Lego Goes to Hollywood
Kissing was a point of contention. “We had some kissing in the movie,” says Dan Lin, the producer of The Lego Movie. “It wasn’t lusty. When two minifigs kiss, there’s no tongue or anything. It’s just plastic kissing plastic, which we just thought was hilarious.”
The Lego brand managers were less amused. “They warned us that parents don’t like it when minifigs kiss,” says Lin. “We tested the movie several times. They were right. Parents didn’t like it.” In the end (spoiler alert), the kisses got cut. Instead, there are several romantic moments in the movie, featuring close-ups of amorous minifigures attempting to lock together their fingerless, cup-shaped hands. The effect is equally absurd.
On Feb. 7, The Lego Movie, a feature-length animated film and the first theatrical release based on the ubiquitous toy, will open around the country. It’s voiced by an ensemble cast of comedic actors (Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Chris Pratt), Hollywood dignitaries (Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson), and American celebrities at large (Shaquille O’Neal).
Produced by Lin, co-financed by Village Roadshow, and distributed by Warner Bros., The Lego Movie took more than five years to make. It’s directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, whose credits include the animated hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. The Hollywood Reporter estimates it cost $60 million to $65 million to make.
Since the 2007 release of Transformers, when Paramount Pictures created a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise out of a moribund toy line, Hollywood has been awash in toy-inspired media. From the outset, the filmmakers’ goal was to create a Lego-infused movie that would amount to something more interesting than a 100-minute advertisement.
“A lot of people might think, ‘OK, this is all about them trying to sell the most toys,’” says Jill Wilfert, Lego vice president for global licensing and entertainment. “For us, this was always about building the Lego brand.” Which, of course, is about selling toys, and an avalanche will accompany the film’s release, including 17 Lego building sets, a line of collectible minifigures, a video game, a theme park exhibit, a soundtrack album, children’s books, and tons of lunchboxes, sticker books, T-shirts, hoodies, pajamas, backpacks, and Lego-branded undergarments.
At a time when Hollywood filmmakers are increasingly reliant on money from overseas audiences for survival, a movie based on a toy with such broad, cross-cultural appeal would seem like a no-brainer. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to me now and say, ‘Oh, a Lego movie? No duh. It’s so obvious,’” says Lin, whose job it was to persuade Lego to seize this opportunity. “It was absolutely not obvious five years ago.”
These days the 80-year-old company is flying high. In 2012, Lego generated a $969 million profit on revenue of $4 billion and, buoyed by a 24 percent increase in sales, passed Hasbro to become the second-largest toymaker in the world. It’s a big turnaround from 2003-04, when an ill-fated period of product experimentation resulted in big losses. The key lesson the company took away from its dark years: Focus on toys, proceed cautiously when experimenting, and find good partners. In previous forays outside the toy business, the privately held company tried to do it all by itself and frequently stumbled.
Earning Lego’s confidence, says Lin, was the biggest challenge. “My big pitch to them was, ‘This is a way for you to get into the storytelling universe,’” says Lin, 40, a former Warner Bros. executive whose eponymous production company has a first-look deal with the studio. “It’s up to us to meet your motto that ‘Only the best is good enough.’ If we tell a great story, it can have a halo effect for your brand.”
Lin’s ambitions for The Lego Movie went beyond simply enhancing the company’s reputation. “What I’ve told Warner Bros.,” says Lin, “is that if this movie works, in the future you’ll have live-action movies, you’ll have animated movies, and you’ll have Lego movies. It will be a new class of films that look photo real, that are very funny, and have a very specific tone. It’s a look you’ve never seen before.”
On the way to the première, there was plenty of friction between toymaker and filmmaker. “I’m not saying it was an easy five years,” says Lin. “There was a lot of great creative push and pull. We made different versions of this movie three times. The biggest thing was, how edgy can the movie be?”
Wilfert, 48, speaks in measured sentences and emits a calm vibe, absent the manic elation that typifies Hollywood salesmen. She says that since joining Lego a quarter century ago she’s traveled to the company’s headquarters in Billund, Denmark, so many times she “practically feels like a Dane.” From her home base in Carlsbad, Calif. (home also to one of the company’s licensed Legoland theme parks), she serves as liaison to the movie, TV, and video game industries. She buys entertainment licenses for Lego to turn into toy lines, and she sells Lego licenses for others to turn into entertainment. Wilfert’s job is not only to make sure Hollywood storytellers are happily playing with Lego but also to ensure they’re playing well and in an un-profane manner.
She oversees a small group that’s integrated into Lego’s overall marketing and product development process. She doesn’t have any distinct revenue targets to hit. “The focus is first and foremost on the brand and delivering quality content that is communicating our values,” Wilfert says. “One of the great messages of the movie is that everybody can be creative and that there’s no wrong way to build with Lego. For us, that’s a really important message.”
The middle of three siblings, Wilfert grew up in Richardson, Tex., on the outskirts of Dallas. Her father worked in retail. She attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., a school founded by Christian televangelist Jerry Falwell. After graduating in 1988, with a degree in business administration and a minor in marketing, she moved back in with her parents, who had relocated to suburban Connecticut. Her parents’ new house wasn’t far from Lego’s U.S. headquarters in Enfield. Proximity motivated her to apply for an entry-level position at the company, which she got.
Wilfert began her Lego career in the customer service department responding to fan letters and talking down frustrated kids who got stuck while building a Lego kit. Eventually, Wilfert transferred to the marketing department. Over the next 15 years she worked in a variety of brand-management roles. In 2003, Wilfert moved to Southern California and became Lego’s woman in Hollywood.
When people in the movie business come to Lego, they’re usually hoping to sell lucrative licensing rights to their new movie or television series. Each year, Lego retires products to make room on the shelves for new ones. In a typical year newly launched lines account for roughly 60 percent of consumer sales, according to Lego’s 2012 annual report. Wilfert says she usually makes one or two big purchases a year. “We get pitched everything,” says Wilfert. “We say ‘no,’ a hundred times more than we say ‘yes.’”
Throughout most of Lego’s history, its toys were a superstar-free zone. Then in 1999, Lego acquired the rights from Lucasfilm to manufacture toys based on the Star Wars universe. Star Wars Lego was an overnight sensation. Fifteen years later it remains a top seller. “That was the beginning of our relationship with Hollywood,” says Wilfert.
The company has since made dozens of building sets inspired by TV shows and movies, including Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, SpongeBob SquarePants, Indiana Jones, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Simpsons. “Licenses bring us relevance, stories, and characters,” says Wilfert. “We can do that on our own. But kids are fickle today, especially in our business. They want what’s new.”
Wilfert’s other mission is to extend the Lego brand into other kinds of entertainment. Over the years, Lego’s efforts have grown incrementally. They’ve created Web trailers for Star Wars movies rendered in Legos; a Lego Atlantis movie for the Cartoon Network; a handful of direct-to-DVD movies based on the Lego Bionicle toys, a science fantasy theme introduced in 2000; and a series of video games. The company’s biggest hits have been Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu and Legends of Chima, a pair of highly rated animated series on the Cartoon Network.
Kerry Phelan, who worked with Wilfert at Lego for more than a decade and who has since gone on to licensing jobs with Lucasfilm, Pixar, and DreamWorks, says Wilfert deserves credit for pushing Lego into new media while also being fiercely protective. “She’s an amazing brand guardian and steward for Lego,” says Phelan. “She’s dedicated her entire career to it. She understands that on the entertainment side, the story has to be great. If you get the art right, the commerce will follow.”
On a Saturday morning in late January, Lin sits down for an interview inside a pirate-themed room with a Jolly Roger bedspread at the Legoland Hotel in Carlsbad. He says that unlike movie-based Legos, a Lego movie wasn’t an easy sell.
Lego’s core audience tends to be 5- to 12-year-olds. At around 13, most kids age out. That’s a red flag for studios that rely on teenagers to help drive opening-weekend box office. There were also questions about how Lego would translate into a narrative. The company has thrived by creating distinct, colorful wonderlands occupied for the most part by nameless, indistinct characters. The minifigures are essentially blank slates onto which kids can project their own stories and characters. That’s great for inspiring creative play, less effective for winning over studio executives.
Lin says negotiating the rights to the Lego brand required a marathon courtship. To win over its executives, Lin and his handpicked film directors attended several BrickCons—massive gatherings of AFOLs, or adult fans of Lego. They visited Legoland in California. They went to Lego stores. They took part in Lego competitions.
In his proposal to the company, Lin emphasized that Warner Bros. had created global franchises around Harry Potter, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes while managing to protect the integrity of the intellectual property. For a toy company like Lego, which enjoys near market saturation in some countries (such as the U.S. and Germany) and is seeking more growth in places such as China and India, a big-budget movie offers a unique opportunity to introduce its brand to consumers in developing markets. Eventually, Lin’s persistence paid off, and Lego and Warner Bros. struck a deal in August 2009.
The movie tells the story of Emmet, an ordinary construction worker who battles with a maniacal business mogul hellbent on stamping out creativity in the Lego universe by super-gluing every brick into a permanent place. Emmet joins forces with an underground class of Lego master builders and discovers the untapped powers of his imagination. A creative rebellion ensues.
The Lego Movie is chock-full of cameos. Various characters Wilfert licensed over the years, from companies including Disney, DC Comics, and Mirage Studios, merrily co-mingle. The final mix has appearances by Superman, the Green Lantern, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Wonder Woman, Robin Hood, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Abraham Lincoln. Batman plays a starring role. “We have some great relationships with the various studios in town,” says Wilfert. “They know that’s how kids actually play with Lego. Kids will take Dumbledore and Batman and put them together in the same scenario.”
Throughout the moviemaking process, Wilfert’s team was invited to weigh in on almost every aspect of the film. “My pitch to them was, ‘There is the contract, and then there is reality,’” says Lin. “You guys may not have certain approvals per the contract. But I’m working with your baby, and I want to treat it right. I want to make you partners.”
At one point, Lin and his directors flew to Billund to participate in a “boost session,” where the filmmakers tossed out concepts from the screenplay—such as a steampunk pirate ship—and then Lego’s designers competed to build the best possible version. “A lot of that made it into the film,” says Wilfert.
“They were very influential on story, script, every major casting decision, every director decision,” says Lin. “It’s a hybrid movie made out of [computer graphics] and real bricks. They co-built the movie.”
Occasionally, disputes arose. Appealing to teenagers often requires things like outlandish dialogue, potty jokes, and gunplay. “That required us going outside the Lego boundaries at times,” says Lin. “So there was a lot of negotiation.”
The Lego overseers made concessions, too. “I was like, ‘Could we take out some of these butt jokes?’” says Wilfert. “They felt really strongly that it was adding to the humor and gestalt of the movie. We did a lot of screening, and moms were fine with it, so we left them in there.”