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Ron Meyer May Be Sunk at Universal: Was a Roster of Board-Game Movies His Final Mistake?

Everyone was expecting some very big dominoes to fall in the months before NBC/Universal is officially handed over to Comcast. First came Jeff Zucker. Now, Vulture hears there may be more fallout from NBC/Universal's imminent acquisition by Comcast: Sources tell Vulture that several candidates, including former Disney studios chief Dick Cook, have been approached about replacing Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer.

Universal’s troubles have been well-documented, if not well-attended: Their nearly uninterrupted string of flops (Land of the Lost, Public Enemies, State of Play, The Wolfman, Green Zone, Repo Men, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) dates back to two summers ago. Meyer’s movie studio is largely bereft of big franchises, and if he is forced out one of the last straws may have been his enormous gamble to get more of them: A constrictive — some say punishing — six-year deal with toy giant Hasbro to turn at least four familiar games and toys like Candy Land, Battleship, Stretch Armstrong, and the Ouija Board into big-budget films. Right now, Peter Berg is shooting a $200 million Battleship in Baton Rouge, Lousiana after a warp-speed development process that resulted in an alien spacemen versus American seamen plot that has almost nothing in common with the classic board game (except for the cry of “You sunk my battleship!” that will undoubtedly appear at some point in its trailer). Universal is trapped and hurriedly ramming through other projects in order to avoid seven-figure penalties, all at a time when audiences are wrinkling their noses at movies based on musty brand names (Marmaduke, Land of the Lost, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). It seems like Meyer played a giant game of Risk, and lost.

Back in February 2008, when the studio struck the deal with Hasbro that pledged to make four or more feature films based on some of the toymaker's biggest brands, Universal Pictures then-chairman Marc Shmuger explained the rationale behind the deal to Advertising Age: “As we're gripped with fear and anxiety, we look for something we can rely on and trust.” Shmuger was speaking about moviegoers preferences for the familiar in a time of uncertainty, but he could easily have been speaking about Universal Pictures' executives own worries over their lack of franchise films. At the time, these nostalgic brands seemed like a good bet: Transformers had emerged as an unlikely blockbuster for DreamWorks the previous summer, grossing $709 million worldwide, and just nine days earlier, Paramount had started shooting Hasbro’s G.I. Joe. Universal’s only franchises were the Fast and Furious and Bourne movies (the latter of which Matt Damon was uninterested in continuing); other than that, they just had a pile of moldy B-movie monsters from the fifties. A Hasbro deal could jump-start a dependable line of profitable series.

For Hasbro, on the other hand, the deal meant finally getting the upper hand in its relationship with Hollywood. The two William Morris talent agents who lured the company away from Creative Artists Agency, Rob Carlson and John Fogelman, had done so by promising Hasbro’s then-COO (and now CEO) Brian Goldner that they could put some very nasty and sharp teeth into the language of any future studio deals — and they delivered. Universal would face multi-million-dollar penalties and the loss of the property rights if Hasbro films weren’t made in a timely manner. No more waiting around twenty years for Warner Bros. to make a film out of GI Joe: Any studio they now dealt with would pay dearly for dithering.

By the next year, harsh realism replaced optimism when it came to familiar brands being a sure thing at the box office. G.I. Joe, with its $170 million budget, grossed less than half of what Transformers made; after splitting half of its box-office haul with movie theaters and paying Hasbro a share of its gross, Joe was a single, maybe a double, but certainly not a home run. And Speed Racer had tanked for Warner Bros. the year before.

But at least the source material for those movies actually had adventures at their core. What was the jumping-off point for a board game or Stretch Armstrong? "Except for Transformers and G.I. Joe, there is no mythology [in a Hasbro product]," sneers one producer who has worked with the toy company, adding, "What's the point of a Ouija board film or fucking Candy Land, except creative bankruptcy?"

The studio’s enthusiasm for Hasbro’s aggressive timetable waned. But they were trapped: The Hasbro deal contained awful consequences for delaying production. Not interested in making Battleship for 2011? Lost your Candy Land screenwriter to another studio’s project? How does a $5 million kill fee and the loss of the rights to make the film grab you?

“The language was so strict, Universal begged to get out if it,” explains one insider who insisted on anonymity because of involvement in settling up another Hasbro film at the studio. "But they jammed a gun to their head to make the movies.” (Universal reps declined to speak about the Hasbro dealings.)

In February 2009, almost a year had elapsed since its deal with the toymaker, and Universal needed to pick a Hasbro title to greenlight soon, or start writing fat checks and immediately start losing the properties. They surveyed the progress on their inventory: Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) had been working on a script for Candy Land with Enchanted director Kevin Lima, but Cohen was leaving the project to work on Sony’s greenlit sequel to Men in Black 3. Ridley Scott had been developing a Monopoly movie for ages, but was busy with Robin Hood, and in any event was more interested in planning his back-to-back 3-D Alien prequels. Execs thought a Oujia board script by National Treasure’s Cormac and Marianne Wibberley had promise, but it wasn’t greenlightable yet. As for Stretch Armstrong, it was delayed waiting for Taylor Lautner’s availability, which was limited by the Twilight movies that had made him a star. The best choice seemed to be Battleship, which Berg had been attached to since 2008, but on which little progress had been made. The film may not have had a plot yet, let alone a script, but it had the summer-tentpole potential for explosions and great special effects, and Berg was a military history buff and beloved at NBC/Universal. That was good enough. While it may seem odd that the execs were more worried about paying a $5 million penalty than committing to a $200 million blockbuster with just a title, they were driven by both the desperate need for a big movie and the looming Comcast deal that would decide all of their future employment. They had to have something hugely promising on the books; at the least, Battleship was certainly huge.

At the time, Berg was also being wooed to direct Paramount’s Dune remake and DreamWorks’ robot battle movie Real Steel. But Universal was able to lock him down by promising him that after Battleship, he could make his passion project, Lone Survivor, based on the nonfiction account of the life and death of Lieutenant Michael Murphy, the U.S. Navy SEAL posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor in Afghanistan. Berg’s Survivor was a gritty, intensely realistic, and graphic war movie, everything that Battleship couldn’t be: Universal’s deal specified that no Hasbro movie could be rated ‘R’. There were toys to be sold!

Berg agreed to make both, and by March 2009, he’d begun working on a script with Red screenwriters Jon and Eric Hoeber to come up with the spaceships versus battleships plot. With only a treatment in hand, Universal quickly set a July 4, 2011 release date. Not long after, however, Michael Bay announced that that would be the opening date for his Hasbro movie, the third Transformers movie. Universal didn’t want to move to later in the summer, afraid that then their blockbuster would be considered an afterthought, so new studio heads Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley went to Hasbro’s Goldner to plead for an extension.

Let’s stop for a moment to really underline the moviemaking times we are living in: Hollywood studio heads were begging a Rhode Island toy company for more time so they could spend $200 million on a state of the art CGI film based on an early twentieth-century board game. So, there we are.

Hasbro, which already had a surefire hit pegged in Transformers, felt benevolent and let them move Battleship to May 2012. Meanwhile, Berg and company continued to work on their script, though much of the work was devoted to the practical matter of figuring out just how many giant alien battles they could afford and reasonably pull off. The plot was finally hashed out in June, just two months before production was to begin with a cast that includes Liam Neeson, Rihanna, Alexander Skarsgard, and Taylor Kitsch. Unfortunately, though the alien naval battles had been mapped out, there was just one small problem left to clear up: the dialogue. Sources say it was sounding a little … alien. So Universal quickly hired screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (A Solitary Man, Ocean's Thirteen) for a six-week-long polish. When the initial ten-day shoot of the water-battle scenes began in August in Hawaii, Berg’s production was so big that New Line Cinema — which was also filming a sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth there — had to fly in extra crews from Los Angeles because Battleship had conscripted everyone local.

Meanwhile, the Hasbro obligations continue back at Universal. Following Hasbro's third-quarter earnings report, CEO Goldner said that Universal could potentially move Stretch Armstrong, starring Taylor Lautner, out of 2012 and into 2013. But people familiar with the situation say that in exchange for allowing Universal to delay Stretch, the studio has had to essentially greenlight Ouija, with an $80 to 100 million budget. The take from the Lost and Tron: Legacy screenwriting team of Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis follows the adventures of an Indiana Jones–style family, though it’s not yet clear if it will be directed by French action director Pierre Morel (Taken), Sylvain White (Losers), or Scott Stewart (Legion). But either way, it will hit theaters — ready or not — in November 2013. (The fact that they’re stuck with this deal is why some think Cook would be the right person for Meyer’s job: He is the man who oversaw turning the theme-park ride Pirates of the Caribbean into one of Disney’s most valuable franchises.)

While hasty development rarely helps a movie, there is always the chance that Battleship won’t end up a disaster: Berg is a talented director who excels at improvisation. But having the Dillon Panthers wing it on the field of Friday Night Lights is a lot different than having CGI aliens improv while sinking destroyers at a quarter of a million dollars a day. And ultimately, some wonder what the point is of rushing a movie just to have the rights to name it after a product the film has so little to do with. “In the end, we did something wholly original here,” one member of the Battleship creative team tells Vulture. “But they say, ‘You can’t sell that, unless there’s some source material underneath!’”

This insider adds that there is also a very good argument to be made that having such a tenuous connection to Hasbro’s product — marketing plastic pegs as ‘intellectual property” — actually hurts the movie’s chances with audiences; it makes it a joke. “The worst part is that people get their knives out, especially online,” says our source, citing a Colbert Report segment from late September 2009, when Battleship began casting. “It should tell you something when Stephen Colbert is making fun of your movie on TV, saying, 'Pete Berg, consider this my audition: A … 4!'”

Photo: Hasbro