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Erector Set: The Movie. In 3D. This idea is as bad as you think it is.

Nikki Finke over at Deadline Hollywood is reporting that independent company Helix Films has acquired the film rights to a major toy franchise. Look out Transformers! Look out G.I. Joe! Here comes… Erector Set?

Erector Set

“Hey kids, do you want to play Modern Warfare 2?
“Screw you, Dad! We’re playing with an Erector Set!”

[Picture from EliWhitney.org]

If that doesn’t sound like much of a film to you then don’t worry. It’ll be in 3D, so everyone will gobble it up like they did Space Chimps, or The Battle for Terra, or Fly Me to the Moon, or… wait, this doesn’t make any sense. Almost all of these movies failed to make much of an impression on audiences around the world, despite the use of 3D, now considered a license to print money by Hollywood pundits everywhere.

Let’s look at some of the more popular 3D movies to emerge recently: Avatar, The Final Destination, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Up… Most of the 3D success stories come from known quantities (James Cameron), franchises (Final Destination, Ice Age) or studios (Pixar) that have engendered audience good will. Audiences wanted to see these films anyway, and 3D was just the icing on the cake. Why pay up to $15 to see a movie when you didn’t want to see it for $10?

Which leads us back to Erector Set, the movie. Note that the article includes no information about the story (which is “being kept under wraps”), and instead includes assurances that the film will be in 3D along with quotes like, “We believe the iconic Erector brand offers generational appeal with global reach, providing a tremendous platform to create a thrilling film franchise that boys, girls and adults will all adore,” from Steven-Charles Jaffe of Helix Films. They purchased a marketing gimmick, not a story. Say what you will about Transformers and G.I. Joe, but both films were based on a franchise with existing characters and narratives to build from. The target audience for these films were aware of these stories and had at least some affection for them, otherwise there would be no target audience at all.

Most movies supposedly based on toy lines, like Transformers and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (pictured), were actually based on preexisting TV series with stories that could be adapted to the screen. See the problem here?
[Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures]

Erector Sets have no narrative. Their very nature as a toy is that they are a blank slate from which individuals, particularly the young, can build whatever they want. When your story is competing with everyone’s wildest imaginations then the writer’s job is that much harder. In contrast, adapting an existing storyline, even a ridiculous one, offers many advantages as audience expectations are set within a certain range, many characters and story elements are already predefined, and public perceptions of the story’s existing flaws and successes can be understood and reacted to ahead of time. In short, never forget that Transformers and G.I. Joe didn’t adapt toys into a story, they adapted a story into a film. These were TV adaptations first and foremost.

Erector Set will require Helix Films to do all the heavy lifting in the creative department. They have essentially paid good money to write an original screenplay that ties into an existing piece of merchandise that, let’s face it, is out of the public eye. Lego, in contrast, is still relevant culturally with commercial tie-ins to popular franchises like Star Wars, Batman and Indiana Jones. Erector sets are a fine plaything and certainly wonderful gift for children of almost any age… but when was the last time you heard of a child getting excited about it?

I suppose Helix Films could have a brilliant screenplay idea all worked out, and they’re keeping mum on the subject because they don’t want to let their billion dollar monkey out of the bag, but the kind of logic that led to this decision feels backwards, and not from a purely artistic standpoint. Many, if not most (if not all) decisions in the entertainment industry are made because people want to turn a profit. Why spend money to promote another company’s merchandise when their product offers you no shortcuts in the pre-production process, and the limited popularity of which provides few benefits from a marketing and product tie-in perspective?

I’m looking forward to Helix Films bringing their A-game and really wowing us with the Erector Set movie. I criticize because I love. I just worry that you’re getting a bum deal here, and hope you didn’t make as bad a decision as I think this is. Good luck to you, Helix Films. You’re probably going to need it.

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