While I often get to speak with all sorts of people in the entertainment industry, it’s rare that I get to talk with a VP of a toy company. But with The LEGO Movie opening this weekend, a few days ago I got to speak with LEGO VP of Design Matthew James Ashton. During our wide ranging conversation, we talked about LEGO’s involvement with directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller on the film, and we also touched on the LEGO sets based on the movie. Additionally, Ashton discussed the inner-workings of how LEGO sets are created, including how long it takes from the inception of the idea to having the product on the shelves, the popularity of the brand, determining what licenses to pursue, the difficulty of making sets for secretive films like The Avengers 2 and Star Wars: Episode VII, and more. Getting into specifics, Ashton addressed the just announced Ghostbusters Ecto 1 LEGO, the Cuusoo platform (which helps determine which fan-created LEGO sets get made), The Simpsons sets, retired sets, and a lot more.
As I have said a few times, The LEGO Movie exceeded my lofty expectations. Loaded with great animation, a fun story, humor for both kids and adults, and an insanely addictive song (“Everything is Awesome”) that you’ll be singing again and again, The LEGO Movie is truly something special and I’m beyond confident both audiences and critics are going to fall in love with the film. I strongly recommend checking it out this weekend. Hit the jump for the interview.
During the interview I learned a number of things about The LEGO Movie and LEGO in general. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Most of The LEGO Movie sets have been created and are either out now or will be out by the summer.
- It generally takes 18 months to create a LEGO set with 6-8 months on the actual design side of creating a product. However, Ashton says, “Of course more complicated things, that we need to start on earlier, could vary from 2 years to 6 years depending on what kind of product line it is.”
- One of the reasons they haven’t gone after sports teams or music artists is they are regional. LEGO tries to create with a global perspective. However, Ashton does reveal “It is something that we’ve definitely discussed and we’re not ruling out for the future. It has been talked about.”
- I asked about the possibility of bringing back classic sets like Blacktron, Western, or retired sets. Ashton says that while they have talked about it, the challenge is that the 80s sets might not appeal to “what the kids are used to seeing and playing with now.” However, “we have talked about it, all of these things are coming up all the time internally. It’s something, I think from a nostalgic point of view, it’s great.”
- While LEGO previously did a set for Avatar: The Last Airbender, they have no plans to do The Legend of Korra.
- The sales on the LEGO Back to the Future DeLorean have been really good. That is one of the reasons they green lit a Cuusoo platform created Ghostbusters Ecto 1. When the Ecto 1 was submitted, it was with the fire station. I asked why they didn’t make it with the station and it came down to price and time. By not including the station, they will be able to get the vehicle into stores much sooner. Also, the price point will be much cheaper. I’d imagine very similar to what the DeLorean sells for (which is $34.99).
- When asked about the possibility of the monorail coming back, Ashton says, “That’s another one where we’ve talked about it and it may, it may not. There’s no final decision, there’s nothing in pipeline on that one at the moment but that doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be.”
- For Simpsons fans thinking you might eventually see Moe’s Tavern or the Nuclear Power Plant where Homer works, Ashton pretty much says it will never happen. His exact quote was, “we try to avoid anything alcohol-related within our products, especially targeting kids. I’m very dubious that that would happen.”
Here’s the full interview. Note: While most of the interview is with LEGO VP of Design Matthew James Ashton, at certain points LEGO Brand Relations Director Michael McNally joins in. His comments are in blue.
Question: You’ve been working on this for years now, were you nervous the entire time when you were making it? Or from the very inception and the ideas you were presented, were you thinking, “This is going to be a pretty cool film?”
MATTHEW JAMES ASHTON: It was definitely a pretty cool film from the get-go. Basically, just the caliber of people involved and I personally love Cloudy with a Change of Meatballs and when we heard that we got Lord and Miller, I was super excited about that just because I knew they were so funny and so creative with the way that they could write a story. The first time I read the script it was really, really good and it had a really good message that I think was very unique story that could only really be told by LEGO and that’s what we really, really wanted. The movie itself would be something that had sort of an underlying, creative message that could only be told by using a LEGO and I think that was evident from the first time we read the script.
I’m curious about the collaboration between LEGO, the filmmakers and the studio. You guys have a lot of LEGO sets and a lot of different stuff. Was there ever you saying to Phil and Chris, “It would be great if we could do this.” Could you talk about that collaboration?
ASHTON: I’m really, really happy to say it’s been a really collaborative relationship from the beginning. I think a lot of skeptics may think that we walked up to the studio, had a line of toys already built and said, “Can you just make a movie around this?” It has been completely the opposite of that. What really happened is we gave Chris and Phil the opportunity to sit down and write the story that they would make the most compelling story and the most exciting movie. And that was the number one starting point because we just felt going into it there’s so many skeptics and thinking, “Oh LEGO is just jumping on this bandwagon of toy companies trying to make a little extra money by having a movie.” We just wanted to make sure that we had the best story that we possibly could. That was the starting point and as the script developed what we did was we sort of went through the script and cherry picked the sequences that we thought would probably make the best toys. We also co-developed those models as we were going through the movie with the guys.
I think, from a collaboration point of view, it’s been very sort of organic process. There has been certain models in the movie where Chris and Phil had a very, very clear picture in mind of exactly what they wanted so we just did a little bit of refining and tweaking on our end to make sure things were built properly and would perform properly as a toy. We sort of helped out in that respect with those models but there were other aspects of the movie where they were like, “Look guys, you can completely come up with your own ideas on this and we’ll have a talk about them and see what’s working and then fine tune it.”
I think one of the things that we were very clear on at the beginning is we did not expect to be involved in everything because of course trying to micromanage this would just drain everybody’s resources and so from the get-go we sort of said, “Any sort of scenery and backgrounds and all the buildings of the wild west and and everything, the studio and the directors had complete creative freedom on that.” So, we would just serve in a sort of advisory capacity to help with either sending inspirational pictures or giving them little building techniques and help along the way. Every aspect of scenery that you see in the movie was created without too much involvement so we focused mainly on the key vehicles and then the characters within the movie.
I’m sure seeing the final film was very inspirational about possible future things. After the screening, was there already talk about future sets based on The LEGO Movie?
ASHTON: I think we developed the sets that we are going to do based on this movie so far. Of course, the reception was super, super positive at LEGO and it was really nerve racking experience for each of us because there’s only been very few of us involved from a LEGO perspective. So, this is the first time of being shown to a broad audience and I think internal LEGO people might be the hardest critics on this. It was a really nerve racking experience where everybody came out and was blown away by how good it was. We’re super positive what options may arise in the future but there’s no sort of concrete discussions as of yet whether we’re going to work on sequels or something. We are waiting with bated breath to see the success of this; all things seem to be pointing in the right direction.
I was referring more to LEGO play sets or LEGO items based on the film.
ASHTON: We haven’t got any plans to expand the line further. What we did with the sets that we’ve developed so far is—if you look at The LEGO Movie there’s a lot of stuff in there that already exists within other lines, so a lot of Bricksburg will be reflected within our LEGO city line and of course lines like that will continue anyway. What we did with the product is, we specifically went in and picked any sort of pivotal point in the movie where there’s a big action sequence or a character is in danger and they need rescuing or whatever. What we found when we picked those things out is we wanted to create The LEGO Movie to be really distinct from anything else that we do in the portfolio anyway. Those sort of things are great because they’re sort of things that will really sticks itself in a kid’s mind and they’re the things that they’ll remember. They’re also the kind of things that kids will want to go back and play out at home and replicate what they’ve seen on the movie. If you look at the several things throughout the movie where the characters are in danger or they need to attack somebody and that’s where the real creative aspect of the movie comes up because then they have to build their way out of the situations. There’s this one sequence where Wyldstyle is rescuing Emmet and she needs to build a super cycle in the back alley so that’s a really great action scene but it’s also a super cool model at the same time. We really cherry picked the best items out of the entire script to do that. There is a limit to the amount of products that we can get out of the movie but I think we’ve done the best we can. We’re really proud with what we’ve managed to develop so far.
I’m curious about the development process of LEGO. For example, with Hasbro, they are developing toys that are a year, a year and a half out, to make sure it can go through the production cycle and make it onto store shelves. With LEGO, how far ahead are you guys planning for the product?
ASHTON: It’s pretty much the same. It’s generally around 18 months is our standard life cycle. Of course more complicated things, that we need to start on earlier, could vary from 2 years to 6 years depending on what kind of product line it is. There’s also private lines that we occasionally have to fast track through the process so if we tie into any movie franchise that’s coming out and then we have difficulty getting assets from the studio then of course we have to speed up the process on those things. But generally it’s about 18 months, the actual design part of that process is maybe 6-8 months. Then after that you have to deal with all the building instructions, packaging development, sorting, production, and all the logistics of getting it into the store. We probably have around 6-8 months on the actual design side of creating a product.
I know there’s a lot of adult collectors out there that collect LEGO. Have you guys ever thought of creating something bigger than the Super Star Destroyer that would be higher than a $400 price point or have you found that is pretty much the max that you can create and put on store shelves?
ASHTON: I don’t think we’ve ever gone into that thinking price as the starting point so we wouldn’t really pick up a price tag or a size limit on a model. I think there have been things that we’ve though about that could potentially go bigger than that. I think actually the biggest item that we’ve done, from a piece-count perspective was the Taj Mahal and I think that was about 5,900 pieces. So we have done sets with a lot of bricks and if the right idea comes up and the right opportunity, we think that there’s a big enough fanbase to do something bigger in the future. It’s definitely something we’ll consider but we haven’t said that there’s an upper price limit on these things but obviously we have to be realistic at the same time.
ASHTON: To be honest, I think the movie is the biggest surprise and the public is going to see as well. That has been also a huge learning curve for us as a company and certainly has been really, really exciting to involve in something a completely separate industry.
MICHAEL MCNALLY: I’m going to jump in, if you don’t mind, and just sort of speak to the pervasiveness of the brand and how in particular in a day and age when people can be cynical about plastic toys being relevant, that we have been able to grow year and year in such a dramatic way. That means more and more people are building and more and more people of all ages are building. When you see fans who find it necessary to take it into their own hands to recreate movie posters or movie trailers with LEGO bricks, you know that’s incredible to us. A lot of companies I think would feel, we should turn that trailer into a LEGO version of that movie trailer. And we’ve done that before but we’re now at the point where those things are happening within 48 hours of those trailers going online and we have nothing to do with them at all. That’s truly surprising to us, that people would have the time and the energy and the creativity to take that into their own hands and then want to share it with everybody.
Have you guys thought about branching out to other forms of entertainment like sports teams or music artists?
ASHTON: We have thought about it, it’s quite complicated. I think one of the things is, a lot of our product lines, we really have to look at them from a global perspective. With sports team in particular, they’re kind of either regional or you might have basketball super strong in the U.S. and China which may not be strong within other regions. It’s a little bit more complicated for us to deal with things like that. It is something that we’ve definitely discussed and we’re not ruling out for the future. It has been talked about.
ASHTON: We have talked about it, all of these things are coming up all the time internally. It’s something, I think from a nostalgic point of view, it’s great. It’s something that will potentially be quite niche as well. Even though there’s a lot of nostalgia and it would really pull on the emotional heart strings of some hardcore fans, if you compare some of the models from the 80s to what the kids are used to seeing and playing with now, it would not necessarily hit the same appeal level that we need to get kids buying into as well. It’s a little bit niche and we have talked about it. It’s another one where we’re not saying that we wouldn’t go with that but it’s not something that we’ve focused on. Just looking at The LEGO Movie, what we’ve done with Benny’s spaceship specifically for the movie is, we talked to Chris and Phil about working a classic spaceship into the assortment and we came up with a great way. It’s a hybrid but it’s something that all the adult fans will just go nuts about because it’s an addition to what they knew and loved as kids. But then for new target audiences it’s got all features and functions, mechanisms, and all the cool stuff that kids require in the model of today. That’s what we tried to do with that, we’re catering for both target groups within the same sort of model.
I’m going to give you big props on the Benny set because I’ve seen pictures of it now from the toy show in Europe and I will be buying it the day it comes out.
ASHTON: That’s great. I haven’t even got one on my desk yet. I’m waiting for the production samples to come in. Honestly, Benny is creating so much fuss, everybody just adores him and just the simple little detail that he’s got a crack on his helmet to make him distinct. And of course, that was a flaw back in the 80’s when those helmets were molded the chin strap was too thin and they broke easily. So many people have just said, “Oh that happened to my LEGO spaceman.” Just the little details like that that Chris and Phil have managed to take what could’ve been a relatively generic character and just added something like that has really yanked on other people’s heart strings. Benny is my personal favorite followed by, in line with Unikitty.
ASHTON: We have officially go through every year where we’ll get pitched different licenses from all new TV shows, movie reboots and things. Basically we just go through ourselves a funnel process to figure out which one’s good from a brand perspective and then we’ve got a formula that we look for within IPs to check that we can create the sort of toys that we need. It goes through a process where all the different IPs are reviewed and then we’ll pick a couple each year.
What is the engineering process like for adapting properties? For example, how did you guys come up with the design for Spider-Man’s LEGO web?
ASHTON: Spider-Man’s LEGO web actually existed before Spider-Man did, so that was just a regular one that we used in haunted houses and castles and things in the past. Generally what we do is we’ve actually got a style guide with different guideline on how you should sculpt certain elements to make them look as LEGO-y as possible and then we have guidelines on the system which is all the measurements of the studs and tubes and how everything needs to connect properly. We have those guidelines and then we work with the license where we take their reference material and in many respects we simplify the design from what they’ve done and then add in sort of some details on things just to make it look a bit more edgy and blocky and tie it into the whole LEGO set.
You guys previously did a set for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Do you have any plans to do The Legend of Korra?
MCNALLY: It’s not something that we’re currently considering. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t if it had enough global appeal and opportunity for loyal building. It’s tough for us to comment on properties that are under review or in consideration.
In 2015 there are some massive movies that fans are pretty sure you guys are going to be doing. For example, you guys have the Star Wars license, there’s Star Wars: Episode VII, there’s Avengers 2, there are some huge properties coming. You’ve already mentioned how long the process usually is, can you talk about the challenge of creating LEGO for properties like that where there is an element of secrecy. How much are the studios actually letting you see?
ASHTON: It kind of varies properties to properties but generally it’s very much dependent on the filmmaker’s schedule and what assets are available when and what can be released it in many respects. Obviously, a film studio is not going to re-plan their entire movie shoot to fit into when we need certain assets delivered to us. In many instances they’re really, really great at pulling stuff the minute that they’ve got it and other instances we might have to work from really preliminary sketch material and of course, when the toy comes out it won’t be 100% accurate to what it looks like in the movie in those cases. All the studios just do the best that they can to accommodate getting as much material out.
And of course, there’s things that will be edited and colors changed in post-production and everything along the way. We may have found that when a model ends up in production in one color and then you see it in the movie, it may not look the same once the final movie comes out. Especially now, everything’s digital in movies as well because filmmakers can tweak a movie right up until pretty much two days before it’s launched and of course our product’s locked a year before that. It does cause a few problems in certain instances but we’ve really found that everybody just does their upmost because also the studios want to make sure that they get the best products out there as well. So, they generally do whatever they can to get the materials to us in a timely manner as possible.
ASHTON: I think what we try and do is make sure when we’re selecting is that we’re really targeting different age groups with properties that we pick as well. Star Wars may do slightly older in a year when a new movie is released and then we may need to balance that with something a little more lighthearted like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When we’re picking up properties it’s not necessarily just the property, it’s also what kind of gap is within the portfolio to make sure that we’re really catering for all the different fan needs.
One of my favorite items you guys have come out with has been the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Have the sales of that item exceeded what you guys had projected? Was it a big hit? Is it something that based on the sales you might consider doing more of say a Hill Valley play set?
ASHTON: The sales on the DeLorean have been really, really good. I don’t know how much we can talk about this. I don’t think we necessarily expand on doing more Back to the Future products but we are looking to do similar things on different franchises.
MCNALLY: We just announced today that we’re—latest review from the Cuusoo concepts—we have green lit a Ghostbusters Ecto 1. So, that’ll go into production and be available later this year. It’s very similar to the Back to the Future sort of product, vehicle based, some mini figures. We’re not revealing product information yet, that’ll be coming a little bit later in the year. We did just partner with Sony Pictures on that one. The idea that consumers are helping us do a zero in on what they have passion and what they’d like to see, the Cuusoo platform is nice way for us to understand what are those niche opportunities that can really satisfy a fanbase without having to go through this sort of lens of mass global appeal or boys ages 6-11, or whatever the case may be. We have a business model around that platform that allows us to be a little bit more in and out and do things that maybe have a lower thresholds but have super high affinity within a certain group.
I believe the original submission was submitted with the Ghostbusters headquarters, obviously that’s a much higher price point. Was there ever a thought of doing the headquarters or did the success of the DeLorean make you go with just the Ecto 1?
ASHTON: We did have the discussion and decided that at this point it would definitely be more optimal just to go for the vehicle. But if opportunities arise in the future, we will evaluate that as well. We did just do the vehicle this time around and it’s basically because there’s always a new Cuusoo platform that we’re working with then we do have the really high price point on our ongoing franchises like Star Wars that we do with our shop-at-home exclusives. We’re keeping the big items tied into lines that match our retail assortment at the moment.
MCNALLY: We’re sort of connecting back to one of your earlier questions around our lead times. The less complex the model, the easier it is for us to pass track and go to production. We have a structure in addition to a vehicle, that item may not have come out for a year after we decide to greenlight it. We’re always looking at how we balance meeting the fans in the timeframe in which they’re indicating a passion and then making decision about models on that base as well.
Can you talk about what it’s like working with the studio after products such as the DeLorean or the Ecto 1 get submitted? Is the process of getting the rights an easy one for you guys?
ASHTON: I’m personally not really involved in that process. I’m involved in the selection process of which licenses to go for but all the contractual stuff is dealt with by one of my colleagues. I can’t really comment on that one.
ASHTON: You’re getting very specific. That’s another one where we’ve talked about it and it may, it may not. There’s no final decision, there’s nothing in pipeline on that one at the moment but that doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be.
What LEGO sets are currently on your desk at work?
ASHTON: Pretty much anything Unikitty related and variations around her. That’s pretty much it. My desk is more mess than there is models at the moment, piles and piles of paper. But yeah, it’s Unikitty and a lot of LEGO Movie stuff, and also mini figure collectibles. I’ve got displays of those and I’ve got the range of the new Simpsons characters on my desk as well. Which is something else that we are very excited about.
Is The Simpsons a line that you envision being as large as say, what you’ve done with Star Wars? What are your plans for the line or is it based on the sales of The Simpsons house?
ASHTON: I think it’s one of the lines that we are gonna keep quite small and quite targeted, to be honest. We need to see how the success of these items go to see whether we’re going to continue with that in the future, but it’s looking positive. It is more of an opportunistic approach that we’ve taken, especially with it being the anniversary of The Simpsons. That is the reason why we’ve tied into it this year, for the celebration of their anniversary.
If the line is successful and you’re able to create other things, is it safe to assume we will never see a Moe’s Tavern?
ASHTON: I think the Moe’s Tavern one, we try to avoid anything alcohol-related within our products, especially targeting kids. I’m very dubious that that would happen.
ASHTON: That is a no.
It looks like there’s a Simpsons mini fig coming of 16 figures, like you did for The LEGO Movie. Are those the figures that are on your desk?
Do you want to tease anything for fans?
ASHTON: One of them is in The LEGO Movie.
MCNALLY: That’s off limits right now.
ASHTON: You will see one of them in The LEGO Movie and it’s a family, and the rest of the information is off limits.
For new fans, can you talk a little bit about the retired sets? Some of them are rather expensive.
MCNALLY: The way that we approach all of our products in the collection is, we plan a life cycle for them. There are very few, if any, products that have indefinite shelf life. Typically, our themes range anywhere anywhere from 12-24 months, sometimes you see a 36-month product. But toys in general are so novelty driven that it’s all about what’s new and we’re always balancing. In any course of the year we’ll have about 400 or so skews available on shelves. Probably 40% of those are from the previous year very forward, and the rest are all novelty. So, we’re always rotating things in and out, that’s why you see themes move in and out or different box. I hear what you’re saying, it’s like, “Hey if I just started collecting LEGO sets and I really like that Taj Mahal. I can’t buy it unless I buy it for some premium price off of Ebay.” That’s not our intention, to drive that after market or that collector market. The flip of that is that the Taj Mahal may not be available but that means we’re making room for something else that will come in. The Sydney Opera House I think is a great example of a large iconic structure that we thought we’ve converted into LEGO bricks. That will rotate in, it’ll be available for a period of time and then it will rotate out.
The fact that older sets have a collectibility to them is one of the things that gives LEGO that balance of being collectable but also something you can purchase.
ASHTON: It’s also, in the rotation of the products as well, especially what you see at retail, it’s really what keeps the brand fresh and alive and appealing to kids. I think that’s what really drives kids to going into toy stores, they really want to see what’s the new stuff out. If you end up having a load of products that have been on the shelf for years then that may reflect on the brand that we’re becoming a little stagnant or something. That’s really important for us, also to drive traffic into the shops to get everybody rushing in and finding out what the new stuff is that’s on the shelf.
What can you tease people about what’s coming in the City line? Have you seen a lot of success with that line?
ASHTON: It’s not one of the lines that is underneath me, but it’s something that they’re going to continue ongoing. It’s got its own fanbase in itself and it’s performing really well. It’s something that every year we’re looking to innovate on that and bring in new buildings. I know it’s still underdevelopment.
Before Disney announced Star Wars: Episode VII, were you one of the people that knew it was coming?
ASHTON: To be honest, it may have even been days before the public knew, that we heard. We were of course, super excited about it and Lucas and Disney let us know what’s on their roster and what things are planned and stuff as soon as they can. And of course, the minute they could release that information to us they did so and we were really happy about that. It wasn’t a huge time gap between when it was announced to us and when the public found out.
So you’re losing your mind that they’re planning a new Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future.
ASHTON: Yes, I’m super excited.
Disney has done great with Marvel and I’m very optimistic of what they can do with Star Wars.
ASHTON: Yes, yes. I really like J.J. Abrams as well.