Welcome to Breaking Geek, where uber-geek Nick Doll offers strong opinions, fun commentary, informed reactions, and thought-out theories regarding the most interesting news of the week, using his expansive knowledge of all things geek!
Movies based on toys are nothing new.
Looking at theatrical releases alone, live-action movies based on toys (which do include board games and the like as well), they seem to have got their start with the actually fantastic Clue in 1985, followed by The Garbage Pail Kids and Masters of the Universe in 1987. In more recent years we’ve been inundated with the ongoing Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises, with more films coming in both, as well as films based on Battleship, Jem and the Holograms, Max Steel, and two Ouija films.
Animated films based on toys at the movie theater have never been in short supply either. The Care Bears Movie had a theatrical release in 1985, as did He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword, and Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer, followed up by My Little Pony: The Movie and the classic Transformers: The Movie in 1986. Oh, and how could I forget Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure way back in 1977?
More recently we’ve seen theatrical animated releases including The Lego Movie franchise, Trolls, a new My Little Pony: The Movie in 2017, and The Emoji Movie, which let’s face it, does fall into this category of turning something without a true story into a feature film theatrical release.
This doesn’t include every theatrical release based on a toy line or board game, but it gives you the full picture of how long this has been going on and a feel for why even more are coming. I also didn’t even mention the TV or direct-to-video films like the countless American Girl, Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Bratz films because today we are focusing on theatrical releases. And there are far too many!
So, why does Hollywood seem to be obsessed now, more than ever, with big screen adaptations of toys?
Just this week a live-action Hot Wheels movie was announced, as well as an animated film based on Funko! Pops, which are often based off movie characters, to begin with. Both are coming from the same Studio, Warner Brothers.
We obviously have a live-action Barbie film on the way, as well as a new Masters of the Universe film, American Girl, Ugly Dolls, Trolls 2, Playmobil: The Movie, and further G:I Joe and Transformers films.
Why is Hollywood so fascinated with turning toys into movies, especially lately, when there are still thousands of untouched books, comics, true-stories, video games, and other dormant franchises, with clear plots, that could be revived?
After all, you get a little plot with the toys… this robot is bad, that robot is good, but it’s not like Hot Wheels or Funko! have a story baked in before a movie studio gets their hands on it.
There Have Been Huge Hits! Sometimes!
Like any property, there is risk (not the board game) involved when making a film based on a toy. But, like adapting famous novels, comics, true-life stories, and rebooting films, the name of the game is brand recognition.
You make a Hot Wheels or Funko! Pop movie because people know it. You don’t have to introduce them to something new.
And this strategy has produced giant hits and new franchises. Not counting Bumblebee, the Transformers films range from $475 million (Transformers: The Last Knight) to $836 million (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) worldwide. The Lego Movie cost $65 million and brought in $469 million worldwide, and the next film coming out in a week looks to be a hit as well. Trolls cost more at $125 million and made less with a gross of $636.8 million, which was enough for the sequel set to come out in 2020.
So, all these toy movies make money, right?
Obviously not. The biggest flop that comes to mind, because it not only failed at the box office, but also cost waaaay too much to produce, is Battleship. Released in 2012, the film cost $220 million and only brought in $303 million. Ouch!
So, like anything else, these properties are not a sure bet, but there is another reason studios do bet on them.
Toy Companies Invest Money In The Film
Hasbro and Mattel. Looking at a complete list of movies adapted from toys, these two companies pop up the most. Hasbro, who made Battleship, even had a bungalow on the Universal Studios lot with a giant Mr. Potato Head outside when I worked there.
You see, these companies invest millions into these films. They act as one of the many studios you’ll see listed in the opening credits. How many other adaptations are paid for by their creators? You don’t get paid by an author to develop their book into a movie. In fact, you pay them.
So, even in the case of Battleship, Universal lost less than if they were adapting a different flop for the same budget based on a comic, novel, or reboot. Hasbro took some of that loss, as they were investors/producers.
It’s a win/win for toy makers and companies if the film is a hit. Toy sales will skyrocket, so of cou,rse toy companies are willing to put money into these films, which makes these properties more appealing to studio executives.
Now, there is an element to this that isn’t entirely profit-based, I feel.
Some directors want to play with these toys on the big screen, just as they played with them as kids. Just like directors want to direct Spielberg-esque films under the Amblin banner, notaslgia takes hold, allowing talented writers and directors like Chris Miller and Philip Lord to create fascinating new stories with toys they grew up with.
Adapting a toy into a film also allows for more freedom than adapting a book, for example. These toys have no-plot to basic-plot, so there’s lots of freedom for a director to take them in a fun direction, as long as Hasbro, Mattel, or the other large toy companies allow said freedom. Lord and Miller obviously had a lot of freedom with The Lego Movie, while Chris McKay got to direct an entirely new and unique Batman film in The Lego Batman Movie.
So, once and a while I’m sure a writer or director pitches a toy to a Studio Exec rather than the toy company.
But, yeah… mostly it is about money. Normally the director would be approached with the project and may have no nostalgia or love of the toy when making the film (cough, cough, Battleship, cough, cough).
So, that’s why Hollywood likes making movies based on toys. Good day, sir!