Activision Blizzard Launches Studio, Plans 'Call of Duty' Cinematic Universe

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - H 2014
'Skylanders' will be an animated series featuring the voice talent of Justin Long and Ashley Tisdale.

Video game giant Activision Blizzard is launching a studio to create movies and television shows based on its intellectual property, hoping to jumpstart franchises and cinematic universes, including one based on its best-selling Call of Duty games.  

Named Activision Blizzard Studios, the division will be run in part by Nick van Dyk, who formerly oversaw corporate strategy and was involved in the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm while an executive at Disney. Van Dyk will act as co-president with another senior exec to be named soon.

“Our most important asset as a company is our audience, and in order to ensure that our audiences is always appropriately entertained at the level of excellence that we've come to be known for, we have to ensure that anything that relates to any of the company’s franchises is produced or developed with the same commitment to excellence that we have,” said Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. “And the only way we could see ensuring that that would happen would be to do it ourselves.”

Kotick is said by insiders to have ambitions to turn Activision into a media conglomerate and has for a long time had his eye on Hollywood. He also had an extended cameo in the Brad Pitt baseball drama Moneyball.

The first project from the studio will be an animated television series based on Skylanders, the video game series featuring magic and floating islands that was a pioneer in the toys-to-life category akin to Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions. Skylanders is a $3 billion franchise that has a sold more than 250 million figures since 2011, according to Activision.

The show is currently in production and will feature a voice cast that includes Justin Long as Spyro, Ashley Tisdale as Stealth Elf, Jonathan Banks as Eruptor and Norm Macdonald as Glumshanks. Harland Williams and Richard Horvitz are also part of the production, which has Futurama writer Eric Rogers as showrunner.

Very high on the to-do list is adapting Call of Duty, one of the biggest video games of all time and one that the company is hoping turn into a cinematic universe. Activision said Friday that the first Call of Duty movie could be released in 2018 or 2019.

Beyond that company execs were mum on their plans, but it's easy to see how a universe could be created. When the first-person shooter games were initially released, they were set in World War II. Later, they were updated to be set in modern times. The more recent games, released in this decade, have been set in the near future.

The series has sold over 175 million copies, generating sales of over $10 billion, according to the company.

With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has for years tried to nab screen rights to the title, as well as other games. Sony was among those vying, but Kotick said the company is not in talks with any studio at this time. Nor is he focusing on any distribution deals.

“Our focus will continue to be maintaining creative control over our content, and we’ll address distribution once we are in the place where we feel like we’re delivering the very best story-based content,” he said.

At this stage, Activision is not looking to partner on distribution (Kotick said that will be tackled on a franchise-by-franchise basis) nor on co-financing deals.

“We’re a $26 billion company,” he said. “We intend to finance through equity.”

Added van Dyk: “Unlike other forms of IP, we are part of a robust and cash-generative and financially healthy parent. That said, this IP is in such high demand that we’ll have unbelievable partnership opportunities from traditional as well as new sources.”

One reason the company isn’t worried about distribution at this stage is the unveiling of Activision Blizzard Studios follows days after the announcement of plans to acquire King Digital Entertainment, the creators of Candy Crush. King not only develops games but distributes them via social media. Activision says that, combined with their reach via platforms such as Xbox and now King's audience, the company's reach exceeds half a billion people.

"We want our audiences to experience our linear content wherever it's most convenient," said Kotick. "We're going to be very open-minded and agnostic to distribution opportunities."

And it's an audience that is actively engaged, according to van Dyk.

"Our fans spent about 13 billion hours last year with our content, which is a flabbergasting amount," he said. "That is roughly comparable to every movie seen in every theater around the world, every single ticket combined."

Updated Nov. 6, 6:00PM to clarify that Kotick is not running the studio division.