When “Chicago” and “Hairspray” producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan were looking for their next big movie musical last November, the two ended up in what would seem like an unlikely place: the El Segundo headquarters of Mattel Inc.
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 rapidly 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 View-Master 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 back 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 today 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, several percentage points of the movie’s gross receipts. That’s the kind of money that used to be offered only to A-listers.
“Brands are the new stars,” said Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger, whose studio has optioned Asteroids from Atari Inc. and Barbie from Mattel, and has a deal to develop movies based on multiple Hasbro Inc. products. “That’s what you used to pay the star, although fortunately they’re not as expensive.”
There’s no shortage of Internet and media commentary mocking the trend, but 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 already taken care of.
A-list actors used to serve the same purpose, but their influence is waning as evidenced by the failure of recent star vehicles including “Imagine That,” starring Eddie Murphy, “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.
“As of late, to get that tent-pole made you need an intellectual property that has a certain amount of unaided awareness just for starters,” said Chris Silbermann, president of talent agency International Creative Management.
“If studios are going to spend an ungodly amount of money, they’re looking for some justification that they’re not just diving into the deep unknown,” said former Revolution Studios chief Joe Roth, who is producing an adaptation of the Mattel toy Max Steel for Paramount.
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.
“I think that, for me, it’s as much connected with the feeling evoked by a brand as it is with the brand’s awareness,” said DreamWorks Chief Executive Stacey Snider, whose studio is developing the View-Master film. “The most successful brands are those that connect on an emotional level.”
The trend first gained momentum with 2003’s surprise hit “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” But unlike Walt Disney Co., 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.
“We recognized that we were limited in regards to our own [intellectual property] resources internally and needed to be looking elsewhere to add some,” said Universal’s Shmuger.
Though the success of three “Pirates” and two “Transformers” movies, along with the decent performance 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 enough, to spur toy sales) on which to draw.
But the movie “Battleship” is sailing into truly uncharted waters as it heads toward 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 looking to sell original film ideas, but it’s lucrative for toy and game companies that used to devote all of their energies to simply selling the products they made.
“Did I ever imagine we’d be involved in a movie based on a toy? No,” said Meron, the producer who’s working on the adaptation of Mattel’s new monster doll. "[But] in this atmosphere it’s good for studios to know you have something easily promotable.”
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.
“It’s much more of a two-way conversation than it used to be,” said Tim Kilpin, general manager for Mattel.
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 this year in an attempt to reshape itself in part as a valuable 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 very natural,” said Atari chief Jim Wilson.
His company is already searching its library of well-known titles, which include Pong and Missile Command, to determine what it might try to sell to Hollywood next.
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Hollywood studios, hoping for “Transformers"-like success, are aggressively developing well-known toys and games into movies.
Former Warner Bros. President Lorenzo Di Bonaventura is producing an adaptation of the 1979 Atari arcade game for Universal, which won a four-studio bidding war for the project.
Universal is planning a July 1, 2011, release for a movie based on Hasbro’s naval warfare board game. Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights,” “Hancock”) is directing.
Warner Bros., which already produces video games based on the Danish building blocks, closed a deal to develop a movie based on them in August. Former studio executive Dan Lin and Roy Lee are producing.
Paramount is working with producer Joe Roth to turn Mattel’s extreme sports action figure, which is very popular in Latin America, into a big-screen hero.
Oscar winner Brian Grazer is producing and Steve Oedekerk (“Evan Almighty,” “Patch Adams”) is writing a comedy based on the stretchable doll for Universal, which is planning an April 2011 release.
“Star Trek” writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are producing a family movie for DreamWorks Studios based on the toy that creates 3-D images in binoculars.
-- Ben Fritz