Toy and game brands new movie stars

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PROPERTY -

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.

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