Scrounging for Hits, Hollywood Goes Back to the Video Game Well

LOS ANGELES – For 28 years, since “Super Mario Bros.” Hollywood came out with the slogan “This Ain’t No Game” and tried – epic, famous – mostly to turn hit video games into hit films. For every “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001) that made Angelina Jolie an A-List action star, there was a nonsensical “Max Payne” (2008), a hideous “Prince of Persia” (2010) and a wincing “Warcraft” (2016).

If video games are the comics of our time, why can’t Hollywood figure out how to break them down accordingly?

It could finally happen, partly due to the proliferation of streaming services and their need for intellectual property to use. “The need for well-established, globally responsive IP has naturally led to gaming,” wrote Matthew Ball, a venture investor and former head of strategy for Amazon Studios, in an essay titled “7 Reasons Why Gaming IP Is Finally Ending” last year “Film / television. “

After years of inactivity and false starts, Sony Pictures Entertainment and its PlayStation-based sibling Sony Interactive are finally working together to turn PlayStation games into mass-produced movies and TV shows. The Sony Pictures pipeline contains 10 game customizations, a huge leap from virtually none in 2018. That includes Uncharted, a $ 120 million adventure based on a 14-year-old PlayStation property (sold more than 40 million Copies). “Uncharted” plays Tom Holland, the reigning Spider-Man, as Nathan Drake, the treasure hunter at the heart of the game franchise. It’s slated to hit theaters on February 18th.

Sony is starting production of “The Last of Us,” a HBO-aligned series based on the post-apocalyptic game of the same name. Pedro Pascal, “The Mandalorian” himself, is the star, and Craig Mazin, who created the Emmy Award-winning miniseries “Chernobyl”, is the showrunner. Executive producers include Carolyn Strauss, one of the forces behind Game of Thrones, and Neil Druckmann, who led the development of Last of Us.

Sony games like Twisted Metal and Ghost of Tsushima are also featured on TV and in film. (Contrary to speculation, which according to a Sony spokesman will not be published, at least not shortly: God of War.)

In the past, Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive operated as a fiefdom with creative control – it’s mine; no, it’s mine – disabling adjustment efforts. When Kenichiro Yoshida took over the management of Sony in 2018, he called for cooperation. The ultimate goal is to make better use of Sony’s online PlayStation network to bring Sony movies, shows and music directly to consumers. Launched in 2006, PlayStation Network has more than 114 million monthly active users.

“I’ve seen a radical change in the way different parts of the company work together,” said Sanford Panitch, Sony’s film president.

The game customization boom extends well beyond Sony.

“Halo,” a series based on the Xbox franchise about a war between humans and an alien alliance (more than 80 million copies sold), will appear on the Paramount + streaming service early next year. Steven Spielberg is executive producer. Lionsgate is adapting the Borderlands games (around 60 million sold) into a science fiction film starring Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Thanks to the success of “The Witcher,” a fantasy series adapted from games and novels, Netflix has had shows based on the games “Assassin’s Creed”, “Resident Evil”, “Splinter Cell” and “Cuphead” on the way. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the duo behind HBO’s Westworld, are developing a science fiction show for Amazon based on the Fallout video game franchise.

And Nintendo and Illumination Entertainment, the Universal Pictures studio responsible for the Despicable Me franchise, have an animated Mario movie coming out next year – another new collaboration between a game maker and a film company.

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May 21, 2021, 3:55 p.m. ET

Even so, Hollywood’s track record of customizing games is terrible. Why should the upcoming projects be different?

For starters, the games have evolved themselves and have become more complicated and cinematic. “Games have stories that are so much more developed and advanced than they used to be,” said Panitch.

There is also evidence that Hollywood has figured out how to make game-based films that please audiences and critics alike. “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” which brought animated creatures together with live actors, raised $ 433 million worldwide for Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment in 2019 – and was the first major game customization in three decades to receive a “fresh” award for “Rotten.” Tomatoes’ website received for review and aggregation. Since then, two other adaptations, “Sonic the Hedgehog” (Paramount) and “The Angry Birds Movie 2” (Sony), have been critical and commercial hits.

“The quality has definitely improved,” said Geoff Keighley, creator of the Game Awards, an Oscar-like ceremony for the industry.

The latest game-to-movie entry, “Mortal Kombat” (Warner Bros.), received mixed reviews but has grossed $ 41.2 million since its release last month in the US, a surprisingly large sum if considering it was released on HBO at the same time as Max and the theaters were still operating with strict coronavirus safety protocols.

Mr. Panitch acknowledged that “video game films have had a checkered history”. But he added: “Failure is the mother of invention.”

For example, game customizations have often stalled because of an attempt to rigidly recreate the action and storylines that fans know and love. This approach invites comparison, and films (even with sophisticated visual effects) almost always can’t keep up. At the same time, such a “fan service” turns off non-players, resulting in films that do not connect with a particular audience.

“It’s not just about fitting the story,” said Michael Jonathan Smith, who leads Sony’s efforts to turn Twisted Metal, a 1995 vehicle combat game, into a television series. “It’s about adjusting your feelings when you play the game. They have to be characters that are important to you. And then you can slide in the Easter eggs and story points that fans absolutely love. “

“Uncharted” is a prequel that creates origin stories for the characters in the game for the first time. With luck, storytelling like this will satisfy fans by giving them something new – and at the same time invite non-gamers who might otherwise worry about not knowing what’s going on, to buy tickets. (One of the producers of “Uncharted” is Charles Roven, best known for the “Dark Knight” trilogy.)

“It’s a matter of balance,” said Asad Qizilbash, a senior executive at Sony Interactive, who also runs PlayStation Productions, a company founded in 2019 based on Sony’s film in Culver City, California.

Unlike in the past, when Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive committed to collaborate and ultimately did not, the current collaboration “carries weight because there is a win for everyone,” added Qizilbash. “We have three goals. Increase audience size for games. Take the product to Sony Pictures. Present the collaboration. “

There is a lot at stake. A cinematic flop could hurt the gaming franchise.

“It’s risky,” admitted Mr. Qizilbash. “But I think we can do it.”

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