‘We Want It To Be a Soulful Cash Grab’: How Lego Created Arguably the Greatest Piece of Branded Content Ever

It’s been number one at the box office since it hit theaters. Reviewers adore it. Political thinkers from both parties have pondered it. And, it’s a toy commercial audiences have paid $200 million to see thus far.

The LEGO Movie has generated so much success that content strategists everywhere should think about raising the white flag. You win, Lego. The rest of us are just tossing yesterday’s chum into the water. Packaging a piece of branded content as a blockbuster and betting audiences would treat it that way was a huge risk, but that risk has clearly paid off.

What does Lego’s success mean for other brands? Is a Dove Real Beauty rom-com on the horizon? An Axe Body Spray action flick? Or was The LEGO Movie an exception, only possible for the right brand at the right time?

Because They Could

The first question a brand would have to ask itself before yelling action is whether or not such a big project is necessary. Because Lego didn’t. Lego made a movie because it could, not because it needed to sell toys.

“Right from the start we were skeptical about doing it because people could see it as a giant commercial and that wasn’t something we were interested in doing,” Chris Miller, the film’s co-writer and co-director, told Fast Company. “Luckily, the people at Lego felt the same way. They didn’t need a movie to boost sales.”

Lego could make a movie because people already love their toys. The Lego Group has existed since 1949, and the internet still falls apart every time someone builds something cool with Legos.

Is public affection for Dove’s message on body image widespread enough for women to line-up to watch it play out on the big screen? Maybe, maybe not. That’s not to say the right tweaking couldn’t make it work. Would The Heat have lured as many viewers if it was titled: The Heat, brought you by Dove Real Beauty and Jezebel? It’s a bit wordy, but plausible.

Just Being Lego

Remember Transformers, Battleship and the G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra? Oh yeah. Though recent, those toy movies were so underwhelming in terms of quality that it’s easy to regard The LEGO Movie as the first of its kind. Where those movies went wrong, suggests Noah Kristula-Green for The American Conservative, is by trying to be something they’re not.

“[S]o many movies based on toys have already been made and most of them tried too hard to insert products into the real world,” Kristula-Green said.

If a brand’s product is a square peg to a film concept’s round hole, why bother? Brands have to be honest with themselves and chose a genre that fits their products. If Betty Crocker makes a movie, it had better be about cooking. If Hot Wheels tries to produce a blockbuster, it should be far more Cars than The Fast and the Furious.

Getting Way Native

Let’s not be coy. No matter what the filmmakers say, The LEGO Movie is indeed a 90-minute commercial. Included amongst the long-loved Lego sets and figurines, the movie contains 17 new sets the company presumably will retail, and Lego has launched partnerships with everyone from McDonald’s to Google to inject the world with more plastic enthusiasm.

The concept works, however, because it also includes the qualities of a legitimate movie – established writers and directors, a $60 million budget, a real premiere and voice acting from movie stars like Morgan Freeman and Will Ferrell. Best of all it’s a movie with a substantial plot that even winks at the audience with clever self-awareness about commercialism.

The LEGO Movie never pretends that the products of mass media aren’t outrageously entertaining–that would be a willful denial of reality,” wrote Alyssa Rosenberg for Think Progress. “Instead, it asks us to consider what we’re losing out in that homogenization.”

Whether or not another brand can ever replicate Lego’s success, it’s almost certain dozens will try soon, and with the potential for $200 million box-office hauls, studios will likely line up to give them the chance. As Tiny Fey mentioned in her Golden Globes speech this year, when something “kind of works,” Hollywood loves to “keep doing it until everybody hates it.”

Lego may have laid out the building blocks for everyone to hate future branded movies, but for now, The LEGO Movie works. Who knew a cash grab could be so soulful?

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