LOS ANGELES — This town’s top celebrities have long had more than their fair share of plastic parts. Hollywood’s newest movie stars are no exception.
Soon to be starring in his own feature-length film with Universal Pictures: Stretch Armstrong, the pliant, muscle-bound doll whose roots go back to the 1970s. Big Wheel, the plastic tricycle, has its own TV show in the works. Even the board game Risk has a deal for a film, to be co-produced by star Will Smith.
Toys now are receiving the same A-list treatment that any bankable movie star here has come to expect. That includes top billing and contracts with special perks. They even have their own talent agents.
Creative Artists Agency recently signed up Mattel Inc.’s Barbie to star in a live-action feature film at General Electric Co.’s Universal Pictures. International Creative Management, another talent agency, sparked a four-studio bidding war for a movie starring Asteroids, a brand from its client, videogame publisher Atari SA.
John Fogelman represents the likes of Courteney Cox, Whoopi Goldberg and director J.J. Abrams for talent agency William Morris Endeavor Entertainment LLC. But lately, his hottest stars have been toys such as G.I. Joe and Candy Land from his client Hasbro Inc.
“We treated them like the most important movie star client on the roster,” says the 44-year-old Mr. Fogelman.
The star turn for toys is part of a mania that has swept Hollywood in recent months. Action figures such as G.I. Joe and Transformers ruled the box office this summer. Meanwhile, real-life stars who were once golden, such as Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, failed to draw crowds.
“There’s chaos right now,” says Mr. Fogelman in his Beverly Hills office, grabbing a beer from the walnut-wood bar that Hasbro Chief Executive Brian Goldner gave him for his birthday this year. “Hollywood had matured to a place where most of the artists were being forced to accept what was offered to them,” he says. “I was looking to find ways to gain ground back for the artist community.”
The craze for toy-driven feature films has given rise to a new term in the Hollywood lexicon. In production meetings, studio executives have begun asking if a particular project is “toyetic” — meaning whether its concept can lend itself to a toy, and whether the project will be able to sell tickets and merchandise.
No recent project has been more toyetic than “Transformers.” This summer, the second movie in the franchise grossed more than $833 million at the world-wide box office. In 2007, after the first “Transformers” film came out, Hasbro said revenues from “Transformers” hit $484 million, up from about $100 million in 2006.
Nonetheless, the director, Michael Bay, also a client of Mr. Fogelman, was reluctant to sign on for a third installment. “I didn’t want to do it,” says Mr. Bay, “but Paramount, they begged me.” He says he caved after a trip to Vegas with Paramount’s executives. Paramount Chairman Brad Grey, whose Viacom Inc.-owned studio made both “Transformers” blockbusters, says: “We’re proud to be in business with him.”
To be sure, Hollywood has played with toys before. Walt Disney Co.’s “Toy Story” franchise drew huge audiences in the 1990s, with name-brand playthings in supporting roles. The company is releasing another in the series in 3-D next year.
Few have taken the toy ride more seriously than Mr. Fogelman. The veteran agent spent much of last year on the road trying to cut new deals for Hasbro. He says he left the Emmys early, took up to four meetings a day, and gained 20 pounds from having so many dinner powwows with potential partners.
But he succeeded in enshrining Hasbro among the pantheon of powerful forces in Hollywood: The company recently secured its own office on the Universal lot, identifiable by the 6-foot statue of Mr. Potato Head standing outside. Only a few others have achieved the status of having offices on the lot, among them, Steven Spielberg, whose DreamWorks Studios sits just a stone’s throw away.
As often happens in Hollywood, the stratospheric success of projects such as “Transformers” has unleashed a stampede of producers looking for the next big toy. Projects in the works include movie versions of the games Monopoly and Battleship.
The fervor has allowed even the most uncinematic of playthings to get a shot at the silver screen. The Ohio Art Co., which owns Etch A Sketch, says it has received numerous calls from producers interested in acquiring the rights to make a stand-alone film based on the toy. The company has yet to sign a deal.
“There’s a herd mentality in Hollywood,” says Stephen Sommers, who made “The Mummy” franchise and directed “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which took in more than $300 million at the global box office. “Sometimes I read about toys in development and just think, ‘What! Battleship and Monopoly? Really?’ I mean, best of luck.”
Yet some of Hollywood’s top directors and actors are eager to hitch their names to films starring a toy. Will Smith, who currently commands one of the biggest paychecks in the industry, signed on with partner James Lassiter to produce a movie based on the board game Risk, for Sony Corp.’s Sony Pictures.
Messrs. Smith and Lassiter are also developing a TV show based on the Big Wheel toy for a yet-unnamed TV channel, a joint venture between Hasbro and Discovery Communications set to launch next fall. “It was my favorite toy growing up,” says Mr. Lassiter.
J.J. Abrams, who created the TV show “Lost” and directed this summer’s “Star Trek” film, is in discussions to produce a movie about Japanese toy line Micronauts, which Hasbro just acquired.
Other big names are piling in. Brian Grazer will produce “Stretch Armstrong.” Ridley Scott, the British director who made “Gladiator” and “Blade Runner,” has agreed to direct “Monopoly.”
Mr. Fogelman says he, along with Hasbro CEO Mr. Goldner, makes sure to lock up the rights to the company’s brands before letting studios in on the deal. “We protect the [intellectual property] as if it’s the most precious metal on the planet,” he says. “The studios — they don’t even get the rights to the script until the day we start principal photography. I can tell you, that’s never been done before!”
People familiar with the matter say he has brokered deals for Hasbro that include “saw teeth,” special provisions worked into a contract to protect the client. For example, studios must greenlight a movie within a number of weeks of acquiring it, or pay a $5 million kill fee directly back to Hasbro. “We wanted to be in the business of making movies, not deals,” says Hasbro’s Mr. Goldner. Mr. Fogelman declined to elaborate.
Mr. Abrams, the “Star Trek” director, says those who doubt whether a board game or science-fiction toy should be accorded star status will be proved wrong.
“Sometimes, when someone is not a celebrity and you are casting them in a role, everyone who is in a seat of authority voices questions about that actor’s talent, sex appeal, looks, ability — their everything,” he says. “But then they get the role, and suddenly they are on the cover of every magazine, and nobody questions those things again. In retrospect, everyone says, ‘Of course that person is a star.'”
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