Why Video Game Companies Are Taking More Control Over Their Movies

Issue 2 BIZ Pacman Illustration - P 2013

Issue 2 BIZ Pacman Illustration - P 2013

From '"Prince of Persia" to "Doom," Hollywood can't seem to pull it off -- so the makers of "Assassin's Creed" and "Call of Duty" are taking matters into their own hands.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

From books to plays to theme park rides, Hollywood has a long history of transforming successful intellectual properties into box-office hits.

But when it comes to video games, the track record is surprisingly dismal. Despite sales figures that have made film executives drool -- Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 grossed $1 billion in 15 days in December, and Modern Warfare sold $400 million in a single day in 2011 -- only one film based on a video game, 2001's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, has ever crossed the $100 million threshold domestically ($131 million).

Even with the backing of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Disney's $200 million Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time failed to connect with audiences, taking in only $91 million domestically in 2010. (It fared better overseas.) And the holy grail of modern gaming, Microsoft's Halo, is languishing in development hell.

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While the low success rate has scared off a few video game execs, some are trying to change the game, so to speak, by wresting some creative control of their lucrative properties back from the studios. After being creatively shut out of the adaptation of Prince of Persia, French game publisher Ubisoft launched its own motion picture division two years ago with a stable of European industry veterans, including CEO Jean-Julien Baronnet, the former head of Luc Besson's EuropaCorp.

"Movies based on video games have been successful, but not as successful as people thought they might be or could be relative to the success of the video games themselves," says attorney Matt Galsor, who reps Ubisoft and orchestrated the company's deals with New Regency to bring the video game publisher's Assassin's Creed and Tom Clancy: Splinter Cell to the big screen. "The question is: how do you get the gamers to love the movie the way they love the game and all of the other ancillaries? Ubisoft kind of figured that out by having a true collaboration."

Ubisoft set out to develop its most popular properties and package them with A-list stars before taking them to the studios. To wit, it attached Michael Fassbender to star in and produce Assassin's Creed -- Ubisoft's top-selling franchise, with 40 million units sold -- and signed Tom Hardy to Splinter Cell (26 million units sold) before Galsor struck deals for both properties at Regency, which beat out Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros. for the rights. The projects are now seeking directors, with the hope that Assassin's Creed could be in theaters before the end of the year.

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"These packages are exactly what we want to reflect -- mainstream but high-quality movies," explains Baronnet. "We don't want to just make popcorn movies."

Traditionally, Hollywood has been reluctant to grant much if any creative control to video game makers. But that strategy has done little to ingratiate a potentially lucrative fan base or yield hits. Instead, there has been a litany of bombs, such as Universal's Doom ($56 million worldwide), Sony's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within ($85 million) and Fox's Max Payne ($85 million).

Among the genre's few highlights are Screen Gems' moderately budgeted Resident Evil films, based on the Capcom game. The apocalyptic franchise, toplined by Milla Jovovich, has spawned five films and is nearing $1 billion in worldwide box office.

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"When we developed the first screenplay, director Paul W.S. Anderson flew to Tokyo and spent a great deal of time with the game creators," says Resident Evil producer Jeremy Bolt. "We listened to their comments and respected their positions and that of the fans as much as we could. We see that as part of the success."

The lesson is that if Hollywood wants to harness the heretofore untapped box-office potential of the gaming community, it needs to enlist gamemakers in the process. Electronic Arts, for one, is being very hands-on. The Los Angeles-based game titan developed a script based on its popular Need for Speed games with writers George and John Gatins (Flight) before taking it out to studios last year. Since DreamWorks bought the project and put the film into production with star Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), EA vp of entertainment Patrick O'Brien has been involved in all of the key decision-making.

"If you want a global tentpole, Hollywood has to make it for you," says Galsor, a partner at LA's Greenberg Glusker. "But what the video game companies know is what the fans like. If you could combine that, so that the video game people can preserve in the movie that which the fans love with the studio's ability to make good movies, then you should have the fans of the game seeing the movie."