Movie producer who was baffled by The Lego Movie writers and directors

In 2013, a movie producer named Tripp Vinson was thumbing through Variety when he stumbled upon a confounding item: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, a pair of writers and directors, were working on something called The Lego Movie.

Vinson was baffled. “I had no idea where they were going to go with Legos,” he says. “There’s no character; no narrative; no theme. Nothing.”

A sharply handsome man in his mid-40s, Vinson has worked in Hollywood for 14 years, racking up 19 producing credits.

He’s a journeyman producer who specialises in popcorn flicks; over all, his films have an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 30 (out of 100). Vinson may not win Oscars, but he knows how to get his projects into cinemas.

He has survived and advanced in Hollywood by quickly adapting to trends — what’s selling and what’s falling out of fashion. His filmography reads like a map of Hollywood’s shifting sands.

Vinson has produced a movie starring Pierce Brosnan as an aging master thief (After the Sunset, 2004); a movie about coast guard swimmers with Kevin Costner (The Guardian, 2006); and a psychological thriller with Jim Carrey (The Number 23, 2007).

He has made two movies about exorcisms, one with Laura Linney (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005), the other with Anthony Hopkins (The Rite, 2011); a thriller about a psychic who helps the FBI hunt down a serial killer, also with Hopkins (Solace, 2015) ; and various other films.

Since Vinson got into the business, something has changed in Hollywood. More and more movies are developed from intellectual property: Already existing stories or universes or characters that have a built-in fan base. Vinson thinks it started in 2007, when the Writers Guild went on strike.

“Before the strike, the studios were each making 20-something movies a year,” he says. “Back then, you could get a thriller made. After the strike, they cut back dramatically on the number of films they made. It became all about IP [intellectual property].”

With fewer bets to place, the studios became more cautious.

“The way to cut through the noise is hitching yourself onto something customers have some exposure to already,” he says. “Something familiar. You’re not starting from scratch. If you’re going to work in the studio system, you better have a really big IP behind you.”

So over time, Vinson has moved toward making movies backed by intellectual property. He was the executive producer of the so-bad-it-was-good Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), which barely broke even domestically but went on to record a worldwide gross of $226m.

He also produced the Journey To... franchise (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 2008; Journey 2 the Mysterious Island, 2012) based on Jules Verne’s stories, which has been solidly profitable, with a worldwide gross of more than $500m.

(A third installment is in development.) He is now working with Disney on a film about Snow White’s sister, Rose Red. And following the trend of taking successful movie concepts to TV, Vinson has started on a serialised version of the Martin Scorsese film The Departed.

But at least those were stories. Vinson didn’t see how Legos could be the basis of a feature-length film. He watched in disbelief as the movie raked in $69m its opening weekend, grossed almost $470m worldwide and was almost universally lauded by critics.

“It was magical and fresh and really profitable,” he recalls. The movie was clever, telling the story of a Lego construction worker caught in a battle between good and evil, which is eventually revealed to be all in the imagination of a boy playing with his controlling father’s Lego set.

Vinson started looking for undervalued IP to guide his next movie. He wanted something an audience would already be familiar with, something that was culturally ubiquitous but could be made new again. He started his search in the public domain. He had succeeded with his Jules Verne and Brothers Grimm adaptations, and besides, old material like that had the advantage of being free.

Nothing caught his eye. Next he started looking around for a big-name console video game to acquire. Perhaps something in the mould of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or the Resident Evil series, which has made well over $1bn at the box office.

“The video-game companies can be really hard,” Vinson says. “Ubisoft and Activision have their own in-house film-development arms. A lot of the others are hard to get rights from. They feel like Hollywood can’t figure out how to make a good video-game title. Why give it to them to have them screw it up? That can hurt game sales.”

Not only were the companies difficult to bargain with, only a few titles even made sense for an adaptation. Vinson’s analysis revealed that megaproperties such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto sold tens of millions of units per installment, but after those top titles, sales dropped to levels that would make an adaptation risky.

So Vinson started looking at mobile games. A cursory investigation revealed that the very best selling mobile games didn’t move tens of millions or even a hundred million units — they could reach into the billions.

He happened upon Fruit Ninja, a wildly popular series of games that, since its debut in 2010, has been downloaded well over 1bn times. A million people play Fruit Ninja per day.

He contacted Halfbrick, the company that developed the game.

“The call came completely out of left field,” says Sam White, Halfbrick’s vice president for entertainment and licensing.

The company had already been work- ing on a TV series based on the game, but, White says, “a Hollywood film was like the holy grail”. Vinson found the mobile-game developers at Halfbrick to be more approachable than their co

nsole counterparts. They’re usually smaller, younger companies. They see Hollywood as a good opportunity to sell more games. And, most important, they aren’t protective of already existing characters and plotlines — generally because they don’t have any to speak of.

Vinson worked out a “shopping agreement” with Halfbrick, a contract that gave him exclusive film rights to Fruit Ninja for a limited period so that he could recruit writers and then take a proposal to the studios. If the project sold, Halfbrick would then negotiate a deal to sell the film rights to the studio, a deal that, based on the ubiquity of the game, could run up into the high six figures.

Vinson then realised that he was faced with a formidable predicament. There are no protagonists or antagonists in Fruit Ninja. There’s no mythology. No moral. The game play involves staring at a wall as pineapples, watermelons, kiwis, apples, and oranges fly up into view. The only thing you do is swipe at the fruit with your finger, cutting them in half. Sometimes there are bombs, and you’re not supposed to swipe at those.

“There’s a fun game to play, but that’s it,” Vinson says. “The challenge was: What the [expletive] am I going to do with Fruit Ninja?” This trend toward IP-based movies has been profound.

In 1996, of the top 20 grossing films, nine were live- action movies based on wholly original screenplays. In 2016, just one of the top 20 grossing movies, La La Land, fit that bill. Just about everything else was part of the Marvel universe or the DC Comics universe or the Harry Potter universe or the Star Wars universe or the Star Trek universe or the fifth Jason Bourne film or the third Kung Fu Panda or a super-hi-tech remake of The Jungle Book.

Just outside the top 20, there was a remake of Ghostbusters and yet another version of Tarzan. This year there is more of the same — the third installment of xXx, The Smurfs, Pirates of the Caribbean (a franchise based on a theme-park ride), a King Kong movie, Thor, the sequel to Blade Runner, etc.

Every stripe of intellectual property is represented: From comic books to best sellers; from the public domain to unnervingly recent source material such as Baywatch. This environment has fostered, in some producers, a sense of desperation.

When I asked Vinson if the changes his business has undergone over the past decade have inspired him to panic, he told me: “Absolutely. It’s forced me to look at everything as though it could be IP.”

Increasingly, that means non narrative IP: Stuff with big followings but no stories, or even characters, already cooked in. The Angry Birds Movie, based on a mobile phone game, was released in 2016 and took in more than $349m worldwide.

The game itself consisted of flinging birds at pigs, but it at least provided its writer, Jon Vitti, with protagonists (the birds) and antagonists (the pigs). There was also Adam Sandler’s 2015 movie Pixels, a disaster story that united characters from classic 1980s arcade games.

Allspark, a subsidiary of Hasbro, has scored two big successes with a pair of movies based on the Ouija board. The first installment, Ouija, cost an estimated $5m to make but managed to earn more than $103m in the worldwide box office; the sequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil, made $81m on a reported $9m budget.

Since 2008, Hasbro has been run by Brian Goldner. He founded Hasbro Studios in 2009, creating Allspark soon after. Hasbro has released five Transformers movies, with two more in the works; it has made two GI Joe films and has a third in development.

Those toys were already made into cartoons in the 1980s, so refashioning them into live-action movies for adults wasn’t much of a stretch.

The same can’t be said for the IP that underlies other movies Hasbro has in development — Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering — or for those it is reported to have tried to develop: Candy Land, Furby, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Play-Doh.

Goldner says the key to making movies from board games and toys is to “focus on understanding the universal truth about the brand”.

“For example, the Ouija board comes with rules relating to its paranormal mythology: Always say ‘goodbye’ at the end of a session; never take it into a graveyard.

“If you remember the movies,” he says, “all those rules are broken — and what results is a very scary situation.”

If the Ouija films were successful, Battleship (2012) offers a cautionary tale about IP leading to narrative absurdities. Set off the coast of Hawaii, the film tells of an American navy crew’s fight against extraterrestrial invaders.

The aliens render the navy’s radar systems useless through some sort of electromagnetic interference, forcing it to employ a grid-based targeting method — just as in the board game. Battleship cost over $200m to make.

Domestic box office returns were weak, and the movie was saved only by the nearly $250m it made internationally. It was a major critical flop too.

It wasn’t apparent until well into the third act how the film was actually related to the game. Goldner dismissed all that when we spoke.

“I have people all the time on airplanes tell me that Battleship is one of their more favorite action movies,” he said. “Our goal wasn’t to do Battleship the way you would do Jumanji, with two people playing a board game.” (Jumanji, it’s worth noting, was based on a children’s book about a nonexistent board game; there will be a Jumanji sequel released this autumn.)

He continued: “It’s not one person yelling out ‘F-7!’ and the other one saying ‘You hit my battleship’. It was intended to be about the strategy behind Battleship, about the not knowing what your opponent is doing, about the cat-and-mouse game.”

This summer’s most prominent example of non-narrative IP is The

Emoji Movie, a film that dramatises the imaginary lives of emojis. The film’s director and co-writer, Tony Leondis, told me that The Emoji Movie actually began with a quest for some other form of IP.

About two years ago, he was thinking about what his next project should be, and he asked himself: “What are the newest and hottest toys out there in the marketplace?” He looked down at his phone and realised they were right there in front of him: Emojis.

Everyone uses them. Unlike board games, emojis don’t have rules to play with. Or mythology. They don’t even exist in the real world. So Leondis created a universe for them: The emojis live inside your phone and are on call 24/7, waiting to be sent to your screen when needed. Each has to make the same expression every time they’re summoned. He created a character, Gene, a ‘Meh’ emoji who is born multi expressional, violating the rules of the emoji universe.

“The idea that each emoji has one expression only was the key to figuring out the whole story,” Leondis told me. “Then we asked ourselves about the world: What do the apps look like to emojis? What happens when you delete an app? And what would happen if emojis were wreaking havoc inside other apps than their own?”

Leondis told me that production moved along at a breakneck pace — it was two years from pitch to release. A lot of studios, he told me, think The Emoji Movie has the potential to be the beginning of a multifilm franchise.

In his search to find a writer for his Fruit Ninja project, Tripp Vinson reached out to every major talent agency in Hollywood.

In March 2016, he was introduced by an agent to the writing duo of JP Lavin and Chad Damiani. They have been in Hollywood for 15 years and have worked as partners for that entire span.

They have never once had a script make it to the big screen. Lavin and Damiani, both in their mid-40s, took very different paths to Hollywood. Lavin started as a playwright and earned an MFA from Carnegie Mellon; Damiani was as an announcer for World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s.

When WCW was faltering, Damiani moved to Hollywood. Lavin was already there, trying to get his writing career off the ground. The two started thinking about reality show ideas.

“Joe Millionaire had just come out. Only the worst ideas were selling,” Lavin says. “All I did was think about terrible reality show ideas.”

The pair came up with a reality competition show called Green Card. The concept was simple: An ultra- nerdy American guy is set-up with beautiful contestants flown in from all over the globe, who compete for his affection. The winner receives a green card. (The State Department wouldn’t allow it.)

There were other near misses for the duo in the reality field — a competition called Jocks Vs Nerds that a producer told them MTV liked so much it had considered putting the show on TV five days a week. (The show never aired.)

They developed a hybrid scripted- reality series called Anchorwoman (tag line: ‘‘Would you trust a bikini model to deliver the news?’’) that Fox cancelled after its first night. They also started writing spec scripts together.

The first was titled WASPloitation, a comedy inspired by Martha Stewart’s prison sentence. Among the others was Kamikaze Love, an action comedy about a down-on-his-luck bartender who falls madly in love with a Japanese woman who has been trafficked into the US to marry a Yakuza boss.

Every year, a Hollywood executive named Franklin Leonard conducts a survey of popular but unproduced screenplays called the Black List. In 2007, Kamikaze Love made the cut, receiving more mentions by studio executives than many movies that went on to be produced, including Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Sony Screen Gems bought Kamikaze Love, and in the years since, it has been passed from one Sony subsidiary to the next. Lavin and Damiani aren’t totally sure who has it now. On the strength of that script, Lavin and Damiani started getting commissions to develop other people’s projects, a lot of them involving IP.

Brett Ratner enlisted the pair to write the adaptation to the comic-book series Youngblood. The deal fell apart. They wrote Max Steel, based on the Mattel toy property for Paramount. The movie ended up being made, but not based on their script. Warner Brothers enlisted them to write a screenplay for another comic-book movie called Capeshooters.

When they were approached by Vinson, the first thing they did was download Fruit Ninja.

Lavin called Damiani after playing for a while. They agreed: There was nothing there. Just fruit. Their previous work, though, had shown them that having less to work with provided a greater degree of creative freedom.

Lavin and Damiani spent hours discussing the essence of Fruit Ninja. “For me, it is the messiness, the immediate release of destroying fruit,” Damiani told me. For Lavin, the soul of the game is the feeling of “frenzy”.

“There’s like a 60-second version of it where you can see how fast you can kill fruit,” he says, which “puts your brain in this weird, bizarre focused place.”

As he sees it: “This would be the movie to go see stoned. I can imagine going in and seeing it in 3D — just imagine a 20-foot-high pineapple monster. That shot of yellow and orange. I’d go see this movie a dozen times.”

While they were developing the movie, Damiani and Lavin were also attending career days at elementary schools in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood. Sometimes they went to four classes a day. These gave them the opportunity to do some informal market research.

 

Every time they brought up the script they were working on, they found the same reaction. The kids would “put their hand in the air, raise a finger and start swiping like crazy”. Lavin told me: “Whatever movie we wrote, it had to be an extension of that energy, that desire to tear up everything in your path and take charge.”

Early on, Lavin and Damiani struggled to find a narrative entry point. They started with the premise that there was a magic book and an evil fruit overlord. Vinson rejected that idea. Their next concept involved scientific experiments on fruit gone wrong.

Vinson didn’t like that either. Eventually, a working narrative emerged: Every couple of hundred years, a comet flies by Earth, leaving in its wake a parasite that descends on a farm and infects the fruit. The infected fruit then search for a human host. The only thing keeping humanity from certain doom is a secret society of ninjas who kill the fruit and rescue the hosts by administering the “anti- fruit”.

The produce-slaying saviors are recruited from the population based on their skill with the Fruit Ninja game. With civilization in imminent danger, a cadre of unlikely heroes materialises — a little boy, a college- age girl, two average guys. The action starts after each of the story’s heroes returns home after a horrible day and plays Fruit Ninja to relieve some stress.

Damiani told me this aligns with the Fruit Ninja brand.

“Anybody can play. Anybody can be a master.”

With the story intact, Vinson, Lavin and Damiani started ironing out a pitch. They’re known around town for being good in the room. Lavin has a background in theater; Damaini does improv comedy and teaches clowning. Their presentation was 35 minutes — fast moving, full of laughs.

“It felt a lot like how you develop clown work,” Damiani told me. “You play and improvise to keep the energy up — and register what works. I’m always looking for the hot spot — the person giving us the best energy. That might not be the big boss. It might be a junior. Keep them laughing, and it spreads.”

They estimate that they gave 25 to 30 presentations, five of which were at different film divisions within Sony. They met with four different Chinese companies. To keep their act feeling fresh, they added seemingly improvised asides and digressions. “If it’s too polished, the execs feel like they’re at a Ted Talk, and then you see the eyes go to the window,” Damiani says.

Everyone they pitched was enthusiastic, but no one pulled the trigger. “I love this. Can you come back and pitch it to my boss?” was a popular refrain.

They presented in a room where an executive laughed so hard that she cried. But still, no one was biting. Three months into the process, they presented at New Line Cinema, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. New Line always has a strong slate of comedies and horror movies, but family fare hasn’t traditionally been a priority. Vinson didn’t think anything would come of the meeting. This time, however, the decision makers were in the room. And they bought Fruit Ninja.

This doesn’t mean the movie will definitely be made. There are a million considerations that could affect its production — scheduling, budget, the studio head’s reading the script while in a foul mood. In fact, Lavin said that his project’s future will depend, to a certain extent, on the performance of The Emoji Movie.

“We really want to see The Emoji Movie succeed, because it’s like proof of concept with these IPs,” he says. “But the success of that movie can result in two very different things. Both are a form of enthusiasm. One is: ‘OMG this is happening! We like this script. Let’s get moving.’ Or it can result in: ‘Wow, they did a really great job. Let’s slow down and take a real good look at what we’re doing with “Fruit Ninja.”

The paths Fruit Ninja could take from here are practically infinite, anything from being spiked to having the Lego franchise’s wild success, which is perhaps best embodied by Bricksburg, the 15,000 sq ft facility in Hollywood where the producer Dan Lin was part of a team that created the entire Lego universe. It is a shrine to everything Lego — there’s a cactus made of Legos, a Lego bat signal — and to the possibilities of non narrative IP.

This year has brought the release of The Lego Batman Movie, which will be followed by The Lego Ninjago Movie and, in 2019, by a sequel to the first film. I visited Bricksburg earlier this year, and Lin,who is 40-something but looks 20-something, joined me at the end of the tour.

He invited me into a secret room, tucked down a small passageway hidden by a trap door next to a water cooler, where he and his colleagues go for device- free brainstorming.

He told me about how he came up with the idea for The Lego Movie in 2009, after watching his five-year-old son playing with the bricks — the sound effects and dialogue, the way he made those pieces zoom around the room.

The company was interested, he discovered, in expanding their reach with children as they enter their teenage years, which they called, Lin said, ‘‘the dark ages”. Lin wanted to make something his son could watch. What resulted felt lightly subversive — the villain is named President Business — but also managed to uphold the basic tenets of the Lego brand: Imagination, free play, creativity.

Lin didn’t know when he was making The Lego Movie that it would inspire so many other movies based on toys, games and apps. When I last spoke with him, over the phone, I got the sense that birthing an entire generation of cynically made movies weighed on him.

Companies call him all the time, he told me, asking if he can do for their company what he did for Lego.

“You know, 95% of brands are not Legoizable,” he said. When I told him about the Fruit Ninja script, he let out a little gasp.

“Oh, my gosh,” he said. “Who’s making that?”

The New York Times


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