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05.05.10

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Toy Stories

The Magic 8 Ball's relentless legs

By Daedalus Howell


In the early days of the web, circa 1997, there was a plethora of Magic 8 Ball applications online that enabled users to make queries about the future without risking a repetitive motion injury from shaking the real deal. Among them was Marin-raised Jake Donham's incarnation, which received a "cease and desist" notice from Tyco Toys Inc., then makers of the octo-oracle.

"The purpose of this letter is to advise you that the use of the trademark Magic 8 Ball and of the game marketed by Tyco under 'Magic 8 Ball,' whether online or by any other means constitutes willful infringement of our trademark, copyright, trade-dress and other intellectual property rights," read the letter. Donham, a computer science grad from Yale who created the application as a lark to demonstrate common gateway interface scripts, was not impressed.

Instead of kowtowing to a company that printed vagaries on icosahedrons suspended in purple water, the programmer, in an act of sublime simplicity, rotated the ball 90 degrees and rechristened it the "Magic Infinity Ball." For kicks, he added a link to Tyco's legalese. Soon, thousands of Magic Infinity Balls littered the Internet.

A decade later, those who want to prognosticate about the future can now use their iPhones—yes, there's an app for that—though none are officially licensed Magic 8 Ball apps. There's the Fortune Ball, the Magic Banana and even a Magic Toilet, which one flushes for one's fortune. (Apparently, there's a crap for that.)

None of these knock-offs, however, could predict that Hollywood would start raiding the toy chest to slake its voracious thirst for the "high concept." Thus, coming soon to a theater near you, Magic 8 Ball—the movie.

Remember when the toys would follow the release of a successful film? At worst, marketing dollars were leveraged across channels with toys and sundry other choking hazards licensed to the purveyors of Happy Meals? These days, toys are more apt to precede their movies, arriving onscreen as vetted properties with existing market awareness, ready-made for adaptation.

Hasbro, the multinational toy and board game company, raised eyebrows, and its stock price, with the roll out of several toy-themed film franchises in recent years. Among them were the profitable Transformers flicks and the recent G.I. Joe origin myth. It stands to reason then that Mattel, which acquired Tyco in the late '90s (after dropping a bid to acquire its "perennial rival" Hasbro, according to the New York Times), would also stake its claim in the sandbox. As the producer of the beloved Barbie and Matchbox lines, Mattel's gambit would seem a no-brainer. But the Magic 8 Ball? No one saw it coming.

Thank Hasbro for setting the bar so low. After having shot its wad with its A-list properties, it reached deep into the collective closet of American youth to bring Candy Land, Battle Ship and (gulp) a Ridley Scott–directed Monopoly to the silver screen.

"Well, Stretch Armstrong will probably be our first movie out," Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner told media and tech blog Collider.com last year. Since then, principal cast has been announced with teen-wolf Taylor Lautner of Twilight fame playing the fantastic elastic dude for a Universal Pictures release in 2012.

Meanwhile, Paramount, who partnered on Hasbro's aforementioned G.I. Joe and Transformers and perhaps felt a tad jilted, doubled back and joined Mattel on the Magic 8 Ball movie. Meanwhile, Shady Acres, the company that brought you middle school marvels Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty (and their respective sequels and spin-offs), has had its own "Magic 8 Ball" film listed in development since September of last year. Is this the same film? Or will they have to turn it on its side and produce the Magic Infinity Ball film instead? In which case, has anyone called Jake Donham?

Donham says no, so it seems the ball is in Mattel's court. Fortunately, a film about an oversized fortune-telling billiard ball couldn't be any worse than Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space, in which a foreseer opined, "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives." Or as the laconic ball might say, "You may rely on it."

Daedalus Howell tells the future at DHowell.com.


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