Hollywood’s toy ploy

He-Man, Voltron, Bratz slated for adaptation

In this summer’s “Transformers,” a truckload of Furby dolls gets blown sky-high by one of the film’s giant robots.

It’s meant as a sight gag, set up by toymaker Hasbro, which introduced the chatty little creatures, as well as the Transformers line, to the masses.

But Hollywood is hardly treating toys as a joke these days.

The next few years will see everything from He-Man to G.I. Joe to possibly Monopoly show up on the bigscreen. As the film biz runs out of original ideas, nothing, it seems, is too much of a stretch.

In the last two decades, Hollywood has gone through several crazes: U.S. adaptations of French comedies, remakes of vintage pics, film versions of old TV series, and adaptations of videogames and comicbooks. Now studios and high-profile producers are buying up rights to dolls, action figures and games, hoping their lasting popularity can prop up the next studio tentpoles.

As the thinking goes, the instant recognition of popular toys can only help an opening weekend. But everyone involved is also nervous. Studios are banking millions on just a brand name, while toymakers are risking their crown jewels to work in an entirely new format, knowing that a bomb can cut into their sales.

Toy sensations of the 1980s such as He-Man and Voltron are aiming to tap into a wave of nostalgia for the Reagan decade. The generation who grew up with these toys are now in positions of power in Hollywood, and the hope is that that same age-group, a key moviegoing demo, will embrace the bigscreen adaptations.

Given the success of the recent “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie ($91.3 million worldwide) and the buzz around “Transformers,” there are high hopes for producers and studios.

Consider some projects in development:

  • Warner Bros. is mulling a CGI-animated film version of “Thundercats,” produced by Paula Weinstein (“Blood Diamond”), about a group of feline-looking warriors who have names like Lion-O, Panthro and Tygra.

  • Warners and Joel Silver recently announced plans to make Mattel’s “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” as a live-action feature in the vein of “300.” (The toy character, loosely modeled on “Conan the Barbarian,” was first turned into a film in 1987.)

  • Paramount has “G.I. Joe” in the works with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (who’s also behind “Transformers”). The Hasbro character was spun off as “Action Man” outside the U.S., and the film would team up both characters.

  • For girls, there’s the “Bratz” movie that Lionsgate will release in August, and “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery,” from HBO Films and Picturehouse, starring Abigail Breslin. The latter’s based on Mattel’s American Girl dolls.

  • Avi Arad, who is producing “Bratz,” is also behind a live-action movie version of the black-and-white animatronic robot “Robosapien,” from Wow Wee Ltd. A former toy designer, Arad will also create a new robot that will appear in the film and on store shelves. Crystal Sky Pictures is producing.

  • Mark Gordon has his own giant robot movie with “Voltron” that Justin Marks (“He-Man”) is penning.

The toys worked because they weren’t just things to play with. They were big businesses, backed by Saturday morning cartoons and comicbooks that generated interest around the properties and were essentially commercials to drive sales, much to the dismay of children’s television advocates.

As a result, the toys became popular consumer brands. Brands that are now turning companies like Hasbro and Mattel into the next Marvel — at least, that’s the hope of William Morris.

After snagging the toymaker away from CAA as a client (WMA reps director Michael Bay, producer Tom DeSanto and General Motors, whose vehicles play many of the robots), the agency last week announced plans to turn the toymaker’s more popular products, including Candy Land, Clue and Trivial Pursuit into movies and TV shows with its roster of talent attached.

For example, it envisions the company’s Ouija board as the basis of a horror movie, and has even tossed around the idea of a Monopoly movie helmed by Ridley Scott.

With production and marketing budgets escalating, studios are looking for all the help they can get to open their pics. One solution is established brands. DreamWorks and Par’s “Transformers” essentially sells itself (to kids and adults who grew up with the property) just based on the toy’s name and awareness.

Hasbro has released an entirely new “Transformers” toy line around the release of the film, flooding stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us with redesigns of its robot characters based on what’s seen on the bigscreen. And it’s covering all the bases: There’s even a Mr. Potato Head Transformer.

For the toymakers, a hit movie could significantly boost sales. Conversely, if any of these adaptations stumble, toy sales could seriously be hurt; franchises are still considered fragile enough among fickle kids to take a tumble. Toy companies are clearly risking their biggest moneymakers on movies just to make more coin.

“They need to be very selective in who they do business with,” warns producer Tom DeSanto, behind DreamWorks and Paramount’s “Transformers,” and exec producer of the first two “X-Men” films. “They need to get people who understand the property. This is their livelihood. If it bombs, it will damage the value of their bread and butter.”

The box office is littered with failed vidgame or comicbook pics. The same could certainly happen with toy-based films. Past efforts, like a 1985 film version of the boardgame “Clue,” flopped.

To try to prevent that from happening, Hasbro certainly kept a close eye on “Transformers” throughout the filmmaking, with Hasbro chief operating officer Brian Goldner serving as executive producer.

“We wanted to be very involved,” Goldner says. “These are our brands. They have great meaning for us as a company and have stood the test of time. It’s about igniting the passion of the fans as well as new generations of kids and collectors, for our brands are really beloved and played with the world over.”

Goldner worked closely with Michael Bay, exec producer Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks on all aspects of the film’s creative development, marketing and promotions, and is managing merchandising in conjunction with the release of the film.

“We think there is a tremendous upside in the movie, and taking the brand to the next level and exposing the idea behind Transformers, which is the ‘more than meets the eye’ concept to a new generation of adults and kids,” Goldner says. “It celebrates what they were at the very core.”

If it didn’t, it could have been a situation like Mattel and “He-Man.” The company has long held off on another “He-Man” movie after the ’87 live-action version, starring Dolph Lundgren, wound up too campy. For example, Mattel nixed John Woo’s plans for a redo.

While toy marketers continue to produce animated series and direct-to-DVD movies for everything from Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake to Rainbow Brite and Care Bears (Fox will release a new animated film in theaters later this year), the companies have mostly been cautious about doing anything bigger.

Producers say companies like Hasbro and Mattel protect their properties like gold, as they should, but that zeal makes them increasingly more difficult to deal with.

One runaway hit, however, could easily loosen their grip.

“The studios need to bring people on board who might not be on some writers list or directors list that makes the studio feel comfortable, but understands the spirit of why these stories work,” DeSanto says.

In other words, it takes a lot of passion toward these playthings. Those involved see them as much more than toys; they see them as, well, almost human.

DeSanto is one of those people: He owns more than 30,000 comic books. So is Arad, who put Marvel’s comicbook characters like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four in movie theaters. He’s now turning his attention back to the toy biz.

“The toy industry is my first love,” he said when announcing the Robosapien project. “Robosapien has intrigued me since he was introduced. He has all the right elements to make a family feature film, with the ability to touch people on an emotional level.”

While studios are aggressively snatching up rights to toys, they haven’t been quick to greenlight the film versions. Until recently, it’s been tough for execs (other than junior execs or assistants) to see ’80s toy icons as anything more than something sold on eBay.

“It wasn’t their generation,” says DeSanto, who had a tough time setting up “Transformers” at a studio. “The decisionmakers have had a hard time wrapping their heads around it,” just as they have with videogame adaptations and some comicbooks.

One major reason is obvious: There’s not much to adapt. These are toys, not toy stories.

Mattel first set up a “Hot Wheels” movie at Sony in 2003, with McG once attached to direct. That project has since broken down. It just proved too difficult a project to adapt. (Maybe it was the orange track.)

“There are a lot of properties that don’t resonate today,” DeSanto says. “The key really is finding out what the story is and if people still care about those characters. If they don’t, Hollywood will go down the road making a lot of movies that don’t speak to anyone other than the people that grew up with the cartoon or the toy. If you don’t do them right, you will have a giant bonfire of money burning in front of the studio.”

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