Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures has quietly dropped out of Clue, one of the seven Hasbro games properties the studio contracted to make into movies in a ground-breaking six-year exclusive deal signed in 2008. Clue becomes the third project out of seven to be dropped by Universal (Monopoly and Magic, The Gathering were also kicked to the curb), but none of those projects are dead. In the case of the murder mystery board game Clue, Hasbro is funding the development and producing the film with Gore Verbinski’s Blind Wink. Verbinski, director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Rango and the upcoming Lone Ranger, still plans to direct Clue, and he and Blind Wink’s John Krauss are producing with Hasbro’s Brian Goldner and Bennett Schneir.

They’ve just hired Flash Gordon scribes Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama to write the Clue script. The writers will draft a take that Verbinski and his fellow producers came up with that retains the murder mystery spirit of the board game, but broadens the setting to a global stage. Beyond scripting Flash Gordon for Sony Pictures, Sharpless and Sazama are redrafting Dracula Year Zero. That project’s still hanging on at Universal, after being halted just short of the start line because of a high budget, when Alex Proyas was directing and Sam Worthington was going to star. ICM reps the writers.

Is all this a clue that Universal no longer wants to roll the dice on board game movies? Insiders say no. Rather, they tell me that Universal and Hasbro gradually narrowed their focus to the four films that most made sense for the studio: Battleship, the Peter Berg-directed summer 2012 action movie that stars Taylor Kitsch and Liam Neeson, with Universal just releasing its first trailer (below); Stretch Armstrong, which has Rob Letterman directing and Twilight Saga’s Taylor Lautner attached to play the rubbery title character; Candy Land, which is being written by Kung Fu Panda 2 co-writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who’ve described the film as Lord of the Rings, with edibles; and Ouija, which has McG attached to direct and Platinum Dunes partners Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form producing with Ian Bryce and Hasbro’s Goldner and Schneir.

The truth, they said, is that Hasbro is eager to transfer its branded products into movies and the best way to do that is to spread them around or self-develop and then go back to studios with scripts and talent, because  board games don’t automatically lend themselves seamlessly to narrative films and because these movies are expensive to make. Hasbro certainly has the cash to do it that way; the movie transfer of  Hasbro’s Transformers series has grossed $2.5 billion over three films, and the latest, Transformers: Dark of The Moon, last night cracked the $1 billion worldwide gross mark. And G.I. Joe: Retaliation was just given prime summer real estate by Paramount, which slotted the film for release on June 29, 2012.

While Hasbro recently set a John Hlavin-scripted adaptation of the board game Risk with Sony Pictures and Overbrook’s Will Smith and James Lassiter, Goldner and Schneir don’t need studios in the development phase. Hasbro continues to develop Monopoly with Scott Free as a potential directing vehicle for Ridley Scott. Magic, The Gathering, the other dropped project, has no attachments at this point.

The relationship between Universal and Hasbro remains fine, sources said. Rights holders with strong deals often lose patience with studio partners and contractually force the timing of projects, but when Universal proposed pushing back the start date of Battleship even though it called for them to pay Hasbro a $5 million penalty, Hasbro waived the fee because Goldner and Schneir agreed with the assessment made by the studio, Berg and producer Scott Stuber that more time was needed. After all, neither Transformers nor G.I. Joe came from toys and not board games. Battleship, whose teaser trailer surprised many by introducing aliens into a storyline that most definitely was not part of the venerable board game, will be the true test of the Hasbro/Universal alliance. It will also largely determine the wisdom of turning branded board games into films and it might possibly determine the fate of who steers the Universal ship for Comcast.

Here’s the Battleship trailer again if you missed it:

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