Toy and game brands new movie stars
HOLLYWOOD. – When Chicago and Hairspray producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan were looking for their next big movie musical last year, the two ended up in what would seem like an unlikely place – the El Segundo, California, headquarters of Mattel.
The duo found their inspiration in the prototypes for an as-yet unreleased line of monster dolls from the toy manufacturer. Welcome to Hollywood’s latest gold rush.
Movie studio development slates are filling up with projects based on well-known toys and games. Some high-profile projects in the works include ones based on the classic video game Asteroids, Lego building blocks, the ViewMaster toy, dolls Barbie and Stretch Armstrong, and board games Battleship, Ouija, Monopoly and Candy Land.
The practice of adapting famous source material into films has been employed since Hollywood’s early days, dating to classics such as 1939’s Gone With the Wind.
Books, plays, short stories, comic books and video games have been adapted in large part because they offer a rich story and set of characters. The difference with many of the toys and games being turned into movies is that they come with neither of those characteristics.
In exchange for what’s essentially a well-known brand name with a setting or theme and nothing more, studios are typically paying millions of dollars upfront and, should a movie get made, earn several percentage points of the movie’s gross receipts. That’s the kind of money that used to be offered only to A-list actors.
“Brands are the new stars,” says Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger. His studio has optioned Asteroids from Atari and Barbie from Mattel, and has a deal to develop movies based on multiple Hasbro products.
As those working at and selling to studios can testify, there’s a simple logic at work – it’s what executives refer to as “unaided awareness”. If a movie’s name has immediate resonance for consumers, then the traditional first step of a marketing campaign – selling the concept – is taken care of.
A-list actors once served the same purpose, but their influence is waning, as evidenced by the failure of recent star vehicles, including
Imagine That, starring Eddie Mur
phy, Land of the Lost with Will Ferrell, and Jack Black in Year One.
The biggest hit of the summer was Transformers: Revenge of the
Fallen, in which most of the characters are 1980s action figures.
In the midst of a recession and ongoing decline in DVD sales, studio executives have become increasingly cautious about investing hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market a tent-pole film. That has spurred them to look to toy and game brands for security.
Classic toy and game brands can
also summon fond memories. As the successful ABBA musical Mamma
Mia! showed, nostalgia can be a powerful force at the box office.
The trend gained momentum with 2003’s surprise hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the
Black Pearl. But unlike Walt Disney, not every studio has a theme park full of brand names, which is why several others, particularly Universal and Paramount Pictures, have been aggressively licensing them. Although the success of three
Pirates and two Transformers movies, along with the decent per- formance of G.I. Joe: The Rise of
Cobra, are promising signs, the films had other elements going for them.
Pirates was a hit largely because of the Oscar-nominated performance of Johnny Depp, while Transformers and G.I. Joe had 1980s cartoons (created, ironically, to spur toy sales) from which to draw.
But the movie Battleship is sailing into truly uncharted waters as it heads towards a July 2011 release by Universal, with only a two-sided board and plastic boats and pegs as inspiration. The new state of affairs may be discouraging to those trying to sell original film ideas, but it’s lucrative for toy and game companies that once devoted all their energies to simply selling the products they made.
It wasn’t that long ago that movie producers and executives only came to Mattel to pitch upcoming pictures for which they were seeking an accompanying toy line. Today, they regularly arrive in search of products with big-screen potential.
Major talent agencies are taking advantage of the shift. Creative Artists Agency represents Mattel, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment handles Hasbro, and ICM acts on behalf of Atari.
The video-game publisher started working with ICM early in 2009 in an attempt to reshape itself in part as a repository of intellectual property. “Atari is a pop-culture brand and our Asteroids intellectual property is known by millions, so the opportunity to extend outside of games seems natural,” says Atari chief executive Jim Wilson.
His company is already searching its library of well-known titles, which include Pong and Missile Command, to determine what it might sell to Hollywood next.
The movie sails into uncharted waters as Universal Pictures steers it towards a July 2011 release. The game doesn’t have a story line and characters – only a two-sided board and plastic boats and pegs.