'Hitman': The fine art of picking games for movies
One can practically count on the fingers of one hand the number of live-action movies-from-games that have gotten the thumbs up from audiences -- the "Resident Evil" and "Tomb Raider" series, "Mortal Kombat," "Silent Hill," and -- are we out of fingers yet?
But all that could change if Adrian Askarieh has his way.
Askarieh is the producer of "Hitman," the big-screen, big-budget adaptation of the four "Hitman" first-person shooters published by Eidos and developed by its Copenhagen-based Io Interactive studio. Poised to be released by 20th Century Fox on Nov. 21, "Hitman" stars Timothy Olyphant as Agent 47, possibly the world's only genetically engineered professional assassin with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head.
Askarieh has plenty more where that came from. While "Hitman" is his first movie-from-game, he has two others waiting in the wings, beginning with "Spy Hunter," which is in preproduction. Based on Bally Midway's classic 1983 arcade game, the movie is scheduled for a 2009 release with Paul W.S. Anderson ("Alien Vs. Predator") directing. Next up, also in 2009, will be "Kane & Lynch," based on the Io Interactive game "Kane & Lynch: Dead Men" which Eidos releases Nov. 13 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Lionsgate Films acquired the screen rights and Jieho Lee ("The Air I Breathe") is set to begin directing shortly.
Askarieh believes that video games can be unusually potent source material for films.
"I don't go after video games because they are video games," he explains. "I go after them because of their strong concepts, strong characters, and strong stories. The fact that they are video games -- and appeal to the video game demographic -- is just icing on the cake."
Askarieh admits to being a gamer, which is how he was introduced to the source material in the first place. "I was attracted to the 'Hitman' series, for instance, because I was fascinated by the idea of an assassin with a very unique look and a very unique history. His is a wild world that is absolutely cinematic, and that was the key factor for me."
A former entertainment attorney and now an independent producer and head of Los Angeles-based Prime Universe Prods., Askarieh believes that other movies-from-games have failed "because their creators were too conscious of the fact that they were making video game movies. If there's a secret to all this, it's to retain what attracted you to the video game property in the first place. Treat the game as legitimate source material, develop a great script, and then create the best movie you can. Don't keep telling yourself that you're only making a movie based on a video game; the minute you do that, you'll wind up with a throwaway film that feels like a video game."
The two biggest past mistakes, says Askarieh, is that movies-from-games were made by people who had no respect for the source material. "They would say, 'OK, the game sold 10 million copies worldwide in the last seven years' -- as 'Hitman' did -- 'so let's cash in and turn out the movie.' That's a recipe for failure right there. Secondly, they made movies that only appealed to video game fans. Why would you want to limit your audience that way?"
What is unique about Askarieh's technique is that he is a firm believer in going it alone without the assistance of the original game makers. That's an unusual philosophy given today's standard practice of movie and game makers working closely together. Take, for example, the two teams creating the movie and the video game "Beowulf" -- at Sony and Ubisoft, respectively -- who recently indicated that an important ingredient to their expected successes was their close working relationship.
But Askarieh doesn't see the advantage to involving the game makers: "Look," he says, "making a movie is making a movie and making a game is making a game. People who make games don't make movies and vice versa. So there was no need for them to be involved other than to send them the script and get their notes, which we did. And then we went off to make the movie. Nothing wrong with that."
At Io, Jans Peter Kurup -- who was one of the developers on all four "Hitman" games ("Hitman: Codename 47," "Hitman 2: Silent Assassin" "Hitman: Contracts," and "Hitman: Blood Money") -- doesn't disagree.
"I haven't seen the final film so I don't really know my reaction yet to what the movie makers did," he notes. "But it's one of those things where you have to let go. If you want to influence something, you'd better be 100% sure that you're good at it, and I'm not terribly sure that 'Hitman' would become a better movie if a bunch of game makers were running around with ideas."
Observers might point out that the movies-from-games that have suffered the most have been the ones that deviated considerably from their origins, witness "Super Mario Bros." and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." However, Askarieh believes that his new film captures the spirit of the games despite the lack of input from the game makers.
"We've got a brand new plot that is an amalgamation of many of the scenarios in the four 'Hitman' games," he says. "Does it capture the same look and feel as the game? My God, absolutely!"
Askarieh recognizes the fact that filmmakers have stayed away from video game-based source material because of the lack of success of such movies, but he believes that will soon change.
He may be right. Currently in production -- or preproduction -- are "Alone in the Dark II," "Castlevania," "Doom 2," "Driver," "Everquest," "Gears of War," "Max Payne," "Metal Gear Solid," "Postal," "Soul Calibur," "Splinter Cell," "Stranglehold," "Street Fighter," "The Sims," "Warcraft," "Tomb Raider III" and possibly "Halo" (depending on who you ask), among dozens of others.
"This is a brand-driven world right now," Askarieh comments. "If you want to stay competitive and if you want to make successful movies, you need to make movies based on big brands. Video games are right out there -- front and center -- and everyone's playing them. If you can get the best writers, the best directors, the best film makers ... and then remain true to the endeavor of making a good movie, irrespective of what the source material is, I don't think there's any question that movies based on these properties are the way to go."
Paul "The Game Master" Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. H has covered the games industry for more than a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.