French film biz has new player

Europe's No. 2 gamer sees future in 3-D animation

It's not unusual for movie companies to make inroads into the video game sector, with any hit action picture or kids animation likely to have its associated game spinoff.

French video game developer and publisher Ubisoft is looking to make the transition in the opposite direction by developing films based on its multimillion-selling game brands. The No. 2 independent game publisher in Europe, with revenue of €680 million ($981 million), is positioning itself to become a major player in the 3-D animated movie sector.

"Our initial objective is to work on our catalog of intellectual properties with existing brands. Then we'll look at developing fresh game/movie combinations," Ubisoft president and CEO Yves Guillemot says. "We want to conceive the two products at the same time."

Guillemot says the company will proceed with caution on a five-year plan to acquire the know-how and build a reputation in the film community. The studio will work initially on short films, partly to gain experience and expertise but also to demonstrate to potential partners what it is capable of. Then the studio hopes to move on to feature-length animated films as well as TV series and films aimed specifically at Internet audiences. "The first thing is to prove ourselves creatively with short films," Guillemot says.

Ubisoft has committed to an initial investment in the tens of millions of dollars. "If it's a success, it should be easy to attract the hundreds of millions necessary (to make feature-length movies)," Guillemot reckons.

Ubisoft is actively recruiting 3-D animation talent as well as writers from the film and TV world to develop scripts. Among the 70 already hired is Frederic Thonet, who came from Gallic special effects house Duran Dubois to head CGI operations for Ubisoft.

Ubisoft's aim is to build an animated film studio with 500 employees based in Montreal, where the company already employs 1,500 people for its game activity.

The cornerstone of Ubisoft's strategy for the shift into film is that the next generation of consoles, due to come on stream in the next three or four years, will herald a step shift in graphic capabilities. "This will allow the non-playing characters (NPCs) in the game to have much more detail. They will be able to have a life as actors. There is not enough machine power currently, but the next generation will allow the NPCs to convey emotions more strongly," Guillemot says. "For the next generation of games, we need to have learned to make characters that are similar to CGI films of today."

He is clear about one thing: To make films, you have to have intellectual properties with strong brand recognition, and that is one thing Ubisoft certainly has. Its games catalog includes 11 multimillion-selling brands, topped by "Rayman," which has sold more than 20 million units worldwide. Other faves are the tactical shooter "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell," with 18 million units sold, and combat title "Prince of Persia," with more than 10 million units sold.

The first short film will not, however, come from any of the above but will be adapted from the forthcoming game "Assassin's Creed," about a hit man on a Middle East mission during the Third Crusade, set for worldwide release this month. The short film based on the game is due to go into production early next year and completed by summer.

Others likely to be adapted soon include the first-person shooter "Far Cry," with 3 million game sales behind it, and the auto title "Driver."

The Ubisoft executives spearheading the film studio project are acutely aware that video games and movies are very different animals. "We're aware it's another trade and it needs to be learned. The keys to quality and success are not the same and they don't require the same talents," says Domitille Doat, head of the Ubisoft film studio. "The production process is similar once you have the story, but without a strong story, you can't do anything."

So will the Paris-based company be looking for a French touch in the style of its animated films? Not at all, says Doat. "We're recruiting core teams for the film studio mainly in the U.S. It's easier for Americans to have a universal viewpoint, and they're very strong in screenwriting," she says.