In an unusual move by a studio executive, Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson recently introduced his risky $211 million film, “Battleship” to film exhibitors by emblazoning in bold letters on screen some of the negative zingers the press has already slung at the board-game-inspired action movie.
“I particularly liked Stephen Colbert’s line, ‘Who will they get to play the plastic peg?’ ” Fogelson says with a laugh. “There is no point denying what has already been said about the film. A lot of very successful movies in the history of cinema started with the press throwing darts at [them].”
“Battleship,” which opens Friday, has been an easy target. The idea of taking a decades-old board game based on grids and guesses with no characters and turning it into a high-tech battle against giant invading alien machines might seem ludicrous to some (James Cameron called it a sign of Hollywood’s “pure desperation”), but Hasbro has woven a winning formula with converting two of its other branded titles, “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe,” into live-action megafranchises. Fogelson is hopeful “Battleship” will have the same fate.
Fogelson also followed a Hollywood trend by opening the film overseas prior to launching it in the U.S. market. With such sure-fire hits as Disney’s “Marvel’s The Avengers” raking huge international numbers two weeks prior to its stateside release, studios are looking more and more to global territories as a safer bet for return on heavy investment. International box office numbers have risen from $16.6 billion in 2007 to $22.4 billion last year, while the U.S. market has stayed relatively flat ($9.6 billion in 2007 to $10.2 billion in 2011). “Battleship” took the strategy even further by striking an early blow, opening five weeks prior to its U.S. release. It’s already made $200 million in 50 countries and is set to open this week in Latin America.
Once, U.S. success was often the harbinger of taste in other markets. But is the reverse now true? Fogelson is not sure whether American filmgoers are influenced by how a film is perceived overseas. “I think we are still in uncharted territory when it comes to that,” he says. “If it was a disaster internationally, no doubt the press who had already been swinging spiked bats would have had extra ammunition, so hearing that the movie is doing well can only help.”
“I think it’s reflective of the new day we live in where markets like China and Russia are now as competitive as the U.S.,” says the film’s director, Peter Berg. “We are still a huge market but the U.S. is not the overwhelming, dominant force in film exhibition that it once was.”
Berg, along with two of the film’s stars, Taylor Kitsch and Brooklyn Decker, have circumvented the globe several times to promote the film. “One day you are showing it to a bunch of teenagers in South Korea, and then you are off to Hamburg, Germany, and see grandparents enjoying the film,” says Berg on the phone from LAX as he is about to board a plane for another round of promotion. “It’s been fun to go around and show it to people everywhere. I wanted to make sure this film had a global reach.”
With no clear story line set by the game itself (it was sold as a board game by Milton Bradley in 1967 and has now evolved into computer, video and cellphone app versions), it was up to Berg, whose father was a marine and naval historian, and the screenwriters (brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber) to flesh out the characters and plot.
Set in Hawaii during RIMPAC (the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international maritime exercise conducted biennially by the U.S. Navy), a small fleet is isolated off the coast of Oahu by a giant alien force field. It’s obviously not friendly, and Taylor Kitsch, who plays the hot-headed Lt. Alex Hopper, musters his motley crew to outwit their metal and laser-spewing invaders.
Kitsch, who Berg cast in the TV series “Friday Night Lights” (based on the film he directed), is hoping to polish up his tarnished box-office appeal after starring in this year’s most notorious bomb, “John Carter.” He will also be working with Berg on his next film, “Lone Survivor,” a completely different naval story, based on the harrowing 2007 memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.
“With Pete you just have the confidence to go for it,” says Kitsch in Hawaii for the U.S. launch of the film. “Even if you are going to fail, you might as well do it in a spectacular way. I love that mentality. It’s all about taking risks. But I think what makes this film work is striking the right tone between silly and serious. Once you do that, you can really fly with it.”
Berg, the 50-year-old former actor turned successful filmmaker (“Hancock,” “The Kingdom”) wanted to ensure “Battleship” was not perceived as a purely American-centric war film. “First and foremost, I wanted to make a fun summer movie, and I thought by adding an alien element it was a way to open it up a lot more and help take out the American jingoism,” he says.
It also helps to add a well-known Japanese actor to the cast (Tadanobu Asano), an international pop star (Rihanna trading a microphone for a giant Gatling gun in her first movie role), a competitive soccer match and an effects-heavy scene set in Hong Kong.
In a nod to its origins, a key sequence reduces the general tone of exploding special effects down to a more subdued game of blind reveal as Asano’s Captain Yugi Nagata uses the grid of the early-warning tsunami buoys to fleece out the enemy ships.
The film still manages to pump up the testosterone of American-led victory and nostalgia (with scant mention of any recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq). We see historic battleships such as the USS Missouri (permanently docked in Pearl Harbor as a museum but, in a stroke of good timing, was being moved for repairs and available for filming) as well as a platoon of actual “old salt” veterans from Korea to World War II who use their wits and low-tech knowledge to beat the aliens. Possibly prompted by the movie’s positive, heroic message, the U.S. Navy gave its full cooperation, providing access to five destroyers and key naval-operated locations in Hawaii.
“Battleship” could also make a movie star of one of its own, U.S Army Colonel Gregory D. Gadson. The active-duty officer and double amputee who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq and now lives in Alexandria never expected to be cast in a Hollywood blockbuster. “I didn’t think I would be in a movie with or without legs,” he says.
Berg cast Gadson after seeing an imposing photo of the soldier in a National Geographic article. Gadson was the first bilateral, above-the-knee amputee to test new power prosthetics. In the movie he plays a combat veteran who is on the road to recovery as the alien attack begins. “I don’t think I had as much anger as my character,” says Gadson, who directs the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program and will takes on his new post as garrison commander of Fort Belvoir next month. “But I could understand the sense of worth and self-pity he first feels before he musters the courage to change and fight.”
He recalls his nervous first day on set at the Punchbowl Cemetery. The National Memorial Cemetery, situated high on the hills above Honolulu, was the setting for a medal ceremony seen near the end of the film. “All I had to do was walk across the road, but my foot caught the curb and I fell backwards and snapped my prosthetic leg. I felt bad because it shut down the production that day. But I turned to Peter and said, ‘Well, now at least I know what they mean by break a leg,’ ” he says with a laugh.
Berg included other wounded vets in a scene shot at the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility in Fort Sam Houston.
“It may be a fantasy-fun movie, but I hope at the end of the day people realize there are real veterans in this movie, as well as active-duty sailors and the wounded warriors,” Gadson says. “Peter really did a great job of bridging the services from the past to present-day conflicts.”
Battleship opens Friday at area theaters.