Mattel’s HIT Entertainment Firing Up Thomas the Tank Engine (Exclusive)

Thomas the Tank Engine - H 2013

Thomas the Tank Engine - H 2013

A new direct-to-DVD movie will help ramp up the 67-year-old preschool kids franchise, accompanied by premieres, promotions and new toys

Kourtney Kardashian and her son, Mason, will be among the celebrities and special guests walking the “blue carpet” at the Grove in Los Angeles this Sunday for the American premiere of Thomas & Friends: Kings of the Railway the Movie.

However, this 60-minute animated film won’t be playing in theaters afterward; it will be a direct-to-DVD release Sept. 17 through Lionsgate, as part of a deal with London-based HIT Entertainment, which was acquired by Mattel in 2011.

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It is part of a multimillion dollar promotional push by the big American toy maker to reposition Thomas the Tank Engine -- a 67-year-old print and video franchise -- to make it more of a household brand name that can compete on TV and video and on toy store shelves with its other long-running toys like Barbie and Hot Wheels.

Already a franchise estimated to be worth more than $1 billion -- with a related series Thomas and Friends airing on PBS and Sprout -- the effort will include similar promotional events built around the movie in the U.S., Latin America, and Canada over the coming weeks, including a visit to the Mall of America in Minneapolis on Sept. 24.

“They can interact and meet with all the characters from the brand and have a full day out with them,” says Sid Mathur, vp HIT Entertainment, the Americas. “That’s what completes the picture for me, because it’s not just about dealing with the traditional and new mediums of communicating with your brand, but also trying to bring your brand to life.”

Along with the movie, there will be a digital app with games and clips that lead back to the revised Thomas and Friends website. There are also about 40 new items, including Stephen, one of several new trains that will hit toy stores including Toys R Us, Target and Walmart.
Toys R Us also will host special events, such as a theme scavenger hunt.

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Stephen is a rocket train based on the “Stephenson Rocket,” which was an advanced steam engine in its day. It is being produced by Mattel’s Fisher-Price division.

This is part of a process of adding elements to freshen the franchise in the movies, which is done about once a year.

“We pick an attribute [to feature] every single year,” says Mathur, “and try to weave a story around it, which kind of delivers the lesson in a meaningful and entertaining way. That is how we try to differentiate it from the daily and weekly content.”

King of the Railway’s overarching theme is how to assimilate in a diverse environment, says Mathur, such as meeting new friends when a child moves to a new city.

There are also promotional tie-ins, including one with Great Day Farms Eggs that will move the advertising effort from the toy department into food stores.

“There are certain core categories of products that relate to this particular manifestation,” says Mathur. “Building a marketing plan around all of those things is what makes this different because you will have specific TV drivers. You do a global launch in terms of toys that will be themed around the movie property that will be advertised in the media and other manifestations. There will be books and apparel themed around the event, so you basically create a holistic program that writes the message of Thomas and King of the Railway as an activation plan for this event.”

As much as they want to refresh the brand, Mathur says they also have to keep it true to its heritage. “You’re trying to give kids life lessons about socio-emotional upbringing in an entertaining way,” explains Mathur. “So you can’t move away from those roots and say, OK, these are no longer important, because the moment you do it you lose the prime DNA.”

Part of that change is to expand the way the franchise interacts and reaches its audience using the latest technology.

“If you were a kid born in 1950,”‘ says Mathur, “then you probably only had one way of interacting with the brand, which was the book. If you were a kid born in the 1980s, the way you primarily connected with this brand was through the VHS tapes that we had created. If you were born in the 1990s, then the way you interacted with the brand was through the TV series. If you were a kid who was born in 2010, you may be interacting with the brand through either Netflix or the television broadcast and now through the app.”