Basing a movie on the board game Battleship is no different than basing a movie on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. At least that’s what studio execs would have us think.
Hasbro and Universal Studios are partnering to put the game, along with Candy Land, Monopoly, Clue and the Ouija board, up on the silver screen. It’s part of a growing trend in Hollywood—studios have fallen in love with the idea of making kids’ toys into movies.
And it’s working—two of the most successful films of the past couple of years were based on action figures. The first Transformers movie grossed more than US$700 million worldwide; its sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, has already made US$825 million since its debut in June. “The spectacle [director] Michael Bay created off of Transformers is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Bennett Schneir, senior vice-president and managing director of Hasbro’s motion pictures division.
Although popular with audiences, toy-based movies have frequently been panned by critics. It’s easy to see why—Transformers was based on the Hasbro toys’ backstory: a galactic battle between giant space robots that turn into cars. But at least that’s a story. Now Universal is making movies out of games where the big thrill comes when a thimble puts hotels on Baltic Avenue.
Critics would rather see studios find their inspiration elsewhere. Many say board game movies will be little more than two-hour commercials; some think the entire concept represents the decay of the mainstream film industry. “It’s not a good thing,” says Stewart Donovan, a film and literature professor at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. “It’s a marketing ploy and it’s a successful one.”
He says making movies to sell toys results in films with no depth or artistic merit. “You’ve gotta watch so much junk. That’s the problem. What does that do to you and to your sensibility?”
Schneir, on the other hand, believes the games are ripe for adaptation. “In Monopoly we’re getting rich, and in Clue we’re solving a mystery, and in Candy Land we’re going through an extraordinary edible landscape. All of those experiences lead to a place that has incredible cinematic potential.”
Noel Baker, a screenwriter and writer in residence with the Canadian Film Centre, says board games could work as source material. “I suppose you can extract some kind of storyline from Candy Land and its path through, I don’t know, a candy forest to some sort of end point, and make a movie about that marketed to kids.” But he still thinks those films are a bad idea. “Everything about it is a calculated marketing strategy, rather than a form of storytelling that comes from a place that I suppose is more original, more human and has something worthwhile to say.”
Whether or not Baker is right, Universal and Hasbro are doing everything they can to bring legitimacy to the projects. Ridley Scott, the director of the critically adored movies Blade Runner and Gladiator—and widely derided films such as Kingdom of Heaven—has signed on to direct the Monopoly film. The Ouji board movie is slated to be produced by Michael Bay, who directed both Transformers films. Bay has built a career out of his penchant for explosions and special effects, but he’ll be entering new waters when he tries to punch up a story about two kids pointing at letters with a paddle.
Regardless, Schneir says toy-based blockbusters are good for the film industry because they give studios the money they need to fund risky independent projects. Baker disagrees. “It costs an awful lot to market these things. And the more that goes onto a few of these big, tent-pole events the less there seems to be available for everything else.”
He could be right. The budgets for both Transformers films exceeded US$150 million each. The Hurt Locker, a critically acclaimed movie that was recently widely released, had an estimated budget of only US$11 million, and has only just made that amount back at the box office. With Transformers 2 quadrupling its budget in revenues, it’s easy to see why studios might not be interested in smaller projects. Big board game movies also have inherent marketing tie-ins, and smaller films don’t. Baker says that’s the whole reason behind this new kind of blockbuster. “It’s making movies to make money selling toys.”