Few brands can make movies that people want to see. Over the past few years, that’s something Lego has been able to accomplish thanks to Dan Lin, CEO of Lin Pictures and producer of the Lego movies. The latest film in the franchise, The Lego Batman Movie, was released in the U.S. in February and in China on March 3. Adweek spoke with Lin to get the scoop on how it all came about and what brand marketers can learn.
Adweek: This is a Hollywood property that’s basically a giant ad for Lego. How did that come about?
Dan Lin: It started out in 2009. I had this idea watching my son playing Lego. He was 5 years old at the time. I had grown up playing with Lego myself and my wife at the time was encouraging me to make movies that our kids could see. I had just produced Sherlock Holmes and movies that were more in the PG-13 realm. We had started a family and started thinking about how we could make movies that the whole family could see together.
A big thing for us was not wanting to make a hand-tugger movie. We didn’t want our kids to drag us to the theater; we wanted to go together happily as a family. So I watched my son play with Lego, and as he was doing so, he was talking to himself. He was telling a story as he was playing with his Legos, and the story was much bigger in scope and imagination than what was physically in front of him. So then I had this idea that if I could make a movie that captured the imagination of kids when they’re building with Lego that would be something special, something that people hadn’t seen before.
What Lego has is a way to bring out kids’ and, frankly, adult’s imagination, creativity and joy. Those are kind of key values they have, and I thought that if I could make a movie that represents those key values that would be something people would want to see.
Makes sense. How did you convince Lego to do it?
So, then I went to Billund [Denmark], which is where Lego headquarters are, and I talked to their key executives. And we talked about me having the rights to make a movie. At the time, you have to remember, it was 2009, when the economy was down, but Lego was still very successful. Sales growth was 20-25 percent a year in a down economy. What I pitched to them was the idea of a Lego movie, and when I say a Lego movie, I mean using one of their main core brands—not one of their product lines. In the past, they had done other film entertainment based on a specific product line, but we wanted to go with the mothership in the main brand. That was the biggest challenge for me in that to convince them to do it, they’d put a lot at stake because if the movie didn’t work, it would actually damage their brand.
So what did you do to make the risk worth it?
We gave an initial pitch where it was a movie with the first two acts that were animated and the third act was live action, because the whole thing is taking place in a child’s mind. He’s working out his issues with his father, and his father having lost his imagination, being very rigid and a lot like the Will Ferrell character that we ended up with. We kind of pitched them the broad strokes. They signed off on that, but they had a lot of approvals along the way because again this is their brand, their crown jewel.
The next thing we did, we commissioned a visual test. There’s a visual effects firm called Blur Studio in Venice, Calif. that’s run by Tim Miller. One thing I pitched to Lego was that I wanted to make a movie that looked photo real, and they’d never done that before. It looks like the pictures of a toy set that have come alive. I wanted to take advantage of the constraints of playing with Lego, specifically [the movement]. So how do we use those restrictions to bring humor and fun out of it? So we did a visual test that we even have on the DVD now where Tim and his partner Jeff Fowler shot a visual test I think in Tim’s kitchen of what the movie might look like. I then took that and showed Lego and Warner Bros., and that’s kind of when things started to begin on the movie.
Warner Bros. hired a firm called NRG to do a market study on the movie, to do a test on how they thought the movie would do, and NRG told them it would only have middling success. I still have the PowerPoint study that NRG made for them because they said it would not be a big hit or a big failure, but it would just be in the middle. To Warner Bros. credit, they supported me and kept pushing. I used that test film to land Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who ended up directing the movie.
What should marketers take away from this? It’s not like any brand can look at the Lego Movie franchise and make something like it.
I get what you’re saying. You’d be shocked at the brands that have come to me and asked me to Lego-ize their brand, and I have to tell them that every brand can’t be Lego-ized. We’re working with a handful of brands, and only a few select brands can be Lego-ized. In my mind, they have to have great brand equity.
Because of the Lego Batman movie, now Lego was just named the most powerful brand. It wasn’t like I was starting with a tarnished brand. It was a great brand with great brand equity, and they had values in line with what we wanted to do with the movie. Values of creativity, imagination, joy felt in line with the product. I would encourage brands to find collaborators who are truly passionate about their brand. I don’t view myself as a producer. I view myself as a brand steward for Lego, and I am passionate about protecting that brand both in the movies and the other things that we make. We really spent a lot of time really getting under the brand. I know everything about Lego.
We spent a lot of time getting under the skin of the brand. So we went to Billund, and we went to the original theme park. We went to the museum. We went to all the different conventions. We went to Legoland in Carlsbad. We photographed Legoland in Carlsbad in the mini-land section, crawled down on our hands and knees and shot it as if we were looking at it from the ground level. We spent time with master builders talking about what they do. We spent so much time living, breathing, drinking the brand that we knew everything about it before we started creating. That’s really important.
Then we had great collaborators. The brand knew when and when not to intervene. They had approval rights over final screenplay, over hires we made—everything. But at a certain point, they had to give up approvals, and they were only allowed to consult. They don’t have final cut on the movie. There’s a lot of trust between us and the Lego company because we made ourselves brand stewards. They didn’t have final cut, but essentially they did because everything we did we wanted Lego to sign off on.
So what is the brand strategy with the movies going forward?
Our brand strategy for the Lego movies is to start horizontally and then go vertically—go wide, then deep. What I mean by that is the first Lego movie introduced the world to our cast of characters and the bigger world that we will play in—Emmet, Wyldstyle, Batman and even cameos like the green ninja from Ninjago. Then with our upcoming films, we have spinoffs for Batman and then Ninjago. In these spinoffs, we explore each of these worlds, these sub-brands, in real depth. For example, we really go deep into the Batman mythology and the cast of characters that span multiple generations of Batman. We will be doing something similar with Ninjago and the Kung Fu and Giant Monster and robot movie worlds. The idea is that we introduce the broader world and brand with the first Lego movie, and then with these spinoffs, we can explore each of these separate worlds and brands in more depth before we return to the overarching brand with Lego movie in 2019.
The Lego Batman Movie is now out in China. That’s new for the brand. How did that happen?
The movie [was] released in China on Friday, March 3. It’s an exciting step for the Lego franchise because we were not able to get theatrical distribution in China with the last movie. It was a digital release only. After the first movie performed so well globally, it opened the doors for us to have discussions about Lego Batman. It was a team effort between Warner Bros., Lego Group and myself. We traveled to Beijing to meet with China Film Group and talked to them about how we were going to build a new film brand in China with multiple Lego movies. It wasn’t about one single film but a longer term relationship both with audiences and CFG. More importantly, it wasn’t just about the movies either. The Lego Group is building a factory in China and wants to grow the local toy market there. They are also exploring opportunities for a future Legoland in China. So there a lot of opportunities to grow the Lego brand overall in China in both depth and breadth
Once we were accepted, we tailored the film as much as possible to the local Chinese market. The promotions kicked off during Chinese New Year and have continued since then with life-sized Lego mini figures on tour. People love to take photos with them.
We also cast local voice stars in each of the main roles to appeal to the local market. The film was dubbed to make it easier for kids to follow the story and we adjusted the language so the humor plays locally. Also, we are working with local partners for in-theater marketing, which is so important in China because there is basically no ancillary market outside of the box office.