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Lego Film Boss Jill Wilfert Reflects on 10 Years of ‘The Lego Movie,’ How ‘Barbie’ Changed the Toy-to-Film Landscape and What to Expect From Their Universal Deal

Despite “Barbie’s” recent box office domination, the history of toy-to-film franchises has not always been easy. Often dismissed as a cash grab (“Battleship”) or popcorn fare (“G.I. Joe,” “Transformers”), turning toys into critically and commercially successful content is no skate in the park.

For Mattel and co, there was another toy that had to walk before “Barbie” could fly: Lego. Written and directed by Lord and Miller, “The Lego Movie” proved that movies based on toys could be so much more than a 90-minute commercial when it was released ten years ago. Although snubbed at the Oscars (not even garnering a nomination for best animated film), the Warner Bros. pic — like its eventual successor “Barbie” — was a hit with both audiences and critics.

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Buoyed by “The Lego Movie’s” success, a string of spin-offs and sequels quickly followed – “The Lego Batman Movie” and “The Lego Ninjago Movie” in 2017 and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” in 2019 – before the Denmark-based brand’s theatrical output dramatically halted. Partly that was down to their theatrical deal with Warner expiring in 2020, not to mention the COVID pandemic and last year’s strikes.

But four years into their partnership with Universal Pictures – and with one year left to run on the deal — Lego’s iconic minifigs are yet to return to the big screen (streaming and home video output has continued apace with franchises including Ninjago, Lego Marvel Super Heroes and Jurassic World).

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of “The Lego Movie,” Lego’s head of global entertainment Jill Wilfert talked exclusively with Variety about the journey of that first film from toy-chest to big screen and plans for the future, including whether Lego might ever reunite with longtime producer (and newly crowned Netflix film boss) Dan Lin.

And while Wilfert declined to confirm reports the Nee brothers are attached to direct a hybrid animated/live-action Lego feature, fans will no doubt be thrilled to hear that Lego and Universal are still in “active development on a whole range of ideas and concepts.” As “The Lego Movie’s” Emmet might put it: everything is awesome.

Do you remember your reaction when Warner Bros. first approached you about making a Lego movie?

It’s quite interesting, our road to “The Lego Movie,” and it was a fairly long road. We were not actively looking to get into the film business so when we were approached I was interested, of course. But the first reaction we had was, what would that [movie] be? And for us to even consider doing this, we had to feel really good that there was an authentic story and creative that would match the quality and the aspiration of the brand. So the first task we sent them back with was: “Maybe we would consider doing this, but you need to come with a story that we feel resonates and really is true to our brand.” That was kind of the starting point. I was in a fortunate position where I wasn’t briefed by management to ‘Go get us a movie.’ It was more sceptical. A little bit of the reaction with headquarters in Denmark was “Well, why would we even want to do that?” We worked a long time very closely with the [Warner] team. It started with Warner and then [other] folks got involved. Dan Lin was one of the original guys we worked quite closely with and really found a story that we felt resonated with us before we would agree to move forward and develop in earnest.

How long was the development process?

Almost seven years. It happened after the first “Transformers” movie launched. For better, for worse, something like that gets a lot of people’s attention in the movie business so we started getting phone calls after that — Warner wasn’t the only one. People were approaching us saying, “Would you ever consider doing a film?” It took a long time to find the right story and then once we had Lord and Miller involved, things moved a little bit faster

Did you expect it to be so well received?

I’ll be very un-Danish and brag a bit – it still shows up on a lot of people’s Top 20 animated films of all time, so I think it was both commercially and critically really beloved. If anything, more [than] the critical acclaim, it was when people walked away from the film saying, “This really inspired me.” For us, that was the most gratifying reaction that we could have gotten. We didn’t expect it, but certainly we were very pleased people recognized the quality and authenticity of the message.

In the following five years Lego went on to release three more movies theatrically and then things kind of tapered off...

In hindsight, we would probably say we had too many films too close together. All those movies did get good reviews. If you even look back to “Lego 2” the reviews were better than the box office might indicate. I think people that did see it really did enjoy it. But really, in the film industry, it’s tough. I think you have to bring something unexpected to the table. And for us, going through that timeframe we felt like it was the right time to maybe take a little bit of a pause, re-evaluate what we’re doing. In addition to the films we also have been very active in the serialized content space, so we continue to create content tied to these properties. So we really at that point focused on continuing to fuel our franchises with animation and then go into a new space with more of reality style television with “Lego Masters” which has been hugely successful for us.

How did you decide Universal was the right place to be after your deal expired with Warner?

We kind of took a step back and really thought about where we wanted to go in the future with film and talked to a lot of people around town – [there was] a lot of interest as you might imagine – but felt that the team at Universal really understood the business. And they really are true fans of the brand, from Donna [Langley, chair at Universal Pictures] to everyone on down. So we came there and have been working with them really on trying to find the next way to continue to surprise and delight people and have something that is super authentic, very high quality and really fitting for what we want to communicate about the brand and the imagination that we know Lego brings onto the screen.

Given “The Lego Movie” wasn’t even nominated for best animated film at the Oscars and ten years on “Barbie” was competing for best picture, how do you see the landscape of toy-to-film having changed over the past decade?

I think there has been a broadening in perception and I give credit to the folks at Mattel and certainly to the filmmakers. [“Barbie”] certainly has been helpful. I think the other thing that’s really helped us significantly is Lego has grown tremendously in the last ten years, our [adult] audience has grown exponentially in the last ten years. We’ve seen a lot of people — whether it was before COVID, part of COVID, because of COVID — really turning to the Lego brand as a source of solace almost. I won’t say who it was but a very famous filmmaker recently told me that he really used Lego building as therapy when he was working on a very heavy film: he would go home at night and build with LEGO bricks. We will work with anybody who has a great idea, of course, but where those ideas really resonate is when they have that authentic connection.

Do you feel that Lego can also claim some credit for shifting the way that toy-to-screen adaptations are perceived?

I wouldn’t be very Danish if I gave us the credit. Certainly there are other people who have acknowledged that and who have pointed out that it was a game changer. For us it was really about being true to our values and being very purposeful. And again, I was in a very luxury position where I didn’t have a CEO who said, “We need a movie.” It was more about ‘If we feel we can do this and we can do it in authentic way we can express our brand and our values and inspire people, then let’s do it. If we can’t do that, then it’s okay.

Given the explosion of adult fans of Lego, would you ever consider a movie that was more aimed at adults in the way “Barbie” was?

Well, we hope that the Lego movies attract all audiences. We’ll look to reach the broadest possible audience that we can and we feel that the brand really is in a pretty unique position to really deliver that because we have fans of all ages. Whatever we do, it will always be very appropriate for our brand and we’re also extremely sensitive to make sure that it fits with the values that we have and that we bring that to the screen in that way.

You recently announced you’re working on “Piece by Piece,” a Lego-themed Pharrell biopic directed by Morgan Neville. Can you talk about that?

Yeah, I’m going to be a little bit reticent here, because we haven’t announced a whole lot on that so I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder. It came directly from Pharrell. It was his idea. He’s a such a unique — super humble but amazing — creative individual. I got it pretty fast when it was pitched to me. I think they were almost surprised that I said, “I think there’s a way we can do this and should do this.” So we hope that it’ll be something that is quite special, and it is a different approach so we’re quite excited about it.

Lastly, Lego’s deal with Universal expires next year. Given the brand’s existing relationships with both Dan Lin and Netflix (which carries a lot of Lego’s serialized content), could we see something more formal transpiring between Lego and Netflix?

I wouldn’t speculate at this point on anything that the future holds. Dan is a great guy, a huge friend to the brand. I’ve worked with him for quite a long time. But at this point, we’re super happy, super focused on what we have going on with Universal.

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