The Hollywood toy story

Films based on children's toys are proving popular in Tinseltown, but are the commercial gains super

Earlier this week Warner Brothers announced that it is set to bring a film adaptation of Lego to the big screen in 2014. The Lego film will, excuse the pun, build on Hollywood's proven track record of making films based on children's toys. Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy has grossed a staggering $2.6 billion since the first film was released in 2007. While toy manufacturer Hasbro and Spyglass Entertainment studio will be hoping that next year's follow-up to the 2009 G.I. Joe film can match the $300 million box office takings of the first.

Though it would do both the film-makers and marketeers a disservice to assume that making money from films based on toys is child's play, Hollywood is certainly enthusiastically tapping a fruitful resource.

Next year will see the release of perhaps the strangest of these toy adaptations to date with Battleships. Liam Neeson may have "acquired a certain set of skills" throughout his acting career , but it is questionable quite how many of them he will need to draw on when he stars alongside Rihanna in John Berg's interpretation of a game many of us associate with long car journeys.

With a budget of $250 million dollars, headline writers may already be perfecting their variations on a box office sinking pun, but Hollywood's major studios seem to think they are onto a winner with the boardgames on the big screen formula. So much so in fact that a strategic partnership between Hasbro and Universal has put film versions of Risk, Candy land and Monopoly purportedly in the pipeline. Indeed the latter has even managed to get Ridley Scott on board as director.

Dorothy Parker is once thought to have said "the only 'ism' Hollywood believes in is plagiarism". It is certainly true that Hollywood has a voracious appetite for adapting certain genres to cinema and it is also true that over time the source of Hollywood's inspirations regularly changes. Books (Lord of the Rings, The Godfather), plays (Driving Ms Daisy, Romeo and Juliet), TV programmes (Star Trek, Naked Gun), comics (Batman, Superman, Spiderman), video-games (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil) even theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) have all at one time or another been the stimulus du jour, and now it seems, it's children's toys and boardgames.

But isn't this latest development slightly different? Isn't Hollywood now fishing for ideas in such shallow waters, not because of their artistic merit, but because of their potential for commercial gains?

Professor Thomas Leitch, Director of Film Studies at the University of Delaware and author of Film Adaptation and its Discontents, believes this was always the case.

"I'd question the assumption that Hollywood used to be abrim with creative energy but has lately run dry, since it seems to me that Hollywood has always quite deliberately chosen to be in the business of manufacturing reliably reproducible mass entertainment, an enterprise in which originality is neither sought nor welcomed except insofar as original concepts can be readily replicated."

If Hollywood's methods haven't changed, what of its purpose? The overt messages in films like G.I Joe or Transformers seems more mass marketing than mass entertainment. What was once an ancillary function, even a necessary evil to fund a project - the merchandising - now seems to be the sole intention of some films.

This Leitch concedes to be true in some cases, but notes that it is not as recent a phenomenon as we might suspect.

"I think the pivotal figure here is Walt Disney and the crucial period the mid-1950s, when Disney was launching both his television program and Disneyland, the first of his theme parks. Each of these endeavours was clearly designed to promote the others, and to showcase both Disney's forthcoming projects and his impressive back list as well."

In 1995, another American professor, Janet Wasko, wrote:

"It is not inconceivable that in the future...manufacturers and joint promoters will demand more knowledge of the film and may even try to influence the production in order to maximise the benefits accruing to them."

Writing at a time when films sold commemorative toys and weren't based on them, Wasko's comments seem almost innocent now. Although avarice has probably always trumped art in mainstream cinema, it has never done so in a more apparent way than now, leaving the marketing tail well and truly wagging the Hollywood dog.

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism