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.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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