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Courtesy of Warner Bros.

September 14, 2017

GOULDTHORPE | Lego’s In Trouble. Can Ninjago Save It?

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Lego. That word alone conjures up delightful memories of putting together submarines and airplanes as a small boy. More recently, I’ve fallen in love all over again with their feature length films. If you had told me four years ago that I’d end up saying “I’ve come to expect quality from the Lego film franchise,” I’d have thought you batty! But, sure enough, they have taken Hollywood by storm with both critical and commercial success. When I pop in either Lego movie, I feel my childhood resurrecting for ninety minutes at a time.

That is why it pained me this past week when the New York Times reported that Lego planned to cut nearly a tenth of their workforce. Their mid-year revenue report recently came in, and it doesn’t look good; they brought in about $544 million in profit so far this year, $16 million less than in 2016. Most of this has been tied to falling toy sales in Europe and North America, but I want to look at the film aspect here. There’s something to learn about film, and the fine line between commerce and art.

Let’s start with analyzing The Lego Batman Movie itself. To be sure, audiences enjoyed it, and I myself praised it in my review this past February. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t shell out quite as much for it. The movie made less than 75% of its predecessor, The Lego Movie. It could be because it was February, generally not a big month for family entertainment. It could be part of the box office slump that’s been plaguing the entire year. It could even be superhero fatigue. After all, Marvel’s pumping out three movies a year, and DC’s trying to catch up. As a result of any of these factors, or even something else altogether, the audience got pared down.

Besides limited exposure though, another obstacle blocked merchandising efforts. Bloomberg quoted the CEO of Toys R Us, David Brandon, saying that The Lego Batman Movie had not successfully promoted the matching Lego sets. The problem with Lego Batman sets is that there’s other Batman merchandise available. In a great irony, DC and Warner Brothers ended up competing with themselves. Of course, it doesn’t matter for them whether Mom picks up the Lego Batman or Affleck Batman. It matters for Lego though, and with Lego sets priced so high, Mom’s more likely to pick up the cheaper Batman doll.

That doesn’t even include external competition. Bloomberg also mentioned Lutz Muller, head of a consulting firm for the toy industry. Muller points out that Lego has to face the likes of Mattel and Hasbro, who have been in the action figure business for years. When it comes down to it, Lego Batman had so much competition that it’s no wonder the merchandise didn’t do well.

So now our eyes turn to The Lego Ninjago Movie. Could this film fare better than its predecessor, both in the cinemas and in the toy stores? Well, let’s pick this apart. Lego introduced the Ninjago brand in 2011, and it became more popular than anticipated. Since then, it’s built a strong following among young boys, and Cartoon Network even aired a show around it. The LA Times predicts it will gross up to $40 million on opening weekend. I imagine it’ll get a boost from the fact that there haven’t been any good family movies for a while now. I mean, the last three animated films released this year were Leap!, The Nut Job 2 and The Emoji Movie. They ranged from “meh” to deplorable, in that order. If Ninjago gets the same solid reviews as Lego Batman, that will be another boost to its box office.

But what about merchandising? That all-important synergy is what Lego needs right now to boost sales. Well, since Ninjago is a franchise exclusive to Lego, that means Lego gets a bigger share of the revenue. Plus, they don’t have to worry about competition for Ninjago merchandise sales — they’re the only ones who can license it! Add into that a loyal fan base and Lego might have better luck making money from Lego Ninjago.

What needs to be learned here is the importance of merchandising when it comes to filmmaking. While many people detest the idea of movies as products instead of art, they are ultimately both. That doesn’t mean they can’t be good products that we enjoy! I also want to say that I don’t feel too worried about Lego’s future. They have hit trouble before, far bigger trouble (look up their 2004 crisis), and they climbed their way back to the top. There are many reasons to believe that they will pull themselves over this setback as well. They’re already taking steps to streamline their company (even if it means laying off a lot of people). But, a lot rests on The Lego Ninjago Movie, which is set to be released next week. We’ll be waiting…

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu. Animation Analysis will appear alternate Tuesdays this semester.