Hot Wheels Is Ready For Its Close-up

Here’s the plot: Mattel wants its planned Hot Wheels film out of Columbia Pictures to be another The Fast and the Furious, without Vin Diesel but crammed with superfast, customized fantasy vehicles based on Hot Wheels designs. Here’s the true story on which it’s based: The toy maker’s movie debut has been anything but fast as Mattel steers its marketing on a very different course.

Hollywood courted the El Segundo, Calif.-based maker of Barbie and other iconic toy brands for years, but Mattel always shied away from branded content. Some direct-to-video releases for Fisher-Price, Barbie and Hot Wheels, and the Hot Wheels animated TV show in the 1970s, were the exceptions. “We hadn’t found the right concept—the mix wasn’t right; something was always off,” said Mattel rep Sara Rosales. The pieces clicked because Columbia Pictures understood the power of the Hot Wheels brand, she said—and agreed to give Mattel a hand in the script.

With the marketer in the midst of a year-long push to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Hot Wheels—and with parties on both sides of the art and commerce line diving into entertainment-marketing experiments—Mattel felt the time was right.

“We are doing a lot of entertainment marketing as Hot Wheels grows beyond a kids toy to a global lifestyle brand that appeals to kids, teens and adults,” said Rosales. For example, Hot Wheels is launching the World Race, a line of Hot Wheels cars that ties into a character-driven storyline with related videos, comic books, a videogame and a Web component.

Mattel negotiated the deal, announced Jan. 31, with Los Angeles entertainment agency Endeavor, which represents the toy maker as well as the film’s director, Joseph McGinty Nichol (also known as McG), and producer John Baldecchi. Financial details were not disclosed, but industry sources said Hollywood licensing deals may go as high as $10 million. The script has not yet been written.

“It’s not often that toys are made into movies, but the [Hot Wheels] brand name is so strong,” said Peter Schlessel, Columbia Pictures president. But as fans of the videogame Final Fantasy learned after the 2001 film based on the game was a disaster, a successful brand does not automatically score on the big screen.

Still, many industry insiders agreed that potential rewards for Mattel seem to outweigh the risks and that a box- office failure would do little to harm the brand. The concept of a movie is strong because three generations of consumers have an emotional connection to Hot Wheels, said Neil Patel, principal of entertainment-marketing consultancy Cabana Group.

And despite Mattel’s attempts to broaden Hot Wheels’ demographic appeal, said Sean McGowan, managing director at investment bank Gerard Klauer Mattison, the brand is not there yet, which mitigates some of the risks involved. “Hot Wheels is viewed as a kids toy. It’s not really viewed as a serious collectible,” he said. “If it was a serious line, there’s a risk the product could suffer if the movie is bad or it was viewed as a cheap brand.”

As it is, he said, “it’s good exposure. It’s a reminder of youth, and the way Hollywood goes, it will probably have a happy ending.”