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Countdown to Transformers begins

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When Michael Bay, cinema’s reigning champion of vehicular carnage, thinks your idea for an explosive, special-effects-laden blockbuster is lame, you’ve got problems. A few years ago Mr. Bay, the director of “Armageddon,” “The Rock” and “Bad Boys,” was in his editing room when Steven Spielberg called to offer him a new project: an action movie about giant robots that metamorphose into cars, trucks and planes.

As Mr. Bay recalled in a recent interview, “I’m like, ‘O.K., great, great, great.’ And I hung up the phone. And I’m like, ‘That sounds like a dumb idea.’ ”

What helped persuade Mr. Bay to take the first “Transformers” movie — which in 2007 took in more than $700 million worldwide at the box office, and whose sequel, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” opens on Wednesday — was a visit to the Pawtucket, R.I., headquarters of Hasbro, which creates the Transformers toys.

There Mr. Bay, 44, was given a thorough education on the narrative embedded in the 25-year-old toy line: a back story about warring factions of valiant Autobots and nefarious Decepticons, who bring their battle to Earth from their home planet, Cybertron.

Mr. Bay was sold. “I don’t consider this a toy,” he said. “It’s not. To me it’s the furthest thing from it. It was about the mythology and that there was a story here.”

For Hasbro this summer will see not one but two of its most lucrative properties spun into big-budget movies: the “Transformers” sequel will be followed on Aug. 7 by a live-action adaptation of its G.I. Joe toys, called “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”

The pair of films is the payoff of a strategy that the toy company has been cultivating for nearly a decade: infusing movie-friendly story lines into its popular playthings and teaching Hollywood that these stories can be translated to cinema screens. It’s an approach that many other toymakers are also taking, unwilling to cede theater marquees to the creations of comic book publishers like Marvel and DC.

As fans and collectors know, the Hasbro toys have histories that stretch back for decades. The original G.I. Joe, a 12-inch-tall soldier known as “America’s moveable fighting man,” was introduced by Hasbro in 1964. After the Vietnam War Joe’s connection to the United States military was played down, and in 1982 the soldier was recommissioned as a pocket-size special missions force of numerous agents. The Joe team was also given a nemesis, Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization (back when such things seemed suitable for youthful reveries).

Two years later Hasbro imported a series of action figures created by the Japanese toy company Takara, consisting of robots that disguise themselves as vehicles and other technology, calling them Transformers.

The G.I. Joe and Transformers toys, and their comic book and cartoon spinoffs, dominated the marketplace in the 1980s. But in the 1990s their popularity faded, as children turned their attention to newer phenomena like Pokémon and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

“There’s certainly a fad element to what kids are into,” said Gareb Shamus, the publisher of the collectibles magazine ToyFare. Some properties, he said, “just need to take a breather. But when the right generation comes back for them, they can come back with a vengeance.” Just as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a vintage-1980s comic book that spawned cartoons, toys and live-action movies, had reemerged from the playpen of history, Mr. Shamus said other ’80s properties could reconnect with audiences too.

The revitalization of the Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises began this decade under Hasbro’s chief executive, Brian Goldner, a veteran of the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson and Bandai America (which makes the Power Rangers toys).

When Mr. Goldner, 45, joined Hasbro in 2000, the company was largely focused on Pokémon imitators and toys licensed from movies. The Transformers had become robots that turned into wild beasts, and new G.I. Joe figures had been phased out in favor of replicas of the vintage 1960s dolls.

“We had relegated these brands to an experience that was limited to the playroom floor or the kitchen table,” Mr. Goldner said. “The history of those brands was much more expansive.”

Under Mr. Goldner’s direction the Transformers action figures and animation returned in 2002 to the characters and stories introduced in the 1980s. After those toys were successful, Hasbro issued updated versions of its ’80s-era G.I. Joe warriors and their Cobra enemies. The objective, Mr. Goldner said, was not only to sell toys but also to show the film industry that, cinematically speaking, they were no different from Spider-Man or Batman.

“G.I. Joe and Transformers had all the makings of big motion-picture brands,” he said. “They had grown up in the comics and animation. The generation of, in particular, men that had played with these brands were a moviegoing age.”

In 2003 Mr. Goldner learned that the film producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura was developing an action movie called “The Last Soldier” and believed that the project could be adapted into a G.I. Joe film. Instead Mr. di Bonaventura, a former Warner Brothers executive who had worked with Hasbro on toys licensed from its Batman, Harry Potter and Scooby-Doo franchises, saw a potential film in G.I. Joe’s roster of stylized soldiers with code names like Duke, Ripcord and Heavy Duty.

The series “never really killed off any characters,” Mr. di Bonaventura said, “so there was a lot of interesting back story and interrelationships.” He added: “Who doesn’t like a ninja? And now I’ve got two.” (That would be Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, of course.)

Assembling the “Transformers” creative team took more convincing. Like Mr. Bay the screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (“Star Trek”) were reluctant to be involved. “There’s no win in a screenwriter for this,” Mr. Orci said. “It’s going to be a giant toy commercial no matter what we do.”

But they too were won over by the same weekend-long presentation that had captivated Mr. Bay in the summer of 2005.

In their “Transformers” screenplay Mr. Orci and Mr. Kurtzman tinkered with the origins of the robots and the war that drew them to Earth. But they tried to remain true to the spirit of characters like Optimus Prime, a heroic Transformer who turns into a big-rig truck.

“Optimus was like an Arthurian knight, and he was the noble leader of this resistance force that was fighting against a much stronger foe,” Mr. Orci said. “That led us to a lot of the key characters that were the most known and loved by Transformers fans.”

The worldwide success of the first “Transformers” movie (despite some scathing reviews) ensured that both a “G.I. Joe” movie and two “Transformers” sequels could move forward at Paramount. (The third “Transformers” movie will come out in 2011.)

Hasbro meanwhile is continuing to expand its presence in Hollywood. Last year it announced a deal with Universal in which at least four more of its best-known brands, including board games like Monopoly, Battleship and Candyland, would be turned into movies by industry heavyweights like Ridley Scott and Gore Verbinski. Under this same deal Mr. Bay’s company, Platinum Dunes, is developing a film based on Ouija, Hasbro’s ghost communication game, and Brian Grazer is producing a film about Stretch Armstrong, the company’s goop-filled, elastic-limbed superhero.

Many more toy properties are preparing for their cinematic close-ups, including Masters of the Universe, the fantasy warriors whose new film remains in development at Warner Brothers, and an unnamed, unreleased Mattel toy monster that is being groomed for its own musical at Universal.

The challenge that Hasbro now faces, Mr. Goldner said, is growing its movie business without selling out the core elements of its popular toys for the sake of getting them on the big screen.

“We listen to the fans, really completely,” he said. “We may not be able to do what every fan wants us to do at every moment because there are so many opinions. You could go off the rails trying to do everything everybody would want.”

For the Hollywood professionals who have helped shepherd Hasbro’s toys to the big screen, the experience has provided a crash course in the passionate feelings stirred up by plastic figurines. “What I find so interesting,” Mr. di Bonaventura said, “is how many people will be very declarative. Like: ‘No, I’m a Transformers guy. I am not a G.I. Joe guy.’ ”

Based on his own upbringing, Mr. di Bonaventura said, he could not understand why collectors forced themselves to choose between the two toys. “I’m actually one of the rare people in New England who grew up both a Lakers and a Celtics fan,” he said. “I was loyal to both, and I lived to tell the tale.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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