When my son Henry was seven he hated reading. Hated it. Loved the story part, hated the reading part. Now 10 years old, Henry is rarely farther than arm’s length away from a book.
And part of that credit goes to a 13-year-old named Jack Sullivan.
After the zombie-monster apocalypse, Sullivan, who lives in an incredibly armed treehouse and subsists mostly on a diet of Oreos and Mountain Dew, eventually rounds up a crew of former classmates. Together, they team up to gamify everyday life by building creative weapons, going on adventures, and having fun while trying to survive.
This is the premise of The Last Kids on Earth, a best-selling book series by author Max Brallier, which debuted in 2015 and just released its fifth installment. Henry has devoured this series, embracing it almost as soon as he saw Sullivan aiming his splintered baseball bat at a crowd of undead on the first book’s cover.
What’s not to like?
The Last Kids on Earth is The Walking Dead meets The Goonies for middle schoolers, and now after selling more than 2 million books, its ambitions are aimed far beyond the printed page.
In September, Netflix released its animated version of the first book, a special meant to tease the upcoming series set for spring 2020. Adapted by Brallier and showrunner Scott D. Peterson (Phineas & Ferb), the show was created by Atomic Cartoons and features the voices of Rosario Dawson, Bruce Campbell, Mark Hamill, and Catherine O’Hara, among others. This is the first major step in the master plan to turn Last Kids into the Next Big Thing across books, TV, toys, and video games. Each element works to support the rest.
It’s telling that when we got Henry book three, 2017’s The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King, he was just as excited about the “Soon to be a Netflix Original Series” sticker on the cover as he was for the latest adventure. His favorite logo—Netflix—on the cover of his favorite book series? Mind. Blown.
Now the next stage begins, with the full series and a full toy line debuting in the spring, and then an RPG-style video game in 2021. Call it multiplatform, or omnichannel, but whatever you call it, when it comes to becoming a pop-culture commercial success, it’s the name of the game. For decades, Hanna-Barbera, Sesame Workshop, Disney, and many others have seen the path to significant wealth and lasting fame run through licensing their characters for toys, merchandise, consumer goods, and more. Today, recurring book series are among the most valuable properties. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is estimated to be a $25 billion franchise. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books have inspired a musical version of The Lightning Thief, which is currently playing on Broadway, and Riordan has become such a brand for kids that he has a line of “Rick Riordan Presents” books in which diverse authors put a contemporary spin on global mythologies. When Disney took over the Fox movie studio, one of the few properties in the Fox library that Disney identified for further investment was Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Brallier and Last Kids are not there yet, but this is how they’re going about building a franchise to stand the test of time, even if there’s a zombie apocalypse.
From page to screen
It all started with a cold-call email to Brallier from Atomic chief creative officer Matthew Berkowitz, saying he’d read and loved the books, and wanted to turn them into a series. Brallier immediately liked Berkowitz’s pitch and vision for it, which crucially included keeping the author closely tied to the project. “Atomic were very keen on me being one of the writers on it and just being involved the whole way,” says Brallier. “That was really important to me, because as a kid my dream was to write movies, and this was a step in that direction.”
For Berkowitz, the reason to keep Brallier close was to make sure the series—and any other extension of the books—maintained the original magic that made the story special in the first place. “Kids fell in love with the books for a reason, so the tighter he could be to the projects, we hoped that would be a jet engine to propel it,” says Berkowitz. “The whole strategy was built around the same reason readers get drawn into the books and these characters. We saw it as a unique opportunity not only to create the [Netflix] series but in talking to Max about his broader plans with that world, and where the books would go, that it was a great opportunity to also think about how it would exist on YouTube, in games, and beyond.”
Atomic pitched the series to a number of potential suitors, but Netflix emerged as the ideal partner. “They loved the books as well and saw where translating this to a broader medium allowed us to dig deep on character,” says Berkowitz. “Obviously the special being book one, it was a primer, while book two opens up the world we wanted to explore more. Netflix gave us a lot of great feedback to help it going forward.”
The first special purposely kept as close to book one as possible, which Atomic, Brallier, and Peterson thought was the best way to introduce the story and its whole world to a screen audience. Then, starting in spring 2020, the second book will be broken up into 10 22-minute episodes. According to Peterson, confirmed plans so far include another 10 22-minute episodes for book three, then an additional Bandersnatch-style interactive episode that will be an original story not from the books.
The animation style is a mix of 2D and 3D, aiming to bring the illustration style of the books to life in a way that would make it feel like it just jumped out from the page. “There’s millions of books in kids’ hands all over the world,” Brallier told Collider back in September. “If they saw the show or they saw an ad for the show, or whether it was a poster or something, we just wanted them to be recognizable that these are the same kids that they had fallen in love with when they read the books, or the same character that they enjoyed.”
The turn to toys
The process of bringing this property to toys was similar to its journey to the screen. “When we had conversations with toy companies, we were looking for folks who were also big fans of the books, understood what made [the series] tick in the first place, and would be able to bring some really fun concepts to life,” says Berkowitz.
Jakks Pacific, which makes the toys for Disney’s Frozen, Harry Potter, and Sonic the Hedgehog, among others, won the licensing rights for the Last Kids toys. “Jakks was just ready right off the bat,” says Berkowitz, who had both Brallier and the showrunner Peterson in the meetings. “We went in to pitch them, but they’d already read all of the books, and before we even signed on with them, they had a full presentation of the different directions you could go with the toy line.”
Craig Drobis, Jakks Pacific SVP of marketing for boys action figures and collectors, says he and his colleagues saw the toy potential immediately after enjoying the books. “It’s monsters, it’s zombies, it’s kids having fun, it’s Mountain Dew slushies, and tree houses of awesomeness, and all these things that make great toy elements,” says Drobis. “Max was telling a great story, and while book properties on their own can be tough, we look at all the different ways kids find out about and get excited about a licensed property. It’s Netflix, TV, YouTube, the books, so there were these multiple pathways that kids got into it.”
The challenge with toys for boys ages 7 to 11—which makes up about 15% of the $27 billion toy market—is that they have to be compelling and surprising enough to pull them away from video games. “Fortnite is a great example,” says Juli Lennett, NPD Group vice president and toy industry analyst. “It’s a top video game, but also the number-one growth property in toys through September. They did a great job, coming out with the Fortnite Nerf blasters, lots of action figures, plush—categories that appeal to that age group.”
Ahead of their release next spring, details around the Last Kids toys so far include action figures, play sets, plush toys, and various zombie-bashing weaponry.
“I used to play with GI Joe and Transformers, and now we’re making toys out of something I created, and I want to make sure that they’re really fun and awesome and something kids really want,” says Brallier. “So far, I’ve just been really happily surprised. There’s a plush zombie thing where if you squeeze the brain, the eyeball pops out. It’s amazing.”
Drobis says it’s an advantage that Last Kids is a proven book series with a long horizon of story to tap into, and it’s also beneficial to have a close working relationship with both Atomic and Brallier. “It’s a good road map,” he says. “That allows us, from a character standpoint, to plan how kids will want to play with this world. That’s how we built our product line architecture, who we think the target market is for the toys, and then what we think the cool toys are to pull out of the story.”
The key to a successful move into toys, according to Lennett, is the ability to bring together the fans across the books, series, and forthcoming video game. “There are about 10 million boys aged seven to 11,” says Lennett. “Even if 20% of them are pushing aside toys at that age, that still leaves 8 million boys to target with a property like this. You really need that awareness for the property in order for it to be successful in toys. That’s the most important piece of this puzzle.”
Still an avid toy collector, Brallier already has his favorite. It’s Jack’s zombie-bashing bat, called a slicer, complete with sound effects. “For me it was very much about Star Wars when I was a kid and wanting a lightsaber, and basically pretending a baseball bat was a lightsaber,” says Brallier. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams. If you told me in 2015 when I was delivering the first manuscript that the idea I had for a Little League baseball bat that becomes a sword would be an electronic toy that lights up and glows, and is going to be available in the stores for people to buy, my brain would’ve melted.”
Might as well add it to my son’s 2020 Christmas list right now.