In the past two weeks’ top-grossing movie, not only skyscrapers but also actors built of tiny bricks inhabit a rather dystopian world known as “Lego-verse.”
That new realm, in “The Lego Movie,” which already has earned $129.1 million at the box office, represents the Lego Group’s first foray onto the big screen.
But it also demonstrates the ways in which the company is trying to enlarge its “brickprint” onto all types of screens, as it faces increasing competition from other construction toy lines, especially in the digital spaces.
For example, the movie’s characters, including the heroes Emmet and Wyldstyle, will be the stars of a video game, as well as sold in traditional retail stores in toy kits.
That marketing strategy highlights Lego’s decade-long pursuit of an increasingly diversified customer base whose inclination to buy something new keeps speeding up — occurring as quickly as the time it takes to build the latest castle or even reach the winning level on an app or video game.
Next up is another new toy line, one that encapsulates Lego’s legacy of setting a child’s imagination free to build upon its designs and embodies the company’s multiplatform marketing by also appearing in digital and other forms. The Mixels, a set of miniature characters, were presented at this week’s Toy Fair trade show in New York.
They are also featured in a series of animated shorts that began last week in a partnership with the Cartoon Network. Members of tribes known as the Infernites, the Cragsters and the Electroids, they have names like Zorch, Teslo and Flain. Their “cubits” can be mixed and matched to create more members of the tribal clans.
The company’s Ninjago franchise returned this year as a smartphone app and four one-hour specials on the Cartoon Network, also the home of a TV series for Legends of Chima, which expanded into an online multiplayer game last fall. And plans are also in the works to animate Lego’s City and Friends properties this year.
“The property is finding a multimedia expression,” said Sean McGowan, an analyst at Needham & Co. who follows Lego. By working with willing media partners like the Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. Pictures, Lego has gained success through TV, video games and online outlets with little risk to itself, he said.
In addition, Lego has also expanded by pairing with Lucasfilm on the “Star Wars” franchise for off-screen sales of sets of spaceships and space warriors as well as lucrative TV specials and video games. It followed up by capitalizing on other pop culture brands to develop Lego versions of characters such as Harry Potter, Iron Man and Batman, among others.
The company’s move into other platforms wasn’t part of its long-term plan, however.
“It was definitely more of a natural evolution,” said Jill Wilfert, vice president for licensing and entertainment at Lego.
Lego tested the waters first, taking a conservative approach to multimedia before diving in. “We really don’t want to force fit it,” Wilfert said. “So far, we’ve had good results, which is a testament to the quality of the brand.”
Still, the company has been criticized for missing some potentially lucrative opportunities, especially in video games. It partnered with developers like TT Games, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and Superscape for highly successful video games based on “Star Wars,” Batman and the Harry Potter properties, but it failed to create a digital version of its branded appeal for unfettered, creative play.
Instead, Minecraft, the Swedish video game, swooped into the space, fulfilling the desires of millions of children for online toy boxes to create anything they could imagine. So far, Minecraft has sold more than 35 million copies.
Analysts and experts still consider Denmark-based Lego a success on many fronts. Profit surged 35 percent to a record 5.61 billion kroner ($993 million) in 2012, thanks in part to growth in its Friends line, aimed at girls.
Michael McNally, Lego’s brand relations director, called the new movie a “fantastic testament to the way kids play with Lego products.”
“We know that children’s play reality involves mixing and matching characters and backdrops from our classic sets and our licensed properties,” McNally said. “In that way, they can promote any of our mini figures or mini dolls to the role of hero in their own story.”
The original mini figures, introduced in 1978, sparked an evolutionary concept for Lego toys. “That changed the product from one of construction to one of storytelling,” McGowan said.
After that, fans began creating their own stop-motion movies with Lego figures and sets, pushing the company in that direction.
“If we really trace it back, the move into multimedia started before we even thought about it,” McNally said. “It started in the fan community.”
Interest among fans exploded after Lego signed its first licensing deal in 1999 with Lucasfilm for the rights to produce “Star Wars” figures and sets. The new Lego kits were extremely popular, as enthusiasts began re-creating and filming their favorite scenes from the “Star Wars” movies.
Over the years, Lego has built a strong stable of brands, including Bionicle, Ninjago, Legends of Chima and Mixels.
With the apparent success of its first feature film, Lego is considering a multimedia strategy for other properties, including a new one, Ultra Agents, later this year that will include animated content, online games and a smartphone app.
“Lego has such a halo,” said Gerrick Johnson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. “It has such a strong brand name that kids want to see what’s next from Lego.”