Warner Bros.’ Nomi Vela on keeping storytelling at the heart of Space Jam: A New Legacy’s toy lines

With a wave of toys and games hitting shelves for “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” we caught up with Nomi to find out more about why it was key to keep storytelling at the heart of the range.

Nomi Vela is the Creative Director of Toys at Warner Bros. Consumer Products, looking after development for brands like DC, Wizarding World and all live action movies.

Her team works with key partners across studio and franchise teams to ensure that the characters and worlds that filmmakers have passionately detailed in their movies are captured in the toys.

With a wave of toys and games hitting shelves for Space Jam: A New Legacy, we caught up with Nomi to find out more about why it was key to keep storytelling at the heart of the range.

Nomi Vela, Warner Bros.

Nomi, great to catch up. Before we look at Space Jam: A New Legacy, how did you find yourself working in the play space?
I always loved toys, but I never thought you could make a career out of it. I was a fashion designer – a swimwear designer – for 12 years. When the world goes through a change, people start to reflect on what they want to do differently so after 9/11 I had just become a new mom and I started to reflect on what I wanted to do next and what I hadn’t done, but I knew I wanted my daughter to look at me and be inspired!

I applied to Mattel, with no toy experience, and they hired me! I went from designing swimsuits for people to designing swimsuits for Barbie. I also worked on Barbie Entertainment products that related to movies and loved creating toys related to content, and later I ended up working at Disney. I was there for 10 years and before joining Warner Bros. I remember being a little girl and loving Justice League and Tom & Jerry. My very first movie I saw in theatre was Superman with Christopher Reeve! Now I get to work on all those brands!

So yes, a mid-career crisis took me from fashion to toys and here I am!

Ha! Who knows, you might inspire people to do the same! Staying with that for a little bit, was there much crossover design-wise between swimwear and toys?
The consumer is the common theme. You want them to love what you design. Swimsuits are also an escapist purchase–a feel good purchase for when you are going to the beach or on vacation and toys are the same. They transport you to a different place. Toys grow your imagination.

Nomi Vela, Warner Bros.

You’re the Creative Director for Toys at Warner Bros. Is there a typical day?
Well, I think I’m a bit like LeBron in Space Jam! I go from one world to another world before lunchtime. My morning started with Fantastic Beasts, then I was working on DC Super-Pets.

Movies have a huge impact on us, and we walk away in awe! When you hold that toy, or mug or wear that t-shirt, it triggers the same feeling that you felt when you watched the movie. It’s why brands like Batman and Looney Tunes have been around for generations; the products in the market keep them alive and keep the emotional pull of these properties alive. We put the same love and detail that filmmakers put into their movies into our products, so it triggers the same emotion!

Let’s dive into Space Jam: A New Legacy. Moose Toys is the master toy partner for the film. What made them the perfect fit for the brand?
First, we look at the movie and decide how we want to tell the story through toys. Space Jam: A New Legacy is not your typical movie. It’s a little bit “outside of the box” and Moose is known to do things a little outside of the box. That’s why we were very happy to partner with them.

Nomi Vela, Warner Bros.

There’s lots of different aspects to the Space Jam brand – the 90s nostalgia, the basketball, the wackiness of the Looney Tunes. Which aspects stood out as being key to the toy lines?
Well, the toy landscape has changed quite a bit over the last 10 years, and quite rapidly over the last five years. I’ve been in the industry for almost 20 years and toys used to be for two demographics – the very young and the collectors. Now there’s a wider range. You have the young, teens and folks in their thirties to consider! We’re living in a world where we display to play. With social media, we display our food, we display what we wear, we display where we go – and toys come into that too.

With that in mind, when we create a toy collection to support a movie like Space Jam: A New Legacy, we want to make sure it appeals to different demographics and to all fans. For the very young, we have the big talking action figures. These kids relate to the characters; they transform themselves into LeBron.

Then we go to the six-inch action figures for older kids who understand conflict and grasp the storytelling a little bit more. Then we go older with collectables – and that’s where you and I come in! You can collect them and display them. It’s about telling the story through products and appealing to all fans.

Nomi Vela, Warner Bros.

Away from toys, Hasbro’s Connect 4 and Monopoly have also been given a Space Jam twist, with gameplay riffs that relate to the film. Why was it important that these games had an authentic Space Jam vibe that extended to how these classics play?
We started development before quarantine, but we saw that games and puzzles really brought families together during the pandemic and sales have gone through the roof. That gave us an added incentive to get Space Jam into games.

Combining classic games like Monopoly and Classic 4 with Looney Tunes is like a meeting of two warm and fuzzy things that feel like home. It felt natural. It’s the same with the Space Jam Funkoverse game. And to your point, these Space Jam games aren’t just utilizing assets, we’ve brought the storytelling in… for example, in the Space Jam version of Connect 4, you’re shooting hoops!

Nomi Vela, Warner Bros.

A big shout out goes to our WB team who worked with our partners on all those toys – Warner Bros’ Kendra Cowans and Ryan Tumaliuan – made sure that all these little details were in there. Our goal is to bring our storytelling into all these products.

What makes Space Jam a fun sandbox for toy and game designers to play around in?
It’s different for each of our partners, but a common theme is that it’s the Looney Tunes characters. I don’t remember a time when Bugs Bunny hasn’t been in my life! People go back to what makes them feel good, and that’s what Space Jam: A New Legacy is going to do for audiences. We’re designing the toys we wanted as kids! You don’t grow out of toys; you grow with them.

Nomi Vela, Warner Bros.

Absolutely. Now, to wrap things up, how do you personally fuel your creativity?
Designing toys for the entertainment industry is very different from just designing toys. We are making toys at the same time as the movie is being created. It’s very fast and things are changing, so I personally do something very different from toys to fuel my creativity.

When I joined the industry, I made a conscious effort to not have any toys in my house. It clears my palette! I also watch a lot of British crime movies and TV shows… I escape to a different place, so that when I come back, I’m charged up and the work feels very colourful. It’s a weird way to recharge myself I have been told!

Great stuff – and on that, I recommend Line of Duty!
I haven’t seen that! I’ll add it to my list! Thank you.

Thank you Nomi, this has been fun! Good luck with the Space Jam launch and I look forward to chatting again soon.

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