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Studios tell toy stories

Action figures, board games tapped as pics

The output of Hollywood studios may soon resemble a living room of unwrapped Christmas gifts.

Studios are about to embark on a flurry of projects based on popular toy brands, ranging from action figures to board games to Hot Wheels. It’s a trend that has sent Hasbro, Mattel and other toymakers searching through their vaults to license their most prized properties.

The challenges are obvious: Although the names are familiar, the toys come with little or no built-in story lines. This can result in well-crafted crowd-pleasers like “Transformers” — or fall flat like 1985’s “Clue.”

But when Hasbro’s “Transformers” became a summer box office juggernaut for DreamWorks and Paramount in 2007, studios quickly took note of the franchise potential of popular toy brands.

Neither Hasbro nor the studios wasted any time setting up a “Transformers” sequel, and also greenlit a live action version of “G.I. Joe.” Across town, Universal brokered an even bigger deal: An overall pact with Hasbro to turn Monopoly, Ouija, Battleship and Candy Land into pics.

Toy rival Mattel hopes its film projects will not only strike a chord with audiences at the megaplex, but also send toys flying off store shelves.

The El Segundo, Calif.-based toymaker has several projects in development around town, based on new and archived brands, including:

  • He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Set up at Warner Bros., Joel Silver is spearheading the live action version of the ’80s action figures, scripted by Justin Marks, who’s penned bigscreen versions of “Voltron,” “Green Arrow” and “Street Fighter.” It’s finalizing a deal with a director.

  • Hot Wheels: Also at WB, the actioner will feature the toy line’s cars in a pic also to be produced by Silver from a script by Matt Nix (USA’s “Burn Notice”). The project was once at Sony with McG at the helm before being put into turnaround after pics like “Stealth” crashed and burned.

  • Barbie: A live action film will revolve around the iconic doll, with several filmmakers in contention to start development on the pic.

  • Max Steel: A feature is in development about this line of action figures that incorporate elements of James Bond. The character, featured in a weekly animated TV series on Kids WB and Cartoon Network from 2000-03, targeted boys age 8-to-12 and has been featured in direct-to-DVD movies in Latin America.

There also are plans to revive the Magic 8-Ball, which was once in development at U as a romantic comedy with Tom Shadyac, and for a film version of 1960s action figures Major Matt Mason and the Men in Space.

Just as the film version of Transformers helped Hasbro relaunch its line of shape-shifting robot action figures to a new generation of young consumers, Mattel is hoping a movie will do the same for He-Man.

Mattel is looking to reinvent the franchise with the movie and launch a new line of toys and licensing deals into the mass market; a collector’s line of action figures is the only product currently available.

Mattel knows it needs to be careful to satisfy both the hardcore fans and today’s younger generation.

“There’s a fine line to walk between staying loyal and true to the fan community and doing what we need to do to bring the idea to the masses in a way that’s going to be relevant today and be something that hasn’t been done before,” says Barry Waldo, VP for entertainment and marketing. Waldo is a former franchise and brand manager at Disney who oversees the entertainment versions of Mattel’s toys.

Versions of the script have already leaked onto the Web and generated positive reviews from fanboys, who were worried He-Man wouldn’t take place in the world of Eternia (it does).

With Hot Wheels, “there’s a huge scope of what you can do,” Waldo says. “It’s a billion-dollar brand for us. We want to continue making it relevant for kids.”

Mattel has been considering everything from concepts influenced by films like “Mad Max” and “Fast and the Furious” for the actioner. Despite the fact that Hot Wheels is about cool cars, it won’t be trying to turn them into characters.

“We won’t have the cars talk,” Waldo says. “That would be off brand position for us. It won’t be another ‘Knight Rider,’ I promise that.”

The plan is to launch an animated series, “Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5” next year on Cartoon Network before a Hot Wheels movie (not necessarily based around the same intergalactic concept) bows several years later.

Mattel has already successfully adapted its toy properties into other forms of entertainment — mainly animated TV shows or direct-to-DVD movies.

A series of animated movies starring Barbie have sold more than 62 million DVDs for the company. Three titles were released this year and will move more than 1 million units, according to Mattel.

But making the move to the megaplex will enable Mattel to reach a larger audience and create a new revenue stream.

While the ultimate goal is to push more product, “we always start out not wanting to make a long toy commercial,” Waldo says. “We want to make a credible story that will make people go to the theater.”

Although He-Man and Hot Wheels are being developed through the studio system — specifically at Warner Bros. where Mattel has a deal to create the studio’s action figures based on movie properties — it wants to develop its other properties on its own.

Mattel signed with CAA after Hasbro ankled the tenpercentary for William Morris last year. Staying independent also enables Mattel to remain more hands on in its supervision of how the toys are translated to the screen.

It has a “war room” dedicated to all of its toys, that provide a history of the properties, and gives filmmakers a bible for each plaything that details the important elements that define the brands, including the looks of vehicles and character profiles.

“As we go through the process in Hollywood we have to clearly articulate the look and feel of the movie we want to achieve,” Waldo says. Producers are also turning to other toymakers for properties to adapt.

Scott Stuber recently nabbed the rights to Spin Master’s Bakugan Battle Brawlers game and anime series, while American Girl from Mattel-subsid Pleasant Co. and MGA Entertainment’s Bratz dolls have also been turned into “Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl” and “Bratz: The Movie,” respectively.

But toymakers downplay the notion that they are about to battle it out on screen just as they do on store shelves.

“There’s room for everybody,” Waldo says. “Any success that any of us have will benefit others.”

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