BotCon Hasbro and Paramount Parnership Panel

Hasbro’s Greg Lombardo, Jared Wade, Michael Ritchie, Aaron Archer, and Mike Payla came together today at BotCon to talk about the Transformers movie being released on July 2 and its impact on the brand’s toy line.

Working with Paramount

Paramount and Hasbro worked closely throughout the development of the movie. Michael Bay and the Art Department at Paramount relied on Hasbro to be the Transformers experts. Bay joked that he attended the Transformers School as Hasbro took the studio through various slide shows designed to capture the scope of the Transformers line. Hasbro’s intent was to educate writers on the epic good versus evil struggle that eventually evolves into Optimus versus Megatron with Earth at the center of the struggle. A key concept Hasbro communicated to writers is the Transformers are robots but they are not programmed. There is no mad scientist in the background orchestrating the action. Rather than indestructible beings, Transformers are flawed characters that experience emotion, struggle with choice to be good or evil, and can suffer death.

Transformer School also focused on the technical parts of being a Transformer. Writers had latitude to be creative after Hasbro explained that Transformers can scan Earth forms and adapt the forms they can transform to. Writers had questioned how Transformers could look like cars and trucks when they were on Cybertron. The short answer – they didn’t. The robots chose new forms to assume after scanning Earth. Archer drew laughs from the crowd when he demonstrated the ability of Transformers to blend in with a photo of Hasbro’s parking lot. Hasbro and Paramount also tackled simple concepts like scale is important and complex issues like human interaction with a 40’ robot and how to communicate.

Character development was critical to the success of the movie. Some characters, like Barricade, are new and required no back story. However, heritage characters needed to stay true to their history. Hasbro made boards to show the raw essence of characters like Bumblebee and Optimus Prime in a quick snapshot. Color-coding was included to ensure Optimus was red and Bumblebee was yellow. The Hasbro-Paramount relationship kicked off with the relay of a lot of information. As the script evolved, Hasbro was able to review it and offer their opinion through monthly dialog. Brian Goldner used his position as Executive Director on the film to keep Hasbro active in protecting the essence of the characters. Aaron Archer laughed about a day trip he took to LA on his way to Japan. During a review at the Art Department, he realized that Bumblebee needed to be tweaked to look a bit more like Bumblebee. Suddenly the day trip turned into a couple of weeks to make sure the art was right. Hasbro was careful to say they did not have veto rights over the Art Department. Instead, they engaged in a collaborative relationship to help the robots look more like Transformers. It was a positive working relationship since everyone wanted to make a great movie and great toys. Nods to loyal fans were not forgotten in the film. Hasbro provided Paramount with a photo montage of the old 80’s G1 vehicles to be placed throughout the movie. One example is the yellow VW Beetle parked next to Bumblebee in the car purchase scene.

Brand Development

Hasbro knew the Transformer movie had been in the pipeline for awhile so they started concepting how they could change their toy line strategy to reflect the opportunities of the movie release. Their goal was to bring in a new audience and use the movie to launch a new era in Transformer products. Hasbro treated the movie release as a stake in the ground. Events like the Classics line in 2006 and the 20th anniversary DVD were part of an overall strategy to build towards the movie. Once the movie is released, Hasbro plans to use it to access a wider audience of kids. Specifically, Lombardo mentioned 3-5 year old kids. These kids don’t have the manual dexterity needed to play with traditional Transformer toys. Hasbro is focusing on creating fun toys that will capture a new generation of kids, ones who will stay with the brand for years.

As part of the marketing strategy, Hasbro has been working on animation that can be released on the heels of the movie, which should act as a launching point for the brand for the next ten years. Lombardo shared an internal chart the company used to assess its past Transformer toy production. Over the years, all Transformer toys have incorporated three key elements: transformation, characters, and technology. The company has done well delivering this core product, but has not tapped the wider scope available from related products. As the company used the movie as a launch pad, fans began seeing new products like Cyber Stalk Optimus, and the Optimus Prime mask based on the Darth Vader mask with voice change. These products don’t transform but remain very much a part of the Transformer fantasy. Other lines like Real Gear are not in the movie, but relate to the transformation theme in a very cool way. Lombardo used the tag line of the brand to say Transformers aren’t just robots in disguise; they are more than meets the eye. Once people get their heads wrapped around that philosophy, the company was able to supplement their core Transformers toy lines with role-play and event action kits. Behind Hasbro’s new approach is the expectation that the Transformers market in a couple weeks will be radically different than it was last month.

Lombardo and Ritchie also highlighted Robo-vision, the marketing campaign developed collaboratively with Hasbro and Target Corporation. When Ritchie visiting retailers about the upcoming products, some were skeptical about how the movie would translate into a saleable brand. Target embraced the opportunity as something fresh. They experienced a lot of success with the Star Wars franchise and wanted to duplicate it with Transformers. After several weeks of brainstorming, Hasbro hit on the idea of seeing the world from the robot’s perspective. This became Robo-vision: Optimus Prime, a program that can really excite kids. The marketing campaign has centered on unlocking the content of the movie, paying tribute to the original hiding the codes from the 80’s, and of course, a focus on transformation. Lombardo said this has been one of the biggest integrated movie-marketing campaigns he has seen.

Movie images of Transformers are very detailed and sport a dramatic look. Hasbro wanted to know if images this intricate and real could be made into toys. They worked closely with Takara and start investigating how far they could go with the model form. Takara met the challenge well, resulting in some of the most fun toys developed in the past few years. A lead toy designer traveled from Japan to represent Takara/Tommy at BotCon this weekend.

A side effect of the collaboration between Hasbro, Takara, and the Art Department is that Aaron Archer became the go-to guy for questions on the video game. Not wanting to kill off major characters too early in the game, Hasbro decided to create drones. Since the Art Department was fully dedicated to their work on the movie, Hasbro designed the drones to closely match the movie-style. The Art Department gave a thumbs up and they moved forward.

Q & A

During the Q&A session, Hasbro reassured fans that the core toy line will remain the focus of the brand over time, regardless of the related products created. Now that there more certainty around the success of the movie, Hasbro will continue to make characters on a larger scale.

Asked how the partnership between Paramount and Pepsi came about, Hasbro said Paramount had all the rights for promotional partners and started to talk to people across the corporate world. Pepsi was very interested in the high-energy movie and wanted to promote it. Eventually, they developed the idea of a transforming vending machine. The idea was added to the movie and a TV spot was developed. Lombardo said all of the promotional partners returned again and again to the drawing board as they saw how cool the movie would be.

Hasbro answered a question about the movie-design of the characters by differentiating between new and heritage characters. New characters like Barricade and Crusher should have fresh, new designs. Certain aspects of the design for heritage characters were too important to modify. According to Archer, the Art Department wanted to make cool robots. Hasbro’s job was to help them make the cool robots more recognizable.

Archer shared that there is a meaning behind the number and quote on Barricade’s police shield. It came from the Art Department, and he does not know what the meaning is.

Based on the success of Star Wars and Transformers, Hasbro is looking to the future for other brands that may benefit from their recent experience. Brian Goldner is interested in a similar treatment for GI Joe, but no work has begun. When work would start depends on the movie calendar.

RC and Wreckage were originally developed for the movie. Although they were cut from the movie, Hasbro kept the toys. Drones were created from scratch by Hasbro.

Asked about the future of the Legends line, Lombardo said the Legends characters are very popular outside the U.S. Based on the traction of the brand in various countries, the low-priced Legends sell well. It is important that Hasbro continue to develop that line, so future figures will be released on that scale, although not necessarily drones.

Asked what heritage characters they would have put in the movie, Hasbro sidestepped and said they had been focused on developing toy concepts using the G1-type models before the movie went into production. Once word was received about the movie, the company started working on Robot Heroes, CyberStompers, and Real Gear to see how broad they could make the brand once they received the green light. Asked if they would maintain the scope of their new efforts, they replied that they see this opportunity as a new era for Transformers. While future years may not be as expansive as a movie year, Hasbro will continue to focus on serving multiple children’s markets.

Talk of a sequel started with a question about SoundWave. Originally pushed as a key character to include in the movie, the character developed in the script just wasn’t right for SoundWave. The team tried making small alterations and finally changed the character’s name to Frenzy. Archer said SoundWave was too important of a character to get wrong.

Will fans be able to get a Leader-class Prime with sword? Archer said this was an example of fans taking charge. Unbeknownst to Hasbro, ILM has a group of G1 fans – fans who added the sword without telling anyone. Hasbro’s first view of the sword was during editing in March. They though it was cool and rushed the sword into the Robot Hero Optimus Prime, second version.

The panel ended with a presentation to Robert Greer from Lexington, KY. Greer won a promotion at last year’s BotCon to get his own Head Sculpt of the Optimus Prime figure.

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