Hasbromance: Could Battleship Tank Universal?

John Tui, Taylor Kitsch, and Rihanna in 'Battleship'/Photo © 2012 Universal Studios
John Tui, Taylor Kitsch, and Rihanna in 'Battleship'/Photo © 2012 Universal Studios

In February of 2008, Universal's chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chair David Linde took center stage with Hasbro's CEO Brian Goldner to crow about a multimillion-dollar pact that would usher some of the world's best-known games – like Battleship, Clue, and Candyland – onto the big screen. "This deal gives Universal access to some of the greatest brands in the world," Shmuger and Linde explained of the fifty-fifty arrangement. "Hasbro's portfolio of products has tremendous emotional resonance with children and adults. They offer an exciting opportunity for us to develop tentpole movies with built-in global brand awareness, which is a key component of our slate strategy." You could almost hear Shmuger and Linde greedily rubbing their hands together like Hasbro's top-hatted spokesman for the Monopoly brand, Rich Uncle Pennybags, and who could blame them?

The world in 2008 was a much different place. Brands were beginning to trump big-ticket actors at the box office. Warner Brothers director-driven, Nicholson-free Batman reboot was the year's top earner. And Paramount already had their tentpole pitched with Hasbro's Transformers, which pulled in over $70 million in its first weekend of release. That film would eventually gross more than $700 million worldwide and a sequel was already green lit and ready to go into production. Better still, with all apologies to Jon Voight as Defense Secretary John Keller, this franchise was actor-proof, getting Paramount in ground level by minting celebrities like Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, who've more or less remained faithful to the team. The stink of Paramount's first Hasbro adaptation, 1985's “Clue,” replete with three alternate endings, was now smelling sweet.

Worse still, Hasbro's G.I. Joe was also cruelly ripped from the toy chest. The film had been languishing at Warner Brothers, who shelved it after the Iraqi War broke out, but Paramount rushed it through preproduction, cranking out a script before the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike brought Hollywood to a standstill. The same month Shmuger and Linde announced their pact with Hasbro, the film “G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra” started shooting. And forget that felt-headed 1960s action figure; G.I. Joe was now lingo for an elite military unit of special ops assembled to take on a notorious arms dealer. Again, actor-proof, with all apologies to Dennis Quaid as General Hawk.

By essentially shoring up Hasbro's board games like Monopoly, Clue, and Candyland, the latex action figure Stretch Armstrong and whatever the hell a Ouija board is, and putting them into development, Shmuger and Linde looked like the smart money. So why is "Battleship" the first and only film realized under this six-year deal promising at least four tentpoles? The easy answer sounds churned from the hard-working computer that generates scripts for Michael Bay. Before the ink was even dry on their deal, the stock market took an unannounced u-turn and suddenly the $250-million-and-gaining budget for Battleship, which was, with all apologies to Liam Neeson as Admiral Shane, supposed to be actor-proof, started to look a tad excessive with the world economy in free fall. Shmuger and Linde didn't have much time to mull it over. They got the boot the following year in a seismic regime change at Universal, ironically replaced by the studio's marketing chief: brands, brands, brands.

Over at Paramount, 2009 also ushered in the fall of Transformer's mainstay Megan Fox. With “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” under his belt, director Michael Bay was the star pupil of Don Simpson's high-concept academy, where film treatments could be scribbled on cocktail napkins. With the worldwide take on his Transformers trio close to $3 billion, Bay is the undisputed king of explosion porn. And then Fox compared him to Hitler. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, she was eliminated and a game lookalike named Rosie Huntington-Whiteley had arrived. Despite Fox's absence, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” was a franchise first: breaking a billion dollars at the box office. With all apologies to Frances McDormand as no-nonsense Charlotte Mearing, the big-budget, high-concept army space movie was now also actress-proof.

Meanwhile, back at Universal, Hasbro properties were dropping faster than Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. The deal had $5 million-dollar fines built in for each property the studio dallied on, and in the wake of Shmuger and Linde, the dallying was legend. What fresh-faced suit would touch a passed-around deal peddling Paramount's sloppy seconds?

Still, Alec Baldwin wasn't playing Scrabble on that plane. Hasbro whiffed on crucial in-roads into online gaming. And with no Hasbro co-branded films last year, the company cut 170 employees and still slipped into the red. North American sales dropped sixteen percent this quarter. When it broke the bad news, Hasbro tried to soften the blow by cluelessly announcing the reboot of their 1999 talking Pet Rock called Furby. Last summer, Hasbro quietly accepted a whopping multimillion-dollar deal that allowed Universal out of the contract two years early and three films short.

Shortly thereafter, the studio unloaded both the Clue redux and a McG-helmed Ouija. Even with Bay attached as producer, Paramount quickly but firmly slid their planchette over the word no. This year, Stretch Armstrong departed for Relativity Media, but star Taylor Lautner bailed, citing the only thing more naff than actually portraying Stretch Armstrong: a role in Gus Van Sant's latest project.

The only happy ending seems to be Candyland, which last February was the final Hasbro piece purged from Universal's slate only to end up at Sony Pictures as an Adam Sandler vehicle. So much for the "built-in global brand awareness" that would save some money on actors. If Hasbro's homeless contain a message, it's that blowing up shit is expensive, but special effects don't make films actor-proof. That, and phrases like "Rihanna, in her first non-musical role" are the way the world ends. Sandler is the object lesson here. He may not be an actor, but he is expensive, pulling $50 million in a bad year, i.e., one in which he co-stars with Jennifer Aniston. Do the math: Five Adam Sandlers will sink your Battleship.