By Ronald Grover
(Reuters) - Three weeks into its international run, the Universal Studios movie "Battleship" is already a hit, racking up $171 million in overseas ticket sales. And that's before it launches in the United States, where it is expected to be a summer blockbuster.
For toymaker Hasbro, which partnered with Universal on the $200 million Liam Neeson flick, the special effects laden film also is a high visibility marketing gambit to boost sales of the company's 69-year old board game of the same name.
"Battleship" is the latest film credit for Hasbro Chief Executive Brian Goldner as well. Twice a month, the toy executive turns movie producer, jetting to Hollywood to shepherd to the big screen a growing slate of movies based on Hasbro toys. This summer, Universal is releasing "Battleship" on May 18. Paramount Pictures' "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," based on the Hasbro military figure, hits theaters on June 29.
For his gig as a movie producer, the 49-year-old Goldner works from a bungalow on the Universal Pictures studio lot -- identified for passersby with a statue of Mr. Potato Head out front. While in town he schmoozes with studio heads, lunches with directors and gives notes on the scripts he reads at his home near Hasbro's headquarters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
"We are in the business of developing new immersive experiences for our brands," said Goldner, a one-time Los Angeles advertising executive, "and nothing seems to cut through the clutter like a big movie."
The company's three "Transformer" films have generated a tidy $2.7 billion in worldwide ticket sales. Goldner told analysts recently that the movies have also generated $1.6 billion in Hasbro toy sales.
When "Battleship" hits theaters, retailers will be selling an updated version of the board game in which players choose to be either the Alien or Navy fleet, simulating the two forces that face off in the film. The new game also features "super weapons" and sound effects that simulate battle scenes from the movie.
And that's just the old game. Kids also can build tanks, helicopters and the movie's USS Missouri battleship with plastic bricks from Hasbro's KRE-O construction set. Activision Blizzard licensed the rights for a video game, too.
A KNACK FOR TALENT
Going Hollywood is a low risk-strategy for the toy company. Hasbro pays $1 million or so to hire writers to develop scripts, according to people who know the process. The company gets its development fee back if a studio agrees to make one of its movies. The studio then does the heavy lifting, which includes hiring the cast and crew and, more importantly, paying the $100 million or more it can cost to create one of these major release, special-effects laden films.
Hasbro gets 5 percent of a film's "first dollar" ticket sales, or the revenues a studio collects from theaters, according to Sean McGowan, a toy analyst at stock firm Needham and Co. Last year, Hasbro's royalties totaled $162 million from its films and from licensing "Transformers," "My Little Pony" and other toys for TV shows.
The studio that makes the film gets a royalty from a percentage of the money Hasbro collects on toys based on the movie.
Goldner's role is as collaborator in the process. Hasbro's LA film office is run by Bennett Schneir, a Hasbro senior vice-president who oversees a five-person staff.
Universal took the lead in remaking "Battleship" into an intergalactic war, Goldner says. But Goldner spent hours talking over the plot with "Battleship" director Peter Berg, he said, to make sure the plot fit the toy's brand.
"He's very good at understanding the brand and protecting it," said Universal Co-chair Donna Langley. "But he also understands what it takes for us to make a film."
Goldner's first movie took a bit of Hollywood finesse, as he helped bring together competing versions of the "Transformers" to get the 2007 film off the ground. A key move was enlisting the support of superstar director Steven Spielberg, who was producing one of the two planned films.
Goldner also insisted on hiring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to join Bruce Willis in this summer's "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," said the film's producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
"He understands the value of a brand, and The Rock is a brand," said di Bonaventura.
The Hasbro CEO also has learned that Hollywood can be a brutal place. Last year, Universal put films based on Hasbro's "Candy Land" and "Stretch Armstrong" into "turnaround" - Hollywood speak for dropping them.
Hasbro got $5 million when Universal passed on the films, and Sony's Columbia Pictures picked up "Candy Land," in which Adam Sandler is scheduled to star. Independent studio Relativity Media plans to make "Stretch Armstrong," which will enable Hasbro to use the film to market the super stretchy action hero for the first time in 20 years.
The good news, says Goldner, is that having a greater number of studios to work with increases Hasbro's odds of making more movies from which it can promote its toys. "Working with four studios," he said, "also give us a chance to work with the best talent in Hollywood."
Spoken like a true Hollywood producer.
(Reporting By Ronald Grover; Editing by Peter Lauria and Bob Tourtellotte)