Case Study: Hot Wheels Part 1
The winter of early 2002 had been a bitter one for my team. We were winding down our “Never Surrender” tour of New York City public schools in the wake of 9/11, and were realizing that Starlight Runner’s venture capital funding was never going to be completed. Our money had run out, our talent was forced to move on, and my partner Mark and I were taking part-time jobs just to get by. On top of it all, Evangelia was conceived amidst a mix of sorrow and hope. I would have a little girl, a true child of the millennium. I was thrilled, but in my heart of hearts I knew that something had to happen on the career front, and soon…
In April I got a call from Amy Boylan, who was then Senior VP, Boys / Entertainment New Media at Mattel. The AP had picked up a tiny article on our work in the schools and she remembered that we’d worked together on the Turok videogame while she was at Acclaim Entertainment several years earlier. I’d written the story of the game and tied it to the comics, a web site and some action figures, so she figured I could create a simple storyline for the Hot Wheels web site. The 35th anniversary of the die-cast metal cars was coming up in 2003, and Mattel wanted to do something special around them. Maybe shake a bit of dust off them. She could sense the excitement in my voice and within a couple of weeks I found myself hurtling toward El Segundo on a last chance power drive…
I knew that Amy would be open to new ideas, and I knew that I had the skills to make this web story something bigger, more ambitious. The problem was that, while I could tell you exactly how the engines work on the starship Enterprise, I knew zip about racecars. That would be a giant goose egg.
There was no time to freak, so I got a grip and figured I could always pull aboard a NASCAR expert later, what I needed right now was access to the essence of the brand. At the time, Hot Wheels cars were one of the top selling toys in the world, having sold over 2.5 billion vehicles. Eight of the flashy little things are sold every second, three track sets a minute and 230 playsets an hour. There had been some Hot Wheels fiction in the 1970s, but nothing memorable. I knew that our story had to embody the brand credo of “Speed! Power! Performance! and Attitude!” but what was the story hook that could bring the whole thing to life? Mark and I turned to the kids.
We bought some Hot Wheels cars with us to our next “Never Surrender” and asked the kids whether they recognized them. Of course they did, and they were more than willing to show us how they played with them. I asked one exuberant second-grader what he thought of those bright orange tracks and he motioned with the little blue Deora II we gave him (surfboards still intact), pushing it up an infinitely tall, curved incline and squealing like an engine that was about to explode. I murmured to Mark, “The loop-the-loops—they’re ten miles tall! This isn’t the Indy 500, these are supercars!”
A cosmology started quickly falling together in that vast, tangled mess between my ears. There would be a parallel world built by a benevolent race of beings for the sole purpose of expressing their love for speed. It would be laced by infinitely long tangerine tracks, immense environments and exotic cityscapes, and I would connect to it all as a storyteller by making it about a boy who needed to prove himself to his father. Yeah, I have issues, but who doesn’t?
So there I am, standing alone at Mattel HQ, pitching to Amy and the Internet team. They think they’re going to hear about a web site that maybe has a Flash game or two to accompany a comic strip narrative that profiled each of the big anniversary’s 35 cars. But after I realized that they were going along with some of these ideas, I asked them if I could dream out loud for a few minutes:
To me, Mattel’s strong suite with Hot Wheels was this incredible distribution platform—the millions of j-hook individual car packs they sold all over the world. Why not make them the launch point of the storyline? We could create 35 miniature comics, each profiling the featured car in the pack, and each being an individual chapter in a great race storyline that spanned them all. And, what if the story ended on a cliffhanger and was ultimately resolved in a 22-minute animated mini-movie? We could get sponsors to pay for most of it, and could use the web site to tie it all together.
By the time I finished my pitch, restarting it several more times as newbies kept joining the meeting, there were over fifteen brand managers, designers, marketers and entertainment folk (some from the Barbie division!) jammed into the conference room.
Something big was happening. I was joyfully describing what would become Starlight Runner’s first major transmedia implementation of the decade, on a universe that would become an evergreen franchise for Mattel that is thriving today. It would be the most challenging work I’d done in my life to that point, and it would lay the foundation for how my team would develop and produce major cross-platform storylines from there on in.
Stick around and I’ll tell you how it turned out, but for now just keep in mind that transmedia storytelling means nothing for kids entertainment unless you remember always to see through the eyes of a child…