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A Lego Brickumentary: How A Toy Innovator Turned Itself Around By Embracing Its Community

The directors of A Lego Brickumentary discuss the making of the film and how Lego came back from near-bankruptcy by relying on ideas from Lego fans.

A Lego Brickumentary: How A Toy Innovator Turned Itself Around By Embracing Its Community

Documentary filmmaker Daniel Junge is quick to admit he’s not a “dyed-in-the-wool AFOL,” or, Adult Fan of Lego, as legions of brick-building grown-ups around the world identify themselves. Close cousins of Comic-Con geeks, AFOLs’ pilgrimage of choice is to to conventions known as Brickworld, where they check out the latest Lego designs, compete to build the most mind-blowing creations (a mythical city from The Lord of the Rings made with 200,000 bricks?), and soak up all there is to love about little plastic building bricks.

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Kief Davidson, who co-directed A Lego Brickumentary with Junge, similarly denies membership in the AFOL club. “I thought it was A-hole at first,” he says. “I was like, what?”

But while the filmmaking duo may not be official Lego die-hards, they’re huge fans of the toys, an affection that comes across in their Brickumentary, which is out in theaters, on demand and on iTunes July 31. The film interweaves a portrait of the global, Lego-loving community–there are also KFOL’s (Kid Fan of Lego), TFOL’s (Teen Fan of Lego), and NLSO’s (Non Lego Significant Other)–with the business narrative behind the iconic Danish company that was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen. The latter strand is just as surprising and enlightening as the former, at least for those who aren’t aware that Lego nearly went out of business in the early 2000s after decades of phenomenal growth.

A number of factors led to the company’s decline. Compared to video games and other high-tech toys, Lego’s suddenly seemed uncool. The company also started dumbing down their play sets, so that constructing them often meant little more than snapping together a few pieces. Somewhat counterintuitively, they were also churning out more and more different kinds of boxes, each with unique parts, so that there was no interplay behind them–at one point Lego was making over 14,000 different pieces. In other words, building with Lego was no longer about the basic pleasure of dumping out a box of bricks and seeing what you could do.

Lego executives in the film are very open about their past challenges–mistakes are always easier to open up about, of course, once they’ve been fixed, and today Lego is one of the most dominant players in the toy industry. In 2014 it generated $1 billion in profit, up 15% from a year earlier. Its mass appeal was further solidified with The Lego Movie, a Hollywood blockbuster that grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide (it cost $60 million).

But Davidson and Junge also attribute Lego executives’ honesty to corporate culture in Denmark, which tends to be more open and self-critical. It’s a style, Junge says, that “wouldn’t happen here.”

This transparency allowed the filmmakers to delve deeply into the lessons that Lego learned from its massive turnaround, and tell the story of how it went from an “arrogant,” as one executive puts it, and insular corporation to one that relies heavily on the ideas and creativity of its enormous fan base. “The company was actually willing to change the way they do business and open up their doors to the AFOL community,” says Davidson. “That changed everything.

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Davidson and Junge recently spoke with Co.Create about these lessons, from the game-changing release of Lego Mindstorms; to the versatility of the turbo boost brick; to why Danes hate the word “pride.”

LOOK BEYOND COMPANY WALLS FOR IDEAS

As the Lego doc explains, Lego was historically a very inward-looking company. Only Lego designers designed Lego sets and play bricks. And there was very little interaction with Lego fans, let alone any understanding that so many of those fans weren’t kids but grown-ups. This corporate stance worked fine for Lego during the 1970s and ’80s and even into the ’90s, when business was booming. But by the turn of the century, Lego was in dire straits. In 1999 it posted its first annual loss. By 2003 it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The turnaround started with the release of Mindstorms, a Lego robotics kit that allowed players to build programmable robots by using computer software. It was the first time Lego bricks had been married with computers, and the set was an immediate hit–particularly with adults, who accounted for half of its sales in the first year. But Mindstorms wasn’t just a hot product. It opened up a dialogue between Lego and the AFOL community, members of which began hacking into the system and building their own programs and designs. Lego’s initial response was horror–there was a sense that a rigorously private company had been violated. But soon there was a realization that Lego hobbyists were incredibly sophisticated and creative and could be tapped to work with the company and help it grow. As Tormod Askildsen, senior director of Lego community engagement and events, says in the film: “We need to be aware that 99.99% of the smartest people in the world don’t work for us.”

In the wake of Mindstorms, “the Lego company was more open to ideas that came from outside the walls of its design room,” says narrator Jason Bateman in Beyond the Brick. Lego Architecture, for example, is a hugely popular line that was pitched and created by an architect in Chicago who used Lego’s to build models for the skyscrapers he designed. Lego also went on to create CUUSOO (which means “dream” or “wish” in Japanese), a platform that lets Lego users submit design ideas online. Those that receive over 10,000 votes are submitted to Lego for review. The first winner was a Lego Minecraft set.

“Mindstorms was the key,” says Davison. “They let hackers infiltrate their product and make it better. Then that had a ripple effect. The change happened from within. CUUSOO was evolved. It was like, let’s have fans submit their own creations and if they’re chosen and they’re voted on by the community then it could be considered our next box. That alone shows that the company did something very right to pull themselves out of that difficult chapter in the early 2000s.”

As Junge notes, there were multiple factors responsible for the company’s stumble, but the most important, and interesting to the filmmakers was that Lego lost touch with its community and lost touch with itself. :The community helped bring them back to their fundamentals,” says Junge.

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Limitless combinations, in a limited universe

The increased interaction with Lego fans helped the company understand why and how it had lost touch with them. One thing that became clear was that Lego sets had both become too complicated and too limiting. There were more and more pieces, many of them obtuse, and yet the sets themselves were easy to build, leaving players bored.

“A lot of their success now is about IP and doing their Star Wars series and doing these branded series, and there are some people who criticize that,” says Junge. “But I think what’s important is that they’re doing it within the finite Lego system. When they hit rock bottom they were making the absolute most amount of elements, new elements, that they ever had. Now they’re doing many more series and have taken on a lot more IP, yet they’re restricting the universe of their elements, so that the turbo boost on the Star Wars spaceship might also be the teacup for the Friends series. So I think they realized that their strength is in the limitation of their system.”

“It’s complex as to why they weren’t working and what led to their comeback,” says Davidson. “But for sure the massive number of pieces that they were producing, and how some of their product lines were so simplified. Where it wasn’t about building anymore, it was just taking a head and putting it on a body. They lost track of what was so unique about the company. That you have this brick where there are so many possibilities, infinite possibilities, as expressed by our Danish professor. (Soren Eilers, a professor of mathematics at the University of Copenhagen, who has proven through voluminous equations that six, eight-stud Lego bricks can be combined in over 915 million different ways.) He started out asking, hey, what happens when you take six bricks and put them together in different configurations? Over 915 million. And then add on from there. It becomes ultimately an unsolvable number. And at the end of the day that’s what makes Lego so unique and so cherished and so loved.”

MAKE IT ABOUT WE, NOT I

Another Danish trait that the filmmakers discovered was an emphasis on teamwork and “we” as opposed to “I.” This cultural distinction helped guide the company as it opened up its doors and started to redefine “we” as not people within the Lego company, but the Lego community at large.

“As documentary filmmakers, often you’re trying to encapsulate what people say,” says Junge. “Not necessarily feed them lines but try to get them to say things in a concise way. And when I heard executives talking about some achievements in the company, I would ask them, ‘Are you proud?’ Or, ‘Would you mind saying that you’re proud? Can you discuss the pride you have in the product?’ And whenever I said that word, they would sort of get rankled. Finally, one of them pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, in our culture, we don’t like this word ‘proud’ or ‘pride.’ And that’s a very Danish thing. It’s not at all how we reflect ourselves here in this country.”

Davidson says, having spent a good amount of time now in Scandinavia, he absorbed the “we” nature of business there, which was key to the Lego turnaround, and making the film. “It’s generally frowned upon to be about the ‘I.’ It’s always about the ‘we.’ We as a collective group, as a think tank, have accomplished this together. So the ego is kind of left at the door, which is different from businesses here.

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“When they started looking outside the company and saying, ‘Hey, there are people out there that are smarter than us, let’s work with them instead,’ a lot of that was making it about the ‘we’ instead of the ‘I.'”

Hear from the Co-Directors:

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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