Comic books are played out. Well…maybe not played out, but movie audiences at this point know more or less what to expect from most big-screen adaptations of comic characters, particularly those from the pages of DC and Marvel titles. Gender-swapped remakes or reboots of older movies are still treated as curiosities more than anything and don’t have the all-ages appeal studios are looking for. Other sources of existing IP continue to be mined, but there isn’t the kind of big, exciting, productive new vein of material that’s been opened up in about a decade.
A number of projects are underway showing studios are exploring new fields in the hopes of not only creating new franchises but tapping into areas that come loaded with existing brand awareness and the potential for non-theatrical revenue streams.
Warner Bros. is working with Mattel on a live-action film based on the perennially popular Hot Wheels line of toy cars. That same studio is reportedly developing a movie featuring Funko’s incredibly successful POP figures. And Mattel is also said to be partnering with MGM on a movie featuring the American Girl line of dolls and figurines.
All those, of course, follow the successful LEGO franchise of films released by Warner Bros. over the last five years, though the sequel to 2014’s original The LEGO Movie underperformed in its first weekend and then lost out to Alita: Battle Angel in its second. There are already movies coming out this year featuring the Uglydolls and Playmobil. And a long-gestating Barbie feature film finally seems to be moving forward with Margot Robbie now involved.
Toy companies have long realized there’s cross-media potential in the lines of characters they create for shoppers – particularly kids – to lust after. Classic 1980s cartoons like “G.I. Joe,” “Care Bears,” “He-Man” and countless others are all based on an ever-expanding line of plastic or stuffed figures and dolls. Barbie, Bratz and additional lines have also expanded across media with direct-to-video movies and other releases. Over the years there have been a number of comic book expansions as well, with Marvel Comics’ Madballs comic being just one example.
This wouldn’t be the first time toys have come to theaters, either. Not only do franchises like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and others included multiple big-screen executions but there are the one-offs that never really caught on like Garbage Pail Kids, Max Steel and more.
What’s different now is that we are in the post-Iron Man Age, one where studios are more acutely aware of their role as managers of IP. Making a movie is just one part of the process that includes setting up cinematic universes that can expand to TV, comics and more and lead to all sorts of spinoffs, sequels and other iterations.
Alongside all that is the licensing and merchandising which is intrinsically baked into these properties. The LEGO franchise offers a good example of how this works, with the movies being based on a line of toys that was then expanded with new building sets based on the characters and scenes found in the movie. Some of those characters were then spun off into their own films, with The LEGO Ninjago Movie having the additional background as coming after a number of TV shows featuring those characters, though it wasn’t really tied to those stories.
Creative talent for most of these upcoming movies haven’t been announced as of yet, so it remains to be seen if the studios involved choose to go the route of the most successful comics adaptations – hiring quality directors in additional to recognizable on-screen/voice talent – or if they try to get these off the ground with the cheapest available option. Not that unknown directors can’t be talented, but the reason Batman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and other movies work as well as they do is because Tim Burton, Patty Jenkins Jon Favreau and similar top-tier filmmakers were behind the camera, working within the guardrails put in place by the producers while also bringing their own distinctive style to the project.
These movies also come at a time when the retail toy industry is, to put it mildly, in flux. Toys ‘R’ Us declared bankruptcy last year in part because toy shopping habits had shifted either online or to stores like Walmart or specialty shops, in particular comic stores, Hot Topic and the like.
(It was also weighed down by massive private equity debt, with many analysts pointing out it likely could have survived if it didn’t have to divert so much money to the financing of that debt instead of investing it in store remodels etc.)
Just recently both Mattel and Hasbro reported quarterly earnings, with the former down dramatically while the latter rose in part because it has embraced the franchise lines it manages, including Star Wars and now toys tied to the popular Fortnite video game.
What all the upcoming toy-based movies have in common is that they are based on lines that have distinct characters, or at least character types. Uglydolls come with backstories and personality traits. Hot Wheels cars are all easily identifiable based on look and color, with some being sportier or more heavy duty than others, something that will lend itself well to film. As the existing home video releases show, American Girl – which got a feature adaptation in 2008 that failed to catch people’s interest and attention – figures have backgrounds and identities that translate well to stories.
Hasbro, Mattel and others, it seems, realize that selling molded plastic or stuffed fabric is only part of the picture, with additional revenue potential coming from big screen features that have the name recognition, budget and interest to warrant cover stories on Entertainment Weekly. The toys will sell the movie while the movie sells more toys, enhancing whatever money is made simply by placing product on store shelves.