for us in the '80s. There are so few of those in the vault — it's one of the crown jewels — so we were looking for a master storyteller."

Mattel was aware of Stevenson's creativity, having worked with him in making toys for "Panda."

"I think it's fair to say, and knowing the epic nature of this script, you will see things you have never seen before," Waldo said. "John has that creativity."

Since setting up "Masters" at Warners, Mattel has signed with CAA and is working to find homes for its other brands. A Hot Wheels cartoon will debut in the fall on Cartoon Network, and a feature based on that franchise is being developed by Silver and Warners. "Max Steel," a big Mattel property in Latin America, is being shopped to studios and production companies.

"Masters" is the second recent project that has seen Warners look to the animation world for live-action talent. The studio also hired "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" director Jimmy Hayward to helm "Jonah Hex."

Stevenson, repped by CAA, is coming off an Oscar nomination for "Panda," which he directed with Mark Osborne. "Masters" will be the live-action debut for Stevenson, who was a storyboard artist and character designer before directing episodes of DreamWorks Television's "Father of the Pride." That gig led to "Panda."

Borys Kit reported from Los Angeles; Georg Szalai reported from New York.
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