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Why Battleship Falls Flat With College Students

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Hasbro's most recent foray into filmmaking, the perplexing, board game-based Battleship, sailed (I have no shame) into theaters last weekend after a massive marketing campaign. However, despite doing great in overseas markets (having already made $200 million overseas), Battleship bombed its opening weekend here in the U.S., bringing in only $25 million. With Men in Black III set to open this weekend, it's unlikely that Battleship will recover domestically. Execs over at Universal and Hasbro are clearly wondering what went wrong with their supposedly surefire hit, so here's a handy breakdown to make things a little more clear.

Never underestimate nerd-appeal and nostalgia

Movie execs worldwide seem to think that boobs and explosions are enough to break worldwide box-office records. And to an extent, yes, that can be relied on to pay the bills. But the biggest mistake they made was thinking that this was the sole reason for Hasbro's other toy-based hits -- Michael Bay's record-breaking Transformers trilogy and 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It wasn't solely the explosions and sex appeal driving up the box-office receipts of those two film properties -- both Transformers and G.I. Joe had the benefit of a huge, already installed fan-base: Kids who play with the action figures and watch the cartoons, and the nostalgia power of a whole generation of 80s and 90s kids who are now in their twenties. "Battleship," despite being a board game every kid grows up with, doesn't even come close to that level of trans-media appeal. Boobs and explosions will get you places, but Transformers and G.I. Joe are pop-culture icons. 

Asinine source material

Not only does Battleship lack the benefit of a pre-existing, multi-generation spanning appeal, it also lacks the boost of series lore and characters. Transformers has decades of lore for fans to eat up. G.I. Joe's Duke, Snake Eyes, and Cobra Commander are familiar to even casual fans. Battleship has... naval warfare, and that's pretty much it. No characters, no story, no lore. While this gives the filmmakers the benefit of coming up with an original story without having to be constrained by certain expectations, it confuses the hell out of millions of people, who all replied "wait, they made a move out of the board game? Seriously?"

Audiences know when they're being pandered to

Not only is Battleship's existence as a narrative feature absolutely baffling to American audiences, but they threw in aliens as the antagonists out of nowhere. It's no secret that aliens are "in" right now in Hollywood blockbusters, but producers forget that audiences are generally aware of when they're being pandered to. They look at the box-office success of Transformers and go "oh, so it was the ALIEN ROBOTS that brought millions of people in." Well, no, it was the fact that those alien robots happened to be Optimus Prime and Megatron. Audiences won't just accept any alien threat, and the fact that the ones in the film look like they were carbon-copied straight from the Transformers movies certainly didn't help. Battleship could have been a far more interesting, if not more successful, movie if it had just been played as a straight-up naval warfare movie (when was the last time a good one of those came out?), but instead, audiences recognized that they were being played.

The Avengers

The other thing movie studios underestimated was just how much of a juggernaut Marvel's The Avengers would be. As stated before: never underestimated the power of nerd-appeal. If you make something that is both well-crafted AND true to the source material, we will support it. And true enough, with three weekends at No. 1 at the box-office (with a possible fourth, depending on how well Men in Black III does), The Avengers continues to dominate. Universal thought they could play it safe with a big-budget movie in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, but underestimated both their competition and their audience.

Earlier this week, Paramount announced that G.I. Joe: Retaliation was getting delayed to March 2013, with the stated reason as giving them time to convert it to 3D. Of course, with the failure of Battleship and continued success of The Avengers, the reason is much more likely that they are simply afraid of competition from this summer's other big comic-book blockbusters, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. I think Paramount is underestimating the value of their brand though. It's this same type of knee-jerk reaction that caused Battleship to sink (haaaaa) at the box office.

Hollywood movie studios tend to think audiences will only come to movies attracted to the lowest common denominator. The performance of Battleship, however, makes it seem that the only audience they understand is themselves.

By Jake Weston, University of Oregon