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Hollywood takes its toy movies seriously (even if the Internet doesn't)

September 28, 2009 |  9:39 am

Battleship

When news broke in July that DreamWorks Studios had optioned the rights to make a movie based on the View-Master, that old binoculars-like toy through which you can see 3-D images, the reaction online was merciless:

"DreamWorks to produce film based on View-Master? ... Really????" wrote Perez Hilton. "View-Master movie not a hoax, sadly real," was the title of a post on the blog News In Film. On the Unreality Magazine website came the succinct assertion "The View-Master movie is real, I quit." And on and on.

Why the hostility? To many movie fans and casual Hollywood watchers, View-Master apparently represented a nadir among the many projects in development based on properties that have little to nothing in the way of story or characters. It's one thing to spend millions of dollars to option the Harry Potter books -- not only did Warner Bros. get the fans, but it also got a rich plot to whip into cinematic shape.

But what do you get for licensing View-Master? A name everyone's heard of. A vague theme of being transported to another place. And that's about it. Certainly nothing that couldn't be created just as easily in an original script for a lot less money.

Nonetheless, Hollywood has gone brand-crazy. It started with "Pirates of the Caribbean," a successful trio of movies based on a theme park ride (though at least Disney didn't have to pay someone else for the rights). Then came the two "Transformers" movies and "G.I. Joe." Although even they had 1980s cartoons (created, ironically enough, to sell toys) to draw on for plot and characters.

But now DreamWorks is licensing View-Master; Warner Bros. is doing a Lego movie; Paramount Pictures has Max Steel, based on a Mattel action figure popular in Latin America; and Universal Pictures, the most active of all the studios, has movies based on the classic video game Asteroids, Barbie, and numerous Hasbro board game properties such as Battleship, Candyland and Ouija in the works.

It's the new business logic in Hollywood. A-list stars can't seem to open movies ("Surrogates" being the most recent example). But if studios are going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, they still want some recognizable name -- or as marketing executives call it, "unaided awareness" -- to make them feel better about the bet.

Say hello to the modern studio development slate, populated with nearly every toy and brand you've ever heard of. Hollywood watchers on the 'Net may mock, but the trend isn't going away. Studio executives feel very confident they're making the right moves. To find out why, and how it's changing the business, read the full story in the Times.

Then, go to the closest Toys R Us and try to find a toy that's not based on a movie or TV show or being turned into one. We did and we couldn't.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: The Hasbro game Battleship, which will be steaming into movie theaters in 2011, courtesy of Universal Pictures. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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