Toys head to H'wood for money, fame


Related story: Barbie, Hot Wheels, G.I. Joe toying with Hollywood

NEW YORK -- While most major toy companies are becoming increasingly involved in the production of entertainment content, they all cite different motives.

Mattel (Barbie) says it's focus is first and foremost in driving toy sales while Hasbro (Transformers) says it no longer sees itself as just a toy company and uses entertainment to build its brands. For its part, MGA Entertainment (Bratz) says it created its entertainment division as a separate business and considers itself an entertainment company, not a toy company.

"We use entertainment to support our toys, to add relevance and to drive cultural noise that ultimately drives more toy sales," said Richard Dickson, Mattel Brands senior vp marketing, media and entertainment, worldwide. He said Mattel frequently creates new toy lines based on its DVD content produced by its in-house entertainment division. "We create them together. That's the novelty and innovation of our entertainment strategy. We parallel path the creative development, building the story with toys in mind. Frankly, we analyze opportunities to make sure that they do drive more toy sales because we are a toy company first and foremost."

But even so, Mattel's entertainment division can stand alone as a profitable business, with DVD titles continuing to sell even after the toy lines are discontinued, Dickson said. "The beauty of the formula is that we've built a robust and strong entertainment business. In addition to the toy sales generated in connection to the content, the DVDs have traditionally been some of our best-selling product worldwide.

"Entertainment has a longer business shelf life for us than the toys that relate to it. We are actually making money and have grown an entertainment business at Mattel that originated in toys. It is an absolute win-win formula."

Mattel's entertainment division employs about 20 people and is headed up by Dickson. Rob Hudnut, executive producer for entertainment production, leads the creative teams and has personally written many of the songs for the Barbie DVDs. He was the pioneer behind the first Barbie DVD, "Barbie in the Nutcracker," which featured music from the London Symphony Orchestra and dance moves choreographed by the New York City Ballet. Barry Waldo, who was previously with Disney, heads up marketing, business strategy and business development at the Mattel division.

Unlike Mattel, MGA regards itself as an entertainment company rather than a toy company. "I always look at MGA as a true entertainment company with toys being a portion of the business not the whole thing," said CEO Isaac Larian. "In early 2003 we decided to get into production. We didn't look at entertainment to drive toy sales. We looked at it as another profit center. We're dealing with kids. They want to watch movies and listen to music. We thought why don't we just produce it and give it to them."

Larian said MGA has contracted with some talent from the entertainment business but for the most part has used MGA staff to produce its DVD content. "Frankly since this is our brand, our people know and live and breathe the brand and they have the passion for it so we produce something better when we do it in-house."

Hasbro, for its part, considers entertainment part of its strategy for extending its brands. While Hasbro has not created its own in-house production unit it does have internal staff that develop the characters and story lines for its toy properties and has teamed up with outside partners, stepping up production of original My Little Pony, G.I. Joe and Tonka DVDs since 2003.

"We consider entertainment part of our overall marketing plan," said Samantha Lomow, Hasbro's global vp marketing for the Transformers brand. "The entertainment is meant to build the brand and to enhance the consumer experience. We view our brands as properties not as toy lines. What we're trying to do is build entertainment franchises that go beyond toy sales. So we're not just thinking about toys when we look to entertainment; we're thinking about the franchise."

American Girl, which was bought by Mattel in 1998, 12 years after it was founded, says its brand has actually been steeped in entertainment since it began, with six historical novels written about each of its eight dolls representing different periods of American history. It has sold over 117 million books about its various doll lines in its 21 years in business.

After co-producing three TV movies with Julia Roberts' Red Om Films that aired on the WB in 2004 and 2005 and the Disney Channel in 2006, American Girl teamed up with Red Om once again on its first feature film "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery," as well as with production partner HBO Films and distribution partner Picturehouse.

"Entertainment has created awareness among our consumers," said Ellen Brothers, president of American Girl. "With the advent of our model for television movies, it helped to significantly grow the business." She said that with the dolls steeped in story in the American Girl novels, it was a "logical transition" to make movies about them. "It lends itself almost effortlessly when the books exist." She said American Girl has trained its staff to work closely with executive producers on the outside but is not planning on creating any type of internal entertainment division.

"The cultural relevance of movies is important for any brand," Brothers said. "You have to be where girls go and girls go to movies and watch TV so I certainly understand why many of the toy companies are going in this direction. For us the story lines are already there but the entertainment certainly helps to build and market the brand."

For its part, Wow Wee Ltd. -- which is launching its first ever entertainment project based on its Robosapien animatronic toy -- says there is no such thing as a toy company anymore. "I think the toy company unto itself is a misnomer," said CEO Richard Yanofsky. "Children don't play with toys anymore. They play with entertainment-driven products, on consoles with games and on the Internet. They engage in virtual play."

But no matter what their entertainment strategy is or the motivation behind it, toy companies appear to be better placed than any other type of advertiser to create authentic and truly successful branded entertainment projects. With toys a type of entertainment in their own right, it is clearly easier to make films or TV shows about a toy brand than almost any other type of consumer product.

"Entertainment companies create content to attract audiences to the brand itself or the film; merchandising is secondary," Mattel's Dickson said. "In our case we run the merchandising model parallel to content development and therefore create authentic branded entertainment."