Rubik's Cube is a natural blockbuster

As the career of Steven Seagal shows, Hollywood has a track record of breathing life into apparently inanimate objects.

Yet eyebrows were still raised when word emerged of a forthcoming film based on the Rubik’s Cube.

Hollywood agency CAA—which represents the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep—snapped up the humble puzzle for its client list and is currently in talks with studios over star vehicles.

Possible plots are under wraps but this is not, in fact, the first time the plastic contraption has made it to the screen.

In the 1980s it was the subject of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon about a Rubik’s Cube with magical powers (and an unexpected Latino accent) that comes to life when his squares are in sync.

It is also not the only time movie producers have plundered their children’s cupboards for ideas—back in 1985 an ensemble romp called Clue was spun off from classic Cluedo. Ten years later Robin Williams played a man trapped inside a game of Jumanji. But suddenly a rash of similar projects have been given the go- ahead.

Films in production
At least six films in production take inspiration from the toy box. Ridley Scott will lend landlord classic Monopoly what Universal Studios call “a futuristic sheen, along the lines of his iconic Blade Runner”.

Liam Neeson and Rihanna head the cast of Battleship, which airlifts an alien invasion into the naval face-offs. The tactical elements of war game Risk will, say its producers, “translate into an action-packed, uniquely exciting movie”.

The man behind Enchanted will direct a live-action version of Candyland (a sort of sugar-coated Snakes and Ladders), whereas Michael Bay is masterminding a movie about the Ouija board. Fresh sequels for Transformers and GI Joe will be released next year.

This explosion mirrors a similar trend for movies based on theme-park rides. The latest Pirates of the Caribbean film, inspired by the Disneyland attraction of the same name, is out in 2011; also in the works are Guillermo del Toro’s take on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride and, a movie adaptation of the entire Disney World Magic Kingdom theme park.

Yet the very concept of a film whose hook is the Rubik’s Cube marks a tipping point in what Hollywood will pillage in pursuit of profits.

“The influence of video games and board games mounts all the time,” says the film writer David Thomson.

“Old narrative structure is being replaced by problem-solving puzzles—except that the softness of our culture will insist on absurdly easy answers. Like shooting the problem. If you made Citizen Kane now you’d have to explain ‘Rosebud’ at the start.”

‘Hollywood’s increasing nervousness’
What this explosion belies is Hollywood’s increasing nervousness about greenlighting anything without pre-existing brand awareness. “You could call it cynicism,” says Steven Gaydos, the executive editor of trade paper Variety. “But it’s also just the fiscal responsibility of the corporate global conglomerate. They have to deliver to the stockholders.”

With a diminishing numbers of titles being bankrolled by studios each year, it’s imperative each delivers a healthy return. That means it needs to be either a blockbuster with franchise potential or—in the phrase of DreamWorks chief executive Stacey Snider—a “cultural event”.

Few films become watercooler movies based solely on word of mouth—Inception, The Hangover and The Social Network are the exceptions rather than the norm, and, as Gaydos points out, The Social Network benefited from being branded “the Facebook film”, rather than just another yarn of college student behaviour.

Such a risk-adverse culture naturally turns to properties such as board games, which can deliver on both the franchise and the watercooler fronts.
And they are cheaper, too: less marketing outlay is required when you don’t need to educate your audiences about the product.

Toy and games manufacturers such as Hasbro and Mattel—themselves under constant threat from the video console—have exploited this by licensing rights to the ­studios for some of their most cherished properties.

Hasbro is tied into an exclusive six-year deal with Universal, a studio in need of a lucrative franchise.

Indeed, despite the inevitable eye-rolling, films spun off from board games may represent the film business’s creative bankruptcy less than those adapted from video games, or even comic books.

‘Imaginative leeway’
There’s more imaginative leeway when you buy a property that doesn’t come complete with plot and characters.

Less risk, too: however faithful you are to someone’s favourite novel or TV show, fans will always revolt if it strays too far from the original.

Board games and fairground attractions, then, represent one of the rare unmined media that boast positive associations and cross-generational appeal. Playing games is a communal experience; watching movies inspired by them will surely be as well.

“This is the realm of the modern studio,” says Gaydos. “It’s all about marketing and merchandising, brand hustling and brand monetising. And it’s what they always wanted it to be.

“They’d make a movie about a tin of Campbell’s soup if they could. No problem explaining that to people. It’s not even pre-sold, it’s premasticated.”—Guardian News & Media 2010

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