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It's been hard not to notice in recent weeks that Universal has been quickly shedding every single movie it's developing that is based on a toy or board game. It's been not even four years since the studio struck a deal with toy manufacturer Hasbro to make a whole slate of movies based on their properties, and they quickly went into development on films as wide ranging as Ouija, Stretch Armstrong, Clue, Candy Land and Battleship, which was the only one to actually go into production (it comes to theaters in May). All the others died off slowly in development or were spun off to other studios; the final straws came last week, when Relativity picked up Stretch Armstrong and, in an even bolder move, Sony took over Candy Land and set it up as an Adam Sandler starring vehicle.
It's a depressing turn of events for the studio that brought you E.T. and Back to the Future, struggling to regain their ability to produce big family-friendly hits while their only live-action successes are adult-focused films like Fast Five, Bridesmaids and the Bourne movies. In an analysis of the Universal-Hasbro fallout at Vulture, Claude Brodesser-Akner writes that Universal hoped Hasbro could be for them what Marvel was to Paramount and now Disney-- a source of brand names and characters that could be spun into the franchises the studio sorely needed. It's hard to say if Battleship will be that-- though the sour fate of all the other Hasbro movies certainly makes that questionable-- but Universal was met with so much derision over their pursuit of board game movies that they seem to have finally caught on. We were saying for years that it was stupid to make a Stretch Armstrong movie, and now the studio finally seems to agree.
And their agreement comes at a heavy, heavy price. The deal they struck with Hasbro, which was intended to last six years but is now dead after only four, came with a $5 million penalty for every film they tried to produce but didn't actually make. Rather than pay that fee for every single dead project, Universal reportedly just paid an "enormous, multi-million dollar penalty" just to get out of a deal. Yes, you're reading this right: at a time when plenty of indie filmmakers with excellent ideas struggle to get financing for their films, Universal has paid millions of dollars not to make movies about board games. And because the rights to all of these movies have been sold off to other studios, Universal didn't even do us the favor of preventing these movies from happening at all.
As much as I hated the Super Bowl spot I do hold out hope that Peter Berg's smarts can make Battleship worthwhile. I also can't help feeling bad for it-- Universal's concerted effort to get out of the Hasbro business really, really doesn't speak well of their hopes for that movie. It's nice to see the studio realizing that board game movies aren't a sustainable strategy, but it's a shame to see that happen at the expense of a blockbuster that at least deserves a fair shake.