“The Lego Movie” has given Warner Bros. what every movie studio wants: a blue-chip animation franchise.
Despite an illustrious history and a deep bench of cartoon IP, Warner Bros. has not been a major player in animation for decades. That turned around in a single weekend. By opening to over $69 million over and earning sterling reviews, “Lego” has ensured the studio will make the sequel it already has in development – and quickly. If all goes according to plan, Warner Bros. will produce several more, as the variety of characters and worlds offer a vast canvas on which to tell more stories.
“We are a market-share leader, and it is important for us to be in the animation business,” Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman told TheWrap. “This is a signal that we can play in that arena and we’re going to be right there in the future.”
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The idea for the movie began with Dan Lin (above, center), a well-respected producer who first wanted to make a Lego movie while an executive at Warner Bros. He and producer Roy Lee talked about the possibility, but no one knew what the movie was at the time. It seemed too similar to “Transformers.”
After leaving Warner Bros. to form his own production company, Lin continued to work at it with Dan and Kevin Hageman, eventually birthing the take you see in theaters now, as executed by writer/directors Christopher Miller (above, right) and Phil Lord (above, left). Film boss Jeff Robinov was disinclined at the time, but Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara, then the head of home entertainment, championed the project, seeing potential given the success of Lego video games.
Lin then flew to Copenhagen to convince Lego’s Danish manufacturers.
“Dan Lin did exactly what a movie producer is supposed to do,” one person familiar with the process told TheWrap, while another described the movie as “Dan Lin’s vision.”
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Though this movie was greenlit before Warner Bros. had formed a new animation group, it is the first in a new era for the studio with a rich animation legacy — “Looney Tunes” and “Animaniacs” scratch the surface — but has largely stood by while Disney, DreamWorks Animation and Fox’s Blue Sky Studios have released dozens of global hits, joined recently by the Universal-affiliated Illumination (“Despicable Me”).
Some close to the studio reject this characterization, noting Warner Bros. won an Oscar eight years ago for “Happy Feet,” which also grossed $384 million worldwide. But Warner Bros.’ few successful animated movies were all one-offs — movies that were not part of a larger plan. Tim Burton or Zack Snyder would decide to make an animated movie, and Warner Bros. would step in to help.
That is not the case anymore, as the studio cobbled together a creative consortium it hopes will provide a consistent supply of animated hits.
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“They are just getting started,” “Lego” producer Roy Lee told TheWrap. “At some point they’ll want to compete with all the other studios. If you look at Disney, or Universal, or Fox, they all have at least one or two movies a year.”
Warner Bros. is not keen to discuss the details its animation ambitions, as it declined to speak on the record about a movie everyone knew would be a big hit. Some expressed surprise they even announced the consortium last year.
Many have compared it to Pixar, which has relied on a brain trust of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter (among many others) to oversee the development and production of its movies. Though Lord and Miller wrote and directed “Lego,” they consulted the other members of this group, successful writers and directors like Nick Stoller (“The Muppet Movie”), John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (“Bad Santa”) and Jared Stern (“Mr Popper’s Penguins”).
Stoller is at work on a new Warner Bros. animated movie, “Storks,” while Stern will write the next “Lego.”
“They’ll want a Lego movie at least every two years,” Lee said. “There are so many different characters and so many different storylines.”
Whatever the movie, the writers and directors will rely on one another for feedback with future projects. Many close to the talent describe the community as being more “creative-driven” than business-driven. Though Warner Bros. may have replicated Pixar’s creative approach – at least unintentionally – there is a major difference: cost.
Pixar spends upwards of $100 million on every movie, as does DreamWorks Animation. Warner Bros. made “Lego” for $60 million — at least that’s the studio number — and spent at least that much to market it. As a result, the movie will earn its budget back in a week or two, provided the 13 executive producers don’t snatch too much of that cash. Long-time partner Village Roadshow co-produced and co-financed the film, while newer financing partner RatPac-Dune provided late help as well.
Making animated movies for less money with partners to defray costs will help Warner Bros. in what has become a crowded marketplace. Six animated movies opened last summer, and “Lego” is already the third animated movie to gross at least $60 million this year (“Frozen” has though it opened last year). A few other studios, such as Sony and Paramount, have tried to enter the marketplace with mixed success. Sony has launched several franchises while Paramount is still struggling to get things going.
Though animated movies are expensive and time-consuming, the financial upside is irresistible. Animated movies play beyond the box office. They sell toys, video games and a brand. “The Lego Movie” is as good an example as any. It includes countless characters from Warner Bros. movies, including much of the DC Universe (Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, the Flash and Wonder Woman), Professor Dumbledore of “Harry Potter” and and Gandalf of “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” fame.
“If you look at the competitive landscape of projects doing well feature film wise, animated films are in a league of their own,” Lee said.