Warner Bros. said it persuaded Sanrio Corp. of Tokyo — which created Hello Kitty in 1974 and groomed her into a $6 billion merchandising superstar — to entrust the character to the studio for a feature film.
LOS ANGELES — For the first time, Hello Kitty is coming to Hollywood.
But will a character who never talks finally get to speak?
Warner Bros. said Tuesday that its New Line division and producer Beau Flynn had persuaded Sanrio Corp. of Tokyo — after a five-year courtship — to entrust its $6 billion cat to the studio for a feature film. Sanrio, which created Hello Kitty in 1974 and groomed her into a merchandising superstar, has never brought the character to global movie screens. That has allowed her to remain silent: Hello Kitty has no mouth.
Well-known intellectual properties (IP) of all kinds — even apps and emojis — have become coveted by movie studios like Warner as a way to compete with a free-spending Netflix and a supersized Disney. “It’s a rare privilege to have the opportunity to explore the possibilities of such timeless IP,” Carolyn Blackwood and Richard Brener, presidents of New Line, said in a statement about their feline coup.
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The film deal also involves related merchandise rights and possible spinoff projects. Terms were not disclosed. New Line can use roughly 20 Sanrio characters, including the popular Gudetama, a disgruntled cracked egg, and My Melody, a rabbit who wears long ear warmers. (No word about Spottie Dottie, a Dalmatian with a pink headband.)
“I am extremely pleased that Hello Kitty and other popular Sanrio characters will be making their Hollywood debut,” Shintaro Tsuji, Sanrio’s nonagenarian founder and chief executive, said in a statement, calling the cat “a symbol of friendship.”
Bringing the whiskered character to global movie screens as an attraction for both children and adults, as planned, will require Warner and Sanrio to walk a tightrope. Films require characters to evolve. (A script has not yet been written, nor writers hired.) But if she changes too much, fans will yowl.
Licensing experts say Kitty’s popularity — she appears on 50,000 different products in 130 countries — involves simplicity: Because the character does not emote, people of all ages and nationalities can project themselves on her. A talking Kitty was once created for a pilot cartoon series in Japan, causing fans loyal to the cat’s mouthless look to become apoplectic, a Sanrio designer told The New York Times in 2010.
Her identity has prompted other uproars, including when the curator of a 2014 Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, citing pushback from Sanrio, pronounced that the cutesy character was not actually a cat.
“I was corrected — very firmly,” curator, Christine R. Yano, said at the time. “She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She is never depicted on all fours.”
The internet melted down. Sanrio eventually clarified its position — she is a cat — and world order was restored.
Flynn, the producer who chased Sanrio for the film rights, declined to discuss potential changes to the character, including the possibility of speaking.
“We have some pretty exciting ideas about Kitty, who always speaks from her heart,” Flynn said, adding that it was too early to say whether the movie would be fully animated or an animation-live action hybrid.
Flynn, whose credits include “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “San Andreas” and “Requiem for a Dream,” started his Hello Kitty quest about five years ago. It took him more than two years just to get a meeting with Tsuji, who finally agreed in 2016. Flynn and Toby Emmerich, chairman of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group, flew to Japan and first visited Sanrio’s Puroland theme park, where they rode rides.
Big-screen animation has been a weak spot for Warner. “The Lego Movie” was a smash hit for the studio in 2014, but more recent installments in that overworked franchise have fallen short at the box office. The musical “Smallfoot,” released in September, was also a disappointment.
But Warner is working harder to become a more consistent player in animation. On Monday, Kevin Tsujihara, the studio’s chairman, was given expanded responsibilities for children’s entertainment and merchandising at WarnerMedia, which is owned by AT&T and includes properties like Warner Bros., HBO and cable channels like Cartoon Network, TNT and TBS.
In production or development at the studio are movies that seek to revive characters in the company’s Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera libraries, including new takes on Scooby-Doo, Wile E. Coyote, the Jetsons, the Flintstones, and Tom and Jerry.
And now comes a white bobtail cat. “In a fast-moving world inundated with content,” Flynn said, “Hello Kitty has not only survived but thrived, and the reason involves what she stands for — individualism, tolerance and friendship.”