From toyshop to Tinseltown: Hollywood has turned to children's games

It may not be groundbreaking cinema, but Hollywood is making big bucks from films based on well-known toys and games. Andrew Johnson reports

Superman and Spiderman are worn out; TV formats are old hat; we've had rom coms, book adaptations and gross-out comedy. Now Hollywood has turned to children's games, with already-familiar titles and heroes, to bring crowds into the cinemas.

The 2007 success of Transformers, starring Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf, opened studio executives' eyes to the power of the children's toys and games. The blockbuster film not only took $708m in cinema receipts, but introduced a new generation of children to the 1980s toy it was based on – Hasbro's shape-shifting vehicles that can be turned into robots.

Two sequels are on the way, Revenge of the Fallen will reunite the two stars in June and Transformers III is scheduled for release in 2011.

Such is the potential of traditional board games that Universal has a deal with Hasbro to make live-action versions of Ouija, Battleship and Monopoly. The film of the property board game is in development with Ridley Scott, the British director of Gladiator and Blade Runner, at the helm as producer.

A film based on the American version of Action Man, called GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, will be released this summer. The cartoon action figure He-Man is also in the pipeline. The biggest of them all, however, could be the film version of Barbie. Film-makers are said to be at loggerheads over the rights to Mattel's best-selling toy. With an animated series selling 62 million DVDs, it is no wonder.

The veteran film critic Barry Norman said: "Hollywood is a business, and its business is to give the public what the public already likes. So they made films out of well-known books and plays, successful TV series and comic-strip heroes. It is a logical progression, especially as young people need attracting back to the cinema. It is a bit depressing, however.

"Film is such a great medium. You'd like to think it was breaking new ground, and it's not. It doesn't mean you get a bad film, but one of the best films last year was In Bruges, which was totally original."

Ian Freer, the assistant editor of Empire magazine, added that the advantage for film-makers was the brand recognition toys can bring: "If you use a well-known brand then that's half the battle won. People know what it's about so it's easier to sell. And there's no reason why you can't make a good, ambitious film with depth. The Dark Knight, for example, used the established brand of Batman, but is as good as any film out there. Transformers is a good popcorn movie, and who wouldn't want to watch Ridley Scott's version of Monopoly?

"You do wonder whether in 20 years' time, we'll still be recycling these same characters. But if you put them on the front of Empire, the sales go up. It's what the core group of filmgoers – the 16-to-24 age group – want."

Hot Wheels

The die-cast cars are getting the Hollywood treatment, with a script inspired by 'Mad Max'. Barry Waldo of Mattel told 'Variety': "We won't have the cars talk. That would be off-brand position for us."

He-Man

Dolph Lundgren last incarnated the muscular 1980s comic and action figure, which was produced by Mattel. A new version for Warner was inspired by '300', a Spartan action flick.

Barbie

Mattel's aspirational doll with the impossible figure is celebrating her 50th birthday, with film-makers battling to make a live action movie, according to 'Variety' magazine. With 62 million DVD sales of the cartoon 'Barbie', it is little wonder.

Monopoly

The game is owned by Parker Brothers, a subdivision of Hasbro. Ridley Scott, who is producing a version for the big screen, said in 2007: "Somewhere in there is a hysterically amusing and, I think, rather exciting film."

Transformers

Hasbro's robots that disguise themselves as everyday machines were big in the 1980s and are big again thanks to the 2007 film that pulled in $708m at the box office – and goodness knows how much more in toy sales to a whole new generation of kids. The sequel is out this summer, and a third instalment is due in 2011.

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