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How Hasbro Is Getting Movies Made About Its Toys

Claude Brodesser-akner
Advertising Age
April 23, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- As cash-strapped consumers spend less, Mattel and Hasbro have been feeling the pain in their toy chests. Last week Mattel, the world's largest toy maker, posted a first-quarter loss of $51 million dollars. At No. 2 Hasbro, first-quarter profit was down 47% compared with the same period the year before, to just more than $19 million.

But thanks to markedly different Hollywood strategies, things may get a lot better a lot sooner at Hasbro. In an April 20 conference call with analysts, Hasbro's CEO, Brian Goldner, said with two summer blockbusters afoot -- a "Transformers" sequel and a GI Joe movie -- Hasbro expects overall increases in sales and earnings this year.

While both toy companies own scores of iconic brands and have aligned with top Hollywood talent agencies in the past couple of years -- Mattel with Creative Artists Agency, Hasbro with William Morris after a stint at Creative Artists -- Hasbro has been more aggressive about rolling the dice and transferring its properties to celluloid.

Hasbro is pursuing a strategy of finding long-term studio homes for its brands and involving top writers and directors early on in the creative process, while Mattel has taken a property-by-property approach that is far less trusting of Hollywood talent -- and has yielded far fewer potential film projects so far.

Hasbro has already had success dusting off its "Transformers" franchise, and GI Joe, another once-popular brand, will blast into theaters this summer, also via Paramount Pictures. But what's truly remarkable is how many other Hasbro properties are being developed with major Hollywood talent.

  • Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights," "The Kingdom") is in negotiations to adapt the Milton Bradley naval-warfare game Battleship for the big screen.
  • "National Treasure" screenwriters Cormac and Marianne Wibberley are in negotiations to write a script inspired by Parker Brothers' Ouija; "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" director Michael Bay will produce.
  • "Bruce Almighty" screenwriter Steve Odekerk is putting the final touches on a superhero-comedy script based on Kenner's long-defunct, elastic-limbed muscleman, Stretch Armstrong.

What these and other fast-coalescing Hasbro titles have in common (see "Tinseltown Showdown") is that they're set up at Universal Pictures in a six-year deal brokered by the William Morris Agency in February 2008.

At the time, Hollywood was skeptical of basing feature films on narrative-free entertainments such as Ouija. But William Morris agents Rob Carlson and John Fogelman had persuaded Hasbro to decamp from Creative Artists and sign at their agency in late spring 2007 by promising a great deal more than just a press release: They would get Universal to agree to make at least at least four movies based on Hasbro properties in six years. And if the studio didn't take steps toward making those movies, Universal would have to pay Hasbro millions of dollars in penalties.

Mr. Fogelman, an agent for 18 years, is also a toy scion: His grandfather was one of the founders of Tyco, which was the third-largest toy company in America when it sold to Mattel in 1997. As such, he knew well that a toy maker could molder in a movie studio attic if precautions weren't negotiated beforehand.

"Historically, Hasbro had 'GI Joe' set up at Warner Bros. for 20 years [in the 1970s]," Mr. Fogelman said. "So Hollywood just gobbled up that intellectual property and then tried to figure out the script."

To skip development hell, William Morris recruited Bennett Schneir, an executive who had spent the past dozen years working for director Robert Zemeckis on movies such as "Cast Away" and "The Polar Express," to serve as Hasbro's Hollywood point man. His job: identify top writers and directors to connect with Hasbro properties.

But why was Universal persuaded by Hasbro's pitch?

"I think what were seeing in the world at large is the power of brands distinguishing themselves," said Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger, who was previously the studio's marketing capo. "As we're gripped with fear and anxiety, we look for something we can rely on and trust. Look what just happened when we brought back the original cast of 'Fast and Furious.' And so the value of brands has changed, and with the value of brands changing, what the owners of the brands want to accomplish changes too."

Hasbro's Mr. Goldner said, "I quickly realized they value brands like we value brands."

Mr. Goldner's strategy was to "reinvent, reignite and re-imagine" Hasbro brands such as Stretch Armstrong by delivering "immersive entertainment experiences" developed by Mr. Schneir, and then relaunching the toys.

But Mr. Schneir said whether a certain toy or game might make a great movie is better determined by "creative stewards" such as Mssrs. Odekerk and Berg than by suits like himself. As a result, "there's a real enthusiasm and excitement to work with these brands," Mr. Schneir said.

While Hasbro has thrown open its gates to directors and writers, Mattel has been far more wary.

"We like to make sure there's a story that lends itself to the motion-picture genre," said Barry Waldo, VP-worldwide entertainment and consumer products at Mattel. He added: "We don't like to take a brand, lock it up at a studio, and hope that the creative minds can come up with the answer. That's a very scary proposition. ... And the studios respect us for bringing a property to them that's not merely a white sheet of paper that says, 'We don't know what to do with this, but please, help us make a movie out of it.'"

Mattel has announced only three film projects -- one of which insiders say will likely remain in neutral for a while: After "Speed Racer" spun out with producer Joel Silver last summer, Warner is likely less to take another lap with Mattel's car-themed "Hot Wheels."

 

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