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Wednesday, Feb 1, 2023

IP Push Helps Drive Mattel’s Transformation

At the recent Virtual Citi Leisure Day investor conference, Mattel Inc. Chief Executive Ynon Kreiz touted the transformation of the El Segundo-based toymaker since he took the helm in 2018.

“There’s no question that the new Mattel is very different from what the company was just a few short years ago,” Kreiz said during a June 2 webcast. “The biggest change is that we transitioned from being a toy manufacturing company into an IP-driven, high-performing toy company.”

Kreiz also cited Mattel’s latest financial metrics, including substantial growth in EBITDA and gross margin improvements.

The toy manufacturer reported a net income of $126.6 million on $4.6 billion in sales in 2020, reversing a loss of $213.5 million in the previous year. The upward trajectory continued in the first quarter of 2021 when Mattel posted $874 million in revenue — an increase of 47% from the same period a year ago and a 26.8% uptick from 2019.

“Mattel is doing very well these days,” said Linda Bolton Weiser, an analyst with Montana-based D.A. Davidson & Co. “Their point-of-sale performance has been consistently strong. … The holes in the leaky bucket have all been patched, so they don’t have any really bad areas that are declining right now. … I follow all the toy companies, and the whole toy industry has been growing very well in recent quarters. So, they’re all growing, but Mattel has been gaining the most market share.”

Kreiz’s emphasis on content development, often done in collaboration with its film and TV industry partners, translates into an uptick in demand for complementary toys.

“The idea is that you’re supporting the IP, which in turn drives the toy sales,” Bolton Weiser said. “You’re continuing to make sure your brands maintain their relevance in pop culture by putting them out into the media, movies and TV and other digital content. … Spin Master does it, Hasbro does it, so it’s pretty common among the larger toy companies.”

Making movies

Mattel first formalized its approach to content in 2013, when it formed Playground Productions, a division dedicated to the creation and development of multiplatform storytelling, including script development, story boarding and green lighting theatrical productions.
Its first projects included “Team Hot Wheels: The Origin of Awesome,” an animated series produced in collaboration with Canada-based Mercury Filmworks.

Three years later, the division was folded into Mattel Creations. And in 2018, that unit was shifted into Mattel Films and Mattel Television.

The toymaker hired producer Robbie Brenner the same year to run the film division. Her credits include “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Burden,” “Mirror, Mirror” and “Immortals.”

One of Brenner’s first assignments at Mattel was to co-produce a movie based on Barney, the lovable purple dinosaur, with actor, writer and producer Daniel Kaluuya and his production company, 59%.

The movie, which has yet to be released, “will speak to the nostalgia of the brand in a way that will resonate with adults while entertaining today’s kids,” Brenner said when Mattel announced the project in 2019.

Next came “Wishbone,” a movie based on the 1990s television series about a Jack Russell terrier. Announced in July 2020, “Wishbone” is Mattel’s first film in partnership with Universal Pictures and the ninth Mattel Films project in development at the time, according to the company.

In April, Mattel announced a collaboration with Universal and actor Vin Diesel’s production company, One Race Films, to produce a movie based on Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, the classic tabletop game featuring battling robots.

Mattel’s movie pipeline also includes “UNO,” a film inspired by the popular kids card game, which Mattel Films will produce alongside rapper Lil Yachty.

Tuning into TV

Adam Bonnett, a 21-year veteran of the Disney Channel, joined Mattel in February 2019 as executive producer of its television division. His slate of assignments during his first year at Mattel included 22 animated and live-action TV programs.

And Bonnett’s pace shows no sign of slowing.

In August, the division announced the release of “Barbie Princess Adventure,” an animated musical that began airing on Netflix a month later. A complementary soundtrack is also available across all digital streaming platforms. In February, the toymaker announced the upcoming launch of the one-hour TV movie “Barbie & Chelsea: The Lost Birthday,” which was animated by Mainframe Studios in

The feature will be available on Netflix in the United States as well as on Cartoonito in Italy, Pop in the United Kingdom, 9Go in Australia, Carousel in Russia and iQIYI in China.

“This year, we are expanding the Barbie content universe in a number of ways, starting with a fantastical story centered around Barbie’s little sister, Chelsea, an incredibly popular character in the Barbie family,” Bonnett said in a statement. “We have barely scratched the surface of the stories the brand can tell, and this is the first of many scripted and unscripted Barbie projects we have in production and development.”

Then there’s “Barbie Fashion Battle,” a reality show produced in collaboration with Mission Control Media Inc., where 12 designers will compete for the chance to create a fashion collection for the popular doll.

Bonnett’s team, in partnership with Corus Entertainment Inc.’s Nelvana Studio, is also working on “Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go,” a 2D-animated TV show.

In addition, his team is developing a new animated series and live-action TV movie musical based on the “Monster High” franchise. The storyline focuses on the children of famous monsters — Clawdeen Wolf, Draculaura and Frankie Stein — and will be available across Nickelodeon platforms in 2022.

“This is … a great opportunity for us to bring back one of our most successful franchises at Mattel,” Kreiz told investors at the Citi Leisure conference. “It was released in 2010, and we did not sustain it at the time. We believe we are now coming at it with a much better strategy, more comprehensive approach.”

“Monster High is about diversity, inclusivity belonging, representation and embracing uniqueness … and given the cultural relevance, we believe that arguably this is a better time to introduce and share this great property with today’s consumer,” he added.

“This time, it will be supported through high-quality content. … The product looks great, and we’re seeing early signs of collectible demand through our website Mattel Creations, and we’re excited to bring it back. The collector, fan base product will be released this year, and the expanded product offering will (follow) in 2022,” Kreiz said.

Mattel Television is also releasing “Masters of the Universe: Revelation,” which will be available on Netflix this summer. The animated series, which will have a complementary line of toys, is a nod to “the fans who followed the adventures of He-Man and his friends in the ’80s (and who) will feel like they are picking up the story where the characters left off,” Rob David, the show’s executive producer, wrote in a blog post.

The toymaker’s partner on the project was Powerhouse Animation Studios Inc. in Austin, Texas. 

Digital gaming grows

Mattel is also taking care of gamers. The toymaker is working with Milestone, an Italian racing game developer, on “Hot Wheels Unleashed,” an arcade-style racing game that will launch Sept. 30 on PlayStation and Xbox consoles and Nintendo Switch.

“Our IP uniquely positions Mattel to bring immersive digital games to players globally and capitalize on the fast-growing digital gaming industry,” the company said in its 2020 annual report. “We continue to see the success of our games launched through Mattel163, our mobile gaming joint venture with (Chinese internet company) NetEase, and our digital gaming licensing business continues to grow with several exciting new games launched on multiple digital platforms.”

Mattel163 launched in 2017 and has about 100 employees in El Segundo, Shanghai and Hangzhou, China. Its current portfolio of games — Uno and Phase 10 — has attracted more than 200 million users.

Mediha DiMartino
Mediha DiMartino
Mediha DiMartino covers retail, manufacturing and the ports. She can be emailed here.

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