The $200 million gamble on 'Battleship' film

Universal plays game of high risk, high reward

As Universal's "Battleship" steams toward a start date this month, the pricey adaptation of the Hasbro board game is entering deep, treacherous waters. With a budget of $200 million or more and no major movie stars on board, the project is raising eyebrows among industry insiders who question whether this expensive gamble will pay off.

"It's a big bet like many, many big bets from many studios," Universal chairman Adam Fogelson acknowledged to THR. "We will be nowhere near the high point and nowhere near the low point of what people are spending."

But several huge questions hover over "Battleship," which begins filming in 15 days in Hawaii, that simply didn't apply to other big-ticket movies. In "Battleship," Universal has a director, Peter Berg, with some experience in action films, but he's not a brand name in the genre. And the concept is based on a board game that has sold more than 100 million units and raked in $1 billion-plus. This comes at a time when some studio execs are questioning whether the public is tiring of the presold concepts to which Hollywood has been clinging.

By far the most significant entry from the relatively new regime of Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley, "Battleship" is based on the Hasbro game about naval strategy that's been around since World War I. Berg has come up with a modern twist: making "Battleship" a movie about an alien invasion at sea. But the grief and financial woe brought about over the years by oceanic epics -- think "Waterworld" -- is a part of Hollywood history.

Adding to the pressure: new bosses at Comcast waiting to finalize the acquisition of NBC Universal. Aside from "Despicable Me," the film studio has been on a cold streak and at the same time is developing a reputation for bloated budgets.

Universal's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," opening Friday, cost $80 million-$90 million (the studio puts the number at closer to $60 million) -- rather pricey for a genre movie. Last year, the studio spent $100 million on the Adam Sandler comedy "Funny People," compared with the more modest $60 million that Paramount, DreamWorks and Spyglass recently spent on a comparable film, "Dinner for Schmucks."

Execs even considered pulling the plug on "Battleship" in June, sources said. Such a move isn't unprecedented: Universal did that with "Cartel" five weeks before the Josh Brolin crime drama was to shoot this year in Mexico City, and with "American Gangster," the Russell Crowe-Denzel Washington crime drama that came back to life with a smaller budget.

Fogelson denied the project was ever in jeopardy and said the studio is firmly committed based on Berg's vision for the film. Berg, whose previous movie was 2008's "Hancock" for Sony, is the son of a naval historian, and he wrote a high school essay about how the Japanese could have won the Battle of Midway. He also directed the 2004 feature "Friday Night Lights" and 2007's "The Kingdom," both for Universal.

"He has a very strong passion and affinity for this material," Fogelson said. "He is a fan of the history and the current state of the military. He knows that world really, really well, and he is inspirational when he is talking about it."

Fogelson said he wasn't concerned about Berg's relative lack of experience on action films.

"He made 'Hancock,' so Will Smith thought he was a good choice for an effects-driven spectacle that cost a lot of money," he said. Hancock grossed $624 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. Unlike "Battleship," however, it featured a big movie star in Smith.

Fogelson maintains that "Battleship" doesn't need a big star and in fact is well-cast. The topliners are Taylor Kitsch and Rihanna, making her feature debut.

"Taylor is on the short list of actors in this range," Fogelson said. "Rihanna has no shortage of opportunities and choices."

Fogelson is not worried about audiences warming to a movie based on a board game, either.

"You're talking about a property that worldwide has more awareness than most, if not all, of Hasbro properties that preceded it," he said. "Worldwide, more people have played Battleship than played with Transformers." The first two films in the latter franchise have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide for the studio, and a third is shooting in Chicago.

Fogelson said Universal was careful in evaluating specific aspects of the game that would work for the film. "The game has not included a battle between Earth and alien forces," he acknowledged, but he cited several aspects of it that will be reflected in the film.

"There's the fact that you can't see your opponent, the underlying emotional reasons behind who plays the game and how they play the game," Fogelson said. "There's absolutely a way within the story that's been constructed here to take advantage of the game's name and elements that will make the movie fun."

Fogelson also said the studio has planned carefully in preparing to shoot on the water, dismissing critics citing the "water issue." If water movies were invariably troubled, he said, "Disney shouldn't have made 'Pirates of the Caribbean'." That franchise has brought in $1.6 billion; Disney, in fact, has tightened its script for the now-shooting 'Pirates 4" to make it less water-based than the previous films.

Universal was swamped with negative press in 1995 when it produced Kevin Costner's "Waterworld," which had a budget that soared to a then-record $175 million. That troubled production had to deal with a set-destroying hurricane, and Costner and director Kevin Reynolds seemed lost at sea as filmmakers. James Cameron also faced much-publicized challenges while making "The Abyss," which ended up grossing $54 million in 1989.

One way Universal has kept "Battleship" from going over the brink was organizing the shoot in a way that keeps it on land as much as possible.

At this point, the plan calls for only five days of production on the water, with the remainder of the five-week shoot in Hawaii land-based. The rest of the sea action will be shot on soundstages in Baton Rouge, La., and the production will be CGI-heavy.

One heartening reality Universal and Berg can recall as they press forward: It wasn't until 1997, almost a decade after "Abyss," that Cameron headed back to the water with a hugely budgeted project that throughout its production was seen as teetering on the brink of disaster. That, of course, was "Titanic."


The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, left, has thrived on the high seas, but "Waterworld" took a nasty dive.