Why Mattel Aims to Be In the Driver’s Seat For Its Films and TV Shows

On March 10, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves — the big-budget bet based on Hasbro’s role-playing game franchise — premiered as SXSW’s opening night title to mostly positive reviews from critics in Austin. The early takes are a sign that Hasbro, which co-produced the film through its eOne division with Paramount, could score a box office win that would then amplify the Dungeons brand across its gaming ventures.

That bow, as well as the generally well-received premiere for Eva Longoria’s Cheetos origin story pic Flamin’ Hot for Searchlight, animated a chat among entertainment execs on March 13 with the possibility that the “based on a true product” era of Hollywood optioning is now fully upon the industry. (Coming up as the “surprise” closing night film at SXSW? Ben Affleck’s AIR, the Amazon and MGM film that tells the Michael Jordan shoe origin story that asks viewers to root for an underdog marketing team of … Nike.)

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One company that’s likely watching closely the product-to-movie pipeline: Mattel. CEO Ynon Kreiz arrived in 2018 with a background running Endemol and Makers Studios and is now readying its film division’s first launch, the Greta Gerwig-directed Warner Bros. collaboration, Barbie. A box office hit could similarly help Mattel, which saw weaker than expected holiday revenue in the fourth-quarter of last year with net sales of $1.4 billion, down 22 percent year-to-year. Its stock is down 9 percent year-to-date in 2023.

“For a long time, we were just a licensee — so people would come to us and option our brands from us — and we weren’t controlling that storytelling,” said Mattel Films vp Elizabeth Bassin during the SXSW panel organized by Concord Originals. “And now we’ve seen that power of toys in the marketplace as storytellers and we have realized that if we’re not in the driver’s seat, those stories might not get told in the way that we want them to be.”

The hope is that filmmakers can take some creative risks and allow talent to have leeway to tell stories that might resonate with viewers beyond, say, a 90-minute ad for a toy. “It’s the double-edged sword, because we’ve got so much pre-awareness but no story,” Bassin said of a 45-page Mattel IP list that consists of 200 products/brand titles that could have story potential.

The toy giant, like rival Hasbro, has rolled the dice that it can turbocharge its sales by pushing to become a franchise-driven entertainment giant or, as CEO Kreiz noted on a Feb. 8 earnings call, “capturing the full value of our IP.” That includes working with the David Ellison-led Top Gun: Maverick producer Skydance Media on a live-action Matchbox cars film, among other projects. (Ironically, as Mattel is revving up its Hollywood ambitions, Hasbro appears to be looking to get back to the licensee business and has put its in-house eOne division back up for sale just a few short years after buying the production house in a $4 billion all-cash deal.)

“The film division was created to lean in to every side of storytelling for our IP and be able to service and utilize every aspect of that storytelling,” Mattel’s Bassin said at the SXSW panel of the studio unit, which launched a few months after Kreiz joined as CEO. “So whatever is best for that piece of IP is where we’re going to develop that and tell that story. And sometimes that means multiple different areas. There’s a couple of different He-Man shows on right now.”

Mattel partnered with Tom Hanks and his Playtone label on an adaptation of 1960’s era action figure Major Matt Mason, an astronaut who lives on the moon. (The project was unveiled in 2011 and in 2019 the actor was announced to star in an adaptation, though there’s been no further development news since.)

The toy company’s film division is also developing a feature with Universal based on the tabletop boxing game Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, which has Vin Diesel attached to star and produce via his One Race banner. In 2021, Mattel unveiled plans to develop an adaptation with MGM of doll line Polly Pocket, with Lily Collins starring in a film to be directed by Lena Dunham. Last year, the company pacted with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot to produce a live-action movie to bring its Hot Wheels toy race cars to life. (And, on March 8, Mattel and Endemol Shine unveiled a Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge reality show format that will air as a ten-episode series on NBC.)

“If you look at the things on our slate that have been announced, we’re working with Tom Hanks, we’re working with Lena Dunham, we’re working with Vin Diesel,” Bassin said. “We’re working with people across the board that are interested in our IP and we are also trying to defy expectations in how we are developing that IP to interest filmmakers. To let them know that we’re going to be a creative-central production company that is going to trust their vision.”

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