Mattel launched its new content and entertainment hub, Mattel Creations, earlier this year, but already the studio is redefining the company’s wider approach to TV, film and digital for some of its biggest brands, including Barbie, American Girl and Thomas & Friends. Robert Hutchins talks to Christopher Keenan, SVP of content development and production at Mattel, about the latest developments for the blossoming studio.
Can you tell us about your background in this space. What’s your history with Mattel?
I was previously working for HIT Entertainment at Mattel’s London office for about two years. I had been recruited by them after I had been doing some consulting and freelance development with them.
Mattel brought me in to run the content side of things and that grew into the role I currently have with Mattel Creations. It highlights the way the company and Creations in particular has evolved organically.
Mattel Creations united several existing in-house content creation teams.
How has this process been?
It’s been an incredible year and quite the evolution. Mattel did have an in-house production arm called Playground Productions that was set up to create content to support specific brands within Mattel.
Playground Productions was folded into Mattel Creations and has evolved dramatically over the last six months. We are embracing the idea that we are the centre of excellence with regards to property, character and content development and distribution.
Mattel Creations is very much a content hub for the whole company and that includes Mattel here in L.A., in the London office and American Girl.
We have experienced enormous growth and change in recent months. We are in the final stages or re-organising and setting up shop so it has been a real centre of activity. We are developing a TV series around some of the Mattel characters for the first time, in addition to doing more of the long-form direct to consumer specials or movies.
We are also pursuing some original properties and are in development on those currently, particularly in the pre-school and kids’ markets. A lot of these we will be unveiling at MIPCOM, but believe me, it’s exciting.
We are looking beyond what is being produced by our toy and brand groups and are looking at new characters, new worlds and new stories.
What can we expect from you guys for 2017 and beyond?
Well, we are very excited about the new Barbie content that we have developed. We haven’t decided if this is for TV or other platforms, but there is a lot brewing.
We are looking at evolving the character of Thomas and looking at some new avenues for Thomas & Friends. We will also be presenting a couple of new concepts in the pre-school arena and the boys and girls aged six to 11 space.
What is the big focus for you guys in the film and TV space?
Previous years have been huge for Barbie and we are currently riding all that excitement and exploring new opportunities for her, her sisters, her circle of friends and her universe.
Barbie and that family of characters are definitely our number one focus. As a character, she has undergone such evolution in the last couple of years, both in the content and product as well as the public zeitgeist.
Elsewhere, American Girl is another priority. We are launching Wellie Wishers, a new 2D animated series next month. That will launch on Amazon with a related product and doll line following. It’s the first time American Girl has had a sub-brand of characters and we are looking at a lot of additional content in partnership with Amazon for American Girl, including a number of specials and movies in the live action space.
In the pre-school space, Thomas & Friends continues to be our number one engine and our content slate is more robust than ever.
It is safe to say that with the developments for all three now underway, the best is still to come for these already iconic brands. Barbie in particular has undergone a huge evolution recently, with new body shapes and ethnicities added to the range.
Will this be reflected in the new content?
Absolutely. The message behind the diversification continues to be the first and foremost part of our mantra as we develop content for the Barbie brand. As the content evolves, there is certainly going to be a message of not only empowering girls, but celebrating diversity and the potential within every girl.
Why was this year the right time for Mattel to launch the Mattel Creations umbrella?
The whole landscape of children’s entertainment has undergone a revolution with kids experiencing content on the widest variety of platforms and formats. Creations was developed to help serve that appetite for the content that is out there in this wide variety of forms.
For the first time, from the earliest of ages, we are seeing kids in complete control of their viewing choices: watching what they want, when they want, where they want. If you are not there, you will not be seen. That is why we decided to bring all the global operations under one umbrella; to be seen.
What wider impact do you expect to see Mattel Creations have on Mattel’s toy business?
There is a strong synergy between what we do at Creations and each of the brands and their respective toy teams.
First and foremost, we are trying to tell the most engaging stories as possible. We believe the relationship between the viewer and the characters is paramount. That relationship can be formed through content, product, interactivity, live events and more.
We are always working in tandem with all the business units that touch consumers across Mattel; the agenda being that the more we engage, the deeper their relationship will be with the characters. That helps to inspire play, which inspires purchases.
How big a role do you see Creations’ work with original series playing in the future?
We have been acquiring properties and working with a significant number of different partners in terms of developing new IP for content and toy production. We have our core brands and a lot of the Mattel owned library properties that we mine for new content. But we are also exploring a lot of properties that have a genesis outside of Mattel.
For us, there is any number of business models to look at. The content may come first, the toy may come first and it can grow in any number of ways. But ideally, any of the original properties that we are developing for content we want to be sure there is at least the potential for product in toys built into the DNA of the property.
When we are talking about engagement on multiple platforms, audiences expect product for their favourite shows and characters, and we will always keep that as our focus.
What’s the next big step for you guys? What’s exciting you the most at the moment?
I would say the next big step for us would be MIPCOM. We’ll be announcing our plans for series content coming out of Mattel, as well as some of our new partnerships that we are in the process of exploring.
Best in class partners are our priority and coming out of the Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, there are a number of discussions that are exciting us.
Our global footprint will continue to expand thanks to some of the terrific partnerships that we are currently exploring.