In the usually sleepy summer month of July, news of a wholly original joint-creation from two of the industry’s biggest names was sure to grab headlines. Enter Mixels. The new multiplatform, multi-SKU brand came to light through a process of “organic development” between broadcast heavyweight Cartoon Network and the most valuable toyco in the world, Lego.
“We looked at shifts in our audience with the style and format of content consumption,” says Rob Sorcher, chief content officer for Cartoon Network, explaining what led to the innovative partnership that had its genesis a little more than a year ago. “We flew to [Lego's Denmark-based head office in] Billund and we were lucky enough to be able to exchange some ideas with them.”
Growing out of a previous partnership around Lego’s hit toy/TV IPs Legends of Chima and Ninjago, the companies had become familiar with each other. The success of the two properties enticed the principals to consider a broader, more all-encompassing approach to their next venture. “On our visit, we got to see some product development,” says Sorcher. “And just seized upon one particular thing that we saw.”
Always privy to Lego’s products in development, the company’s VP of licensing and entertainment, Jill Wilfert, says the earliest incarnation of what was to become Mixels had certain aspects that called to mind the Cartoon Network ethos. “It deals with very small creatures, and I thought that its sensibilities would match up with Cartoon Network’s,” she says. “When they came over to discuss Chima, we shared it with them—they loved it.”
The line was still in its embryonic stage, and from there the two companies decided that—unlike their previous co-ventures—the IP would be wholly developed as a joint-enterprise encompassing short-form animation, collectible building sets and a rich gaming experience. As a global franchise, Mixels will focus on Cartoon Network’s core six to 12 boy demo. But owing to the universality of the initial character design and Lego’s wide appeal, Stuart Snyder, president and COO of Turner’s Animation, Young Adults and Kids division, expects that girls will also be interested in the Mixels universe. “It’s a natural extension and evolution of content,” he says, describing why Cartoon Network decided to invest in the new IP. “Our audience is really focused on digital platforms, and this is something new and fresh.”
Sorcher says that the new concept was borne from an understanding of how new content is being consumed in today’s market. “This is really about storytelling in a different way,” he says. “We are letting go of the traditional views and processes. It’s not a top-down kind of approach; we are trying something new here.”
The concept itself has been the subject of intense speculation from both industry insiders and Lego’s passionate online fan community. In an effort to keep an air of mystery around the franchise, CN and Lego are playing it close to the vest. However, Wilfert confirms that on the product side, the idea for Mixels emerged from a new mini ball-joint that Lego had in development last summer. Reportedly, the ball-joint will allow for smaller-scale articulation that gives the user additional angles to connect different Lego pieces. “It’s a new connection within our building system itself,” confirms Wilfert. “The whole idea is to allow kids to unlock their creativity and create a buildable collectible, which is new for our company.”
The tactile new connection will also be the basis for the conceptual framework of Mixels content, says Sorcher. “It’s a world of unlimited combinations,” he says. “There is a giant set of characters that can combine with each other, and the content will proceed with that underlying principle in mind.”
The look and feel of Mixels also represents a change from the standard Lego brick. While a scant few images have thus far been released, the IP’s cross-pollination with Cartoon Network is evident in those that have been made public. “It’s a bit of a different expression for us,” says Wilfert. “People are used to seeing the Lego MiniFigure as an icon, but these characters express themselves in a different way.”
Cartoon Network and Cartoonnetwork.com are set to debut the first wave of content next March. Expect short-form 2D-animated eps to introduce the concept to the world, along with an immersive app-powered gaming experience and low-priced mini-building sets. While the number of SKUs is still under wraps, global mass-market retailers are expected to pick up the entire line of products when they launch next March, owing to Lego’s track record and legacy.
“There will be different formats for different platforms,” says Sorcher. “The online game will look different than the TV, and that will look a bit different from the building sets. But it will all be connected—it’s all in the same family.”
Lego, for its part, is handling toy design, manufacturing and distribution, as well as licensed publishing. Cartoon Network Enterprises, meanwhile, is looking after licensing for all other non-toy Mixels merch. However, the launch of a full-scale licensing program into secondary categories like apparel, accessories and publishing won’t be pursued until next year.
Of course, the coordination of a global product launch of this scale is formidable. “Our timeline was really tight. Creating the content, and then making the product, it really couldn’t have been done any faster,” Sorcher says. He adds the corporate cultures melded seamlessly, which made for a smooth process.
“When you think about the Lego design team in Denmark and our animators in L.A., they really aren’t that different. This is a group of people, from executives to game designers and artists, that all have a fundamental feel for the product. The content matters to everyone.”
Snyder admits that there are inherent risks in introducing a wholly new IP into a stubbornly risk-averse retail environment.”This is a new direction in many ways,” he says, citing Cartoon Network’s partnering with a toyco from the outset and using short-form animation as Mixels’ primary content driver. “Any time you do something brand-new, there are risks involved, but these are good, calculated risks.”
One factor that makes the partnership a good bet is Lego’s stellar track record with content based on its toys so far. With the runaway DVD and viral video success of Lego’s movie parodies, and Legends of Chima and Ninjago providing ratings wins for CN, the glow around the toyco’s content is substantial. Accordingly, next year Lego will make its theatrical debut with The Lego Movie, which has attracted a good chunk of Hollywood’s A-List to voice its big-budget mix of CGI and stop motion.
Not surprisingly, Lego’s content successes weren’t accidental. Wilfert says they’re the result of the toyco’s careful approach and all-in philosophy. “We are focused on quality,” she says. “We start with storyline and great characters—we don’t start with a product as our anchor point.” Additionally, she says the affinity for the Lego brand is so high and universal that audiences are excited to engage with it in a different way.
Sorcher agrees that audiences’ adoration of Lego is a great starting point for understanding why its content has been so successful. However, he adds that the creatives’ relationships with the brand also play a pivotal role. “Animators, in general, have a very unique and special connection with Lego,” he says. “To a lot of them, Lego was their first creative outlet when they were kids. So, it follows that there is a lot of passion and creativity that stems from that. It’s that magic that you see on the screen.”