"Battleship" steams into movie theaters overseas this week, giving international audiences the first chance to decide whether a board game-based movie is sea-worthy.
The Hasbro Inc. search-and-destroy game was once a way for kids to while away summer afternoons. But as it debuts in Europe on Wednesday, "Battleship" the movie has become a potential franchise, sporting Michael Bay-inspired special effects, aliens invading Earth, a bikini-model actress, superstar Rihanna and, of course, lots of guns.
Whether the movie symbolizes Hollywood's lack of new ideas or its brilliance in adapting old ones, Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures is betting big that it's the latter. With a reported production budget of $200 million, observers say it will need to reap at least $500 million at box offices worldwide to pay off.
Hollywood's love of the sequel, the prequel, the reboot and the adapted novel all originate from the same premise: Moviegoers are more likely to buy a ticket if they are already familiar with the story.
But not since "Clue" bombed in 1985 has Tinseltown gambled on adapting a popular board game with no apparent storyline.
The idea of turning board games into movies has gained new traction in part because of the huge success of "Transformers," and to a lesser extent "G.I. Joe," which are both based on toys from toymaker Hasbro Inc. The three "Transformers" movies have grossed more than $2.6 billion worldwide, helping lift "Transformers" toys to become Hasbro's top-selling brand last year, exceeding 11 percent of its $4.3 billion in annual revenue.
For Hasbro, the movie is a way to get a globally marketed boost for its games business, which Sterne Agee analyst Margaret Whitfield called "stagnant" and lacking innovation. Turning that stagnation around is a goal of Brian Goldner, Hasbro's CEO since 2008. He told investors in February "we're going to reignite our games business."
If it succeeds, "Battleship" will be the advance guard of a whole fleet of planned adaptations of Hasbro games including "Ouija," also being developed by Universal for release in 2013, as well as "Risk" and "Candy Land," which are both in the works at Sony Corp. "Stretch Armstrong," a movie based on the glutinous-armed toy from Hasbro, is set for 2014 release by Relativity Media.
On paper, "Battleship" scores high on the checklist for blockbuster success: a hero in a life-or-death struggle against incomparable odds, a steamy love interest, a star-studded cast that includes Liam Neeson, and a whole lot of destruction and mayhem.
Marketing of the film borrows heavily on its successful predecessor, and trailers proclaim that the movie is "From Hasbro the company that brought you Transformers." Churning metal weaponry and explosions are unmistakably reminiscent of the special effects used in "Transformers," which was directed by Michael Bay.
"It reeks of `Transformers,' which is all a good thing," says Gene Del Vecchio, an entertainment research consultant and author of "Creating Blockbusters: How to Generate and Market Hit Entertainment for TV, Movies, Video Games and Books."
The movie also has "built-in appeal" with parents who feel nostalgic about the game and want to pass it on to their children, he says.
That formula of appealing to parents with young kids has served Hollywood well, and this summer's line-up of popcorn fare includes everything from decades-old comic book superheroes "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises," and "The Amazing Spider-Man" to two dueling versions of Snow White.
Every year, about a dozen movies have toy-related tie-ins and this year is no different. Success really depends on word of mouth, not what got the first wave of filmgoers in the door.
While decrying Hollywood's lack of original ideas, UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter says the only chance for "Battleship" to succeed is if "they threw away everything but the title and made a good movie."
On the surface, little about "Battleship" the movie resembles the board game.
In the game, players call out letters and numbers that correspond to their opponents' grid, hoping to hit and sink a set of ships hidden there.
In the movie, alien ships burst out of their hiding place in the ocean and trap some battleships under a giant force field inside which the two sides must duke it out. The aliens appear to have weapons with distinctly peg-like shapes, along with some spinning metal balls of death known as "shredders," which were not part of the board game.
Hasbro has that little wrinkle covered.
The company is releasing a new version of the game using cards that enable the wielder to wipe out a whole row or column of their opponents' pieces, offering kids a way to relive the experience of the movie at home.
The mind-numbing array of toy-related movies might have some people groaning. That doesn't mean the trend will end any time soon.
"The parents can get fatigued, but children don't," says Jim Silver, editor in chief of toy-reviewing website TimetoPlayMag.com, who says parents usually succumb to their children's demands for movie-related toys.
"If you take three kids to the movies and they love it, and they want to have that play experience at home ... chances are parents are going to buy it. However, if they never see the movie, then that's a different story." Battleship debuts in the U.S. on May 18.