Since Mattel Television launched in 2016, it has specialized in producing 2D- and CG-animated projects for streamers, YouTube and linear TV, including Deepa & Anoop for Netflix and a new Thomas & Friends series for Cartoon Network. But Mattel ultimately wants its content to appeal to the same broad demos that are buying its multi-generational toys. The solution? Live action.
Mattel TV’s latest projects are the two new unscripted series—Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge for NBC, premiering in late May, and Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge for HGTV, which debuts this summer.
The studio is embracing less expensive and quicker-to-make live-action content because it appeals to Mattel’s existing kids audience, while also engaging parents who played with its toys when they were young, but have since moved away from these brands, says head of live-action series development Phil Breman.
Mattel TV is building on the success of two initial forays into live action that it made in 2022—the unscripted game show Pictionary and musical feature film Monster High: The Movie (92 minutes). Both were greenlit for follow-up projects this year, and that’s giving the team the confidence to forge ahead with more content in this genre.
“Modern animation is geared towards Generation Alpha and younger kids, but with live action, we have the opportunity to reach out to the broadest audience possible, all the way from eight to 80,” says Breman. “And I think we’ve timed this well in [the sense] that buyers are clamoring for more family programming that kids, parents and grandparents can all watch together.”
There’s good data backing this strategy, too. According to London-based Kids Industries’ 2023 Global Family Study, co-viewing is the new king of linear television. Most parents (73%) now view content together with their children half the time that their kids are watching anything. This represents a massive change from 2019, when 74% of parents surveyed said they only co-viewed with their children about once a month.
Mattel is applying its live-action strategy to feature films as well as TV, partnering with Warner Bros. Discovery to develop live-action pic Barbie (2023), which hits theaters in July, along with several movie projects that have been in the works for a while, including Hot Wheels (2025). The division has also opted for live action to bring back Barney, tapping actor Daniel Kaluuya’s 59% studio to spearhead production on an as-yet-untitled film.
However, the company has learned that it isn’t enough to just put one of its IPs on screens and expect success, says Breman. In live action, kids and families want to see aspirational stories and be inspired to get up and play.
“You want to make sure that there’s some sort of wish fulfilment or aspirational quality to the content that creates an emotional attachment among the audience,” he says. “[Kids] should want to be a part of the experience, whether they want to be the character they’re watching or play the game they’re viewing. You have to find a way to tap into that.”
Mattel saw this lesson play out with its gameshow based on Pictionary, Breman adds. It’s a board game many families already play together, so there was pre-existing potential for a TV series where families at home get to play along with the contestants on screen.
“The reason why [Pictionary] works so well as an unscripted series is that it’s an easy game to play and understand, but it’s also an enjoyable one to watch because the fun personalities amplify the gameplay,” says Breman.