Steve Ross Leads His Toys to Hollywood

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Who: Steve Ross, Mattel’s senior vice president of worldwide entertainment and business development.

Why you need to know him: Mr. Ross, 45, serves as the in-house branded entertainment executive
Steve Ross, Mattel's senior vice president of worldside entertainment and business development.

for Mattel, seeking out film, TV, DVD, Internet, music, publishing, theme park, live event and celebrity strategies for the company’s brands, which include Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl and Fisher-Price.

Credentials: Before joining Mattel in 2003, Mr. Ross was a partner at Hollywood talent management company The Firm, where he oversaw licensing and merchandising, retail strategies and brand marketing initiatives for clients that included Build-A-Bear Workshop, Revolution Studios, Pony, the Dixie Chicks, Enrique Iglesias, Vin Diesel, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Sylvester Stallone. He has also spent 13 years as president of worldwide licensing and merchandising for 20th Century Fox, handling TV shows and movies such as The Simpsons, Planet of the Apes, Titanic, Anastasia, X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mr. Ross also briefly served as president of PVI Entertainment, a division of Princeton Video Image.

How has Mattel's branded entertainment philosophy and/or strategy evolved since you arrived? “Mattel has long been considered the world's premiere toy company and now my vision is for us to become the world's premiere toy and entertainment company. Over the past two years there’s been an increased strategic emphasis on using entertainment as a means of extending our brands while also creating relevant new content to build sustainable franchises and driving product development which enhances and encourages depth of purchase. A dynamic portfolio and powerful mix of assets provides us with enormous leverage to develop, produce and distribute our own entertainment, utilizing a best-practices model akin to that of the studios.”

How do you develop branded entertainment ideas? “We approach each brand individually, based on key marketing tent poles. The entertainment objectives become an essential component of the overall brand development outlines. As such, my team works closely with marketing, design, packaging, consumer products," among other aspects.

What particular challenges are there in creating branded entertainment that targets children? What works? What doesn't work? “Kids are much savvier than often credited. Their play patterns have more purpose and an underlying sophistication not seen in prior generations. It’s frequently been cited how kids are getting older younger and I tend to agree. There is a growing amount of competing entertainment-related distractions dividing their attention. If you are not able to capture them quickly, it’s too late because they’re on to the next thing. Boom! Just like that. We feel we must be boldly progressive to ensure the delivery of aspirational branded entertainment which kids’ can emulate so it becomes clutter busting rather than simply adding to the volume of ambient noise kids hear throughout their daily routines.”

How do you measure success when it comes to branded entertainment campaigns? “Success comes when we’re able to penetrate the popular culture with branded entertainment that inspires kids’ imaginations and resonates with their own lifestyle interests and pursuits. We win big by forging a deeper sense of brand loyalty and triggering an emotional connection with kids through the entertainment we create, which manifests in the course of movies, television, DVDs, video games, books, music, live events, the Internet and, obviously, within the underlying toy products themselves. Ultimately, our success is best measured at retail. That is where we win or lose.”

What vendors does Mattel work with on your branded entertainment projects? “To date we’ve handled most of these efforts in-house, although we do partner with some talented creative individuals to shape our stories and a handful of terrific outside production companies, like Mainframe out of Vancouver, Canada, and Curious Pictures in New York. Our various video distribution partners have excelled: Lions Gate, Universal, Entertainment Rights, Warner Bros., Miramax. And we enjoy a productive relationship with the Endeavor Agency. We seek to partner only with those who are like-minded about a commitment to quality and share our sense of urgency to innovate.”

What's your favorite example of a successful branded entertainment execution at Mattel? “Hot Wheels AcceleRacers probably is the most ambitious undertaking to date. We set out to create a fully integrated branded entertainment experience and achieved it with a number of moving parts, including a series of four TV specials on Cartoon Network, DVD releases through Warner Home Video, Web sites, games and a fast-selling line of new toys based on the series, its characters and numerous racing realms. This has given Hot Wheels a definite demographic boost; so far the series is attracting an older boy audience, while accentuating key brand attributes, those being speed, power and performance.”

What other projects has your group created? “In addition to AcceleRacers, the diversity of our efforts to date has spanned five enormously successful Barbie animated direct-to-video titles, an original live-action network TV movie-of-the-week for American Girl and TV series’ for Max Steel, He-Man, Little People and Rescue Heroes.”

What's coming up? “Later this year we will launch a brand-new My Scene direct-to-video animated movie [featuring a yet-to-be-announced celebrity who will also get her own limited edition doll]. We currently have three feature films in active development at three different Hollywood studios, including a live-action movie based on Hot Wheels at Columbia Pictures. Plus, you can throw a few game shows and reality programs into the mix. On the talent side we have exciting projects going with Hilary and Haylie Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Raven, Ashanti and Destiny’s Child, to name a few, and we are always asking ourselves, ‘Who’s next?’”

What keeps you up at night? “Worrying about my teenage daughter, who is a college freshman living away from home for the first time. That and an odd preoccupation with Barbie’s love life: Should she have dumped Ken? Will she find true happiness with Blaine?”

What's on your iPod? “Springsteen. Wasn’t the iPod invented to enjoy Springsteen on the go? Also Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Vivaldi: Concerto Four Seasons, The Beach Boys. I’m a quintessential SoCal boy and summer is right around the corner!”

What books are on your nightstand?Disney War, by James Stewart, The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth, Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.”

What do you do on your downtime? “Basically I’m a big kid myself and my Blackberry is the one toy I’m never able to put away.”
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