Ubisoft bulking up for movies

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French video game publisher Ubisoft is entering the CGI entertainment business in a big way, with plans to invest almost $400 million in an expansion of its production center in Montreal with a goal to make movies.

During a news conference Friday attended by Quebec Premier Jean Charest, Ubisoft said it wants to build a team of 3,000 employees in the province by 2013, with 500 staffers dedicated to CGI. The forecast exceeds current development objectives through 2010 by an additional 1,000 jobs.

Ubisoft said the expansion of its facilities will result in an additional investment of as much as $383.9 million during the next six years. Quebec will offer tax credits, job training and other support worth as much as $16 million. The facility would become one of the largest for digital entertainment in the world.

Ubisoft, which entered Quebec in 1997 and now has 1,600 employees there, will focus on delivering short CGI films at first, beginning in the fall with an eight-minute CG film promoting the next-generation console game "Assassin's Creed." This early content will be digitally distributed over the Internet and to such outlets as iTunes and Xbox Live Marketplace, likely offering some content for free and an extended content experience for a price.

"With the short films, we're going to learn how CGI production works," Ubisoft CEO and co-founder Yves Guillemot said in an interview. "We'll insert product placement in the short films so we can monetize them. Our goal is to work more closely with Hollywood studios and talent so we can eventually make movies at the same time we create the games."

Over the next five years, Guillemot said the Montreal studio will explore other opportunities, including CGI TV shows and portions of feature films.

"What we see in the future generation of consoles is they will allow us to play games in real time, which is the equivalent of what you see today in CGI movies," Guillemot said. "We will work and learn all the technology and know-how so that when it's time for the next console launch in five years, we'll be ready for games and movies that are at the right level."

Guillemot said Ubisoft is hiring people from Hollywood and CGI companies so the video game creators can learn how to create these movies.

"We're looking for the best talent interested in movies but also interested in learning more about creating video games as well, so they will not only give things to us, but they'll also learn how interactive entertainment is made," Guillemot said.

Ubisoft's Montreal studio worked with director Peter Jackson and Weta on the "King Kong" game last year, and it's finishing up a game based on the Warner Bros./Weinstein Co. CGI property "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Ubisoft also is working with Sony Pictures Animation on games based on such CGI features as "Open Season" and "Surf's Up."

"We see how Sony Pictures Animation operates, and we're learning a lot from them," Guillemot said. "We learned a lot of things from Weta on 'King Kong.' And we're also working with other Hollywood studios that we haven't announced yet, and we're learning from them."

Guillemot said Ubisoft will continue to secure Hollywood-licensed games. But moving forward, the company might not just buy the rights for a game but also help in the creation of the movies on which the game is based. He sees the process unfolding in steps, possibly with the new studio creating parts of a CGI film before moving on to creating an entire CGI film.

Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 "will already help to increase the synergies between Hollywood and video games, but where it will be really strong is the next generation of consoles," Guillemot said. "With these current consoles, we'll see good synergies, but with what we expect with the next machines, it will be incredible. We have to really work now to prepare the tools for that generation."
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