U.S. toy manufacturer Mattel has bought HIT Entertainment, the debt-laden UK children’s toy licensing company behind Thomas the Tank Engine, for $680 million in cash. That’s around $20 million less than owner Apax Partners had wanted for it, I understand, and around $200 million short of the $890 million that Apax paid for the company back in 2005. The deal gives Mattel a foothold in the television business as the Thomas & Friends TV show airs in more than 20 languages worldwide. Rival toymaker Hasbro already has its own production and distribution arm, Hasbro Studios, and owns joint venture kids network The Hub with Discovery Communications. Given the tight regulations governing toy manufacturers making TV shows in Europe, it remains to be seen how Mattel will fare if it pitches new programs featuring its toys to public broadcasters.
EXCLUSIVE: HIT Entertainment, rights holder to the Thomas the Tank Engine kiddie juggernaut, is moving forward with its first live action theatrical film. Shane Acker, who directed the 2009 animated film 9, will direct a film set in Sodor, the island of talking trains., where Thomas is among a litany of characters . Weta Workshop and Mattel’s entertainment properties design team have joined the creative team, and the financing and distribution is being sold by Cinetic Media and the UTA Independent Film Group. the script was written by Chris Viscardi & Will McRobb. and Shrek the Third’s Josh Klausner.
Created 65 years ago, Thomas the Tank Engine has been the number one preschool toy license in the UK for 11 years. It has held the top spot in the US for a decade. Since the core audience of Thomas is preschool age, the choice of Acker as director is surprising. After all, he’s best known for turning his student short film 9 into a Tim Burton/Timur Bekmambetov-produced animated feature about a rag doll that awakens in a post apocalyptic world and battles a soul-stealing monster. Acker acknowledges that he wants to broaden the movie’s audience beyond pre-schoolers, but has no interest in causing nightmares.
“I’m a recent father, with a 20-month old daughter,” he told Deadline. “We lead such busy lives in Hollywood, always running and hustling, but children tend to slow you down a bit and reconnect you with that inner …
The British children’s rights company, whose kids’ properties include the Nick Jr show Olivia, is set to bid for Thomas the Tank Engine. The bidding process has yet to begin though. Apax Partners, the private equity company which hopes to sell Thomas by spring 2011, wants $700 million (£440 million) for Thomas, according to the Daily Telegraph. That’s double what Apax paid for the children’s property back in 2005, I’m told. When Apax last tried to sell Thomas to Disney it wanted $800 million for the little engine, one insider tells me. Disney walked away. Other potential buyers include Disney (again) or a big independent TV producer/distributor like Fremantle, which wants to get into the children’s TV market.