Activision's Studio Test: Can Video Games Make Movie Franchises?

Call Of Duty - H 2015

The gaming giant will try its hand at converting gamers into moviegoers when the film adaptation of the best-selling 'Call of Duty' series hits theaters as early as 2018.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The new mission for Call of Duty? Dominate the box office.

On Nov. 6, publisher Activision Blizzard disclosed the launch of a studio to create movies and television shows based on its video game properties. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the launch, CEO Bobby Kotick explained the move as a way to ensure that new entertainment based on Activision IP "is produced or developed with the same commitment to excellence that we have" and noted that the only way to ensure that happens "would be to do it ourselves." 

An animated series adapted from kids franchise Skylanders already is in production with Justin Long, Ashley Tisdale, Jonathan Banks and Norm Macdonald lending voices. But the real test will be adapting the best-selling Call of Duty world into what new studio head Nick van Dyk calls "a cinematic universe," with a film bowing as early as 2018.

Moviegoers and critics largely have been unkind to game adaptations, with 1993's Super Mario Bros. and 2005's Dwayne Johnson starrer Doom among the flops. "There have been more misses than hits," says analyst Daniel Loria, who notes Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the Resident Evil franchise as exceptions.

But van Dyk, who worked for nine years in corporate strategy and business development at Disney, says Activision is approaching its push into Hollywood with caution. "We're going to have more control over IP," he says. "We'll control the creative from development through production through marketing, all of which enables us to do a much better job of serving our audience and new audiences with great content."

The military-themed Call of Duty, which has sold 175 million-plus copies during its 12-year lifespan, boasts 100 million players Activision believes it can convert into movie viewers. Activision already boasts its own video-on-demand and electronic sell-through capabilities, but a moviegoing experience isn't out of the question either. "A large theatrical presence for certain franchises makes sense," says van Dyk, adding that the company could handle domestic distribution on its own (how, he declined to say). He adds: "I'm not saying we're going to do that, but it gives us a phenomenal position from which to engage in partnership conversations with traditional distributors." 

Some analysts are skeptical about the potential to make money on these projects. "They're doing this to promote their brand and then merchandise that by selling more units overall," says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. But van Dyk says Santa Monica-based Activision doesn't view the new studio as a loss leader: "We will hold the profitability of these projects to the same high standards that Activision has across the board, but it's going to amplify our core business." 

Kotick surely will keep close tabs on several 2016 releases, including his company's Warcraft (made with Legendary Pictures and distributed by Universal), Rovio's The Angry Birds Movie (from Sony) and Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, starring Michael Fassbender and distributed by Fox. It could take just one hit from among these films to make video game adaptations hot again, says Loria. "Before the year 2000, superheroes had the same role in the industry," he says. "Batman was on a shelf somewhere, but then X-Men came out followed by Spider-Man. Today it's a grossly different thing." 

How Activision approaches its first COD film could set the stage for future projects. "You better make sure you're shepherding the project the right way," says Loria. "With existing IP going out to cinemas for the first time, you can't afford to misfire."