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Animated Games: From the Small Screen to the Big

Karen Raugust looks at how PC and console videogames are making their way into films and other media while film directors, writers and actors are setting up their own gaming companies.

The Next Frontier: successful videogames like Halo 2 are the basis for a new crop of upcoming Hollywood movies. All Halo 2 images courtesy of Bungie Studios.

The Next Frontier: successful videogames like Halo 2 are the basis for a new crop of upcoming Hollywood movies. All Halo 2 images courtesy of Bungie Studios.

If the number of properties in development is any indication, console and PC videogames look to be the next frontier for Hollywood studios seeking stories and characters to translate into film. Leading videogame titles from Doom to Spy Hunter are being transferred to the big screen as the lines blur between videogames, films and other entertainment media.

A lot of people in Hollywood are looking at videogames as the next phenomenon, says Reilly Brennan, director of media relations at Midway Games. They have a built-in fan base and the fans are passionate about the franchise. Gamers tend to go online and discuss upcoming game-based films during development and production, which drives word-of-mouth and boosts opening weekend box office.

The sheer size and loyalty of the videogame customer base makes these properties attractive to the entertainment industry. In 2004, consumers purchased $7.3 billion worth of console, PC and handheld videogame software, according to figures compiled by the NPD Group for the Entertainment Software Association. Halo 2, one of the best-selling games of that year, generated $125 million in retail sales on its first day of availability. That compares to $40.4 million in box office take for the hit film Spider-Man 2 on its first day in theaters.

Videogames have also become part of pop culture. MTV has a series called MTV Video Mods, where videogame characters star in music videos, lip synching to pop artists. Meanwhile, Playboys September 2004 issue featured a spread of female videogame characters in provocative poses. They had a very big media-focused explosion around that issue, says Liz Buckley, senior product manager at Majesco Entertainment, whose BloodRayne is being developed into a film and whose lead character appeared in both Playboy and MTV Video Mods. That shows the mass-market appeal of videogame characters these days.

BloodRaynes appeal to both men and women gamers will hopefully translate to big box office at the end of the year when a feature film starring Kristanna Loken and Ben Kingsley is released. Courtesy of Majesco Ent.

BloodRaynes appeal to both men and women gamers will hopefully translate to big box office at the end of the year when a feature film starring Kristanna Loken and Ben Kingsley is released. Courtesy of Majesco Ent.

Crossing the Lines

Many videogame companies are looking at their properties, from the start, as having cross-media potential. BloodRayne was one of Majescos first original intellectual properties. We always planned it as a franchise with legs. Franchises resonate well with our target, says Buckley. Fans look for sequels, she explains, and are interested in seeing their favorite characters in TV, comicbooks or films.

BloodRayne was published in 2002 and the sequel, BloodRayne 2, in 2004. A Sony PSP version is in development for later this year. Majesco is also looking at another of its proprietary properties, Advent Rising, a 2005 release with script by sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card, for potential in other media.

Majescos work to extend BloodRayne into mass-market media paid off when it was approached by Uwe Boll, a German director known for his work on videogame-based films including Artisan Entertainments House of the Dead, based on a Sega property, and Ataris Alone in the Dark. A distributor has just been signed for the BloodRayne movie, which will be released at the end of the year and stars Kristanna Loken, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Rodriguez and Michael Madsen.

Majesco also was approached by comicbook publisher Echo 3 Worldwide, a new company specializing in videogame-based comics. It is publishing BloodRayne as the first property under its Digital Webbing imprint, with four issues scheduled for 2005.

Majesco redesigned BloodRayne as it was being developed so it would have broader, mass-media potential. You need to design characters you not only want to play as but learn more about, Buckley says. [BloodRayne is] an interesting mix of sexy and dangerous and formidable. There has to be enough character appeal to extend into these other media.

Buckley adds that both men and women find the star of BloodRayne attractive, and that makes her more appealing to Hollywood. Like many videogame characters, the property features lots of blood and gore and is not for consumers under 17.

Spy Hunter, a classic franchise that started in the 80s, will be a feature release next summer starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson. © 2004 Midway Home Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

Spy Hunter, a classic franchise that started in the 80s, will be a feature release next summer starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson. © 2004 Midway Home Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

Atari is another company looking into creating multimedia franchises. It announced in March 2005 that it had entered into a multiyear, exclusive agreement with Spark Unlimited, best known for creating the videogame Call of Duty: Finest Hour, to develop properties for all media. The partners expect their first joint game to release during the 2006 holiday season and they hope to exploit it in film, television and consumer products.

Even as they look to extend their brands, videogame companies dont want to lose sight of their core competency. Were in the game business, says Brennan of Midway, whose Spy Hunter, a classic franchise going back to the arcade days of the 1980s, will be released by Universal Studios in summer 2006 as a film starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson. [Film revenues] are ancillary revenues for us.

Yet Brennan points out that Midway, like other videogame companies, wants to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Were in the game business, but as a videogame company were also an entertainment company. Midway was one of the first videogame publishers to extend one of its properties into films, authorizing two Mortal Kombat movies in the mid-1990s; there is also a line of Mortal Kombat comicbooks.

Brennan explains the convergence of online entertainment, downloading, DVDs, films, TV and games logically has led to more crossover among these media. Its the same consumer, he says. People want it that way.

Death Jr. is taking a different path to the big screen. It makes its debut as a PSP game later this year, then it will appear as a comicbook and an anime-style TV series while it is developed as a feature film. © 2005 Backbone Ent.

Death Jr. is taking a different path to the big screen. It makes its debut as a PSP game later this year, then it will appear as a comicbook and an anime-style TV series while it is developed as a feature film. © 2005 Backbone Ent.

Backbone Entertainments Death, Jr., which is debuting with a Konami-published game for the PSP later this year, is being released as a comicbook, developed for a film by Backbones management company, Circle of Confusion, and being translated to an anime-style TV series by Madhouse Studios. The film has a director (Lawrence Guterman of Cats & Dogs and Son of the Mask fame), a producer (Orange Grove Entertainment) and a first draft of the script.

Backbone has retained all the rights to Death, Jr. In contrast to many other properties, which have built a proven sales record before moving into other media, the company has attracted interest in the property from Hollywood even before the first game has been published.

To create the best game possible, Backbone felt it needed to create a backstory and an entire world, so it hired a writer to develop a comicbook to use as a promotional and focus-grouping tool. We used [the comic] as proof of content, explains Chris Charla, senior producer at Backbone. Can the content work in a comicbook?

The comic ended up being a popular give-away at Comic-Con, and generated interest from Hollywood, including the management company and Image Comics, which will produce a color version of the Death Jr. comicbook series. One thing led to another, says Mike Mika, Backbones creative director. Were learning the process as we go along.

Traveling Talent

One indication of the growing synergies between videogames and filmed entertainment is the crossover of talent between the two. Several videogame creators have been hired to work on television and film properties, including Jordan Mechner, creator of Ubisofts Prince of Persia, who is working with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and Sims creator Will Wright, who has a first-look deal with Fox to create television series, to name just two of many reported examples.

Meanwhile, film directors, writers and actors are showing increased interest in the gaming industry. Action-adventure director John Woo formed a videogame company, Tiger Hill Entertainment, which has partnered with Sega to co-create and publish videogames based on original and existing Woo and Sega properties. Tiger Hill, whose first game under development is called ShadowClan, wants to explore the potential for its properties in other media as well, and plans to announce initiatives in comicbooks and toys shortly.

Similarly, actor Vin Diesel formed Tigon Studios to create original videogame franchises that can be translated into other media. It partnered with Bryan Singer, director of the X-Men movies and The Usual Suspects, to develop an original franchise about a U.S. secret service agent.

Director John Singleton wrote and directed elements of the game Fear & Respect starring Snoop Dogg. Paramount is developing the property as a feature. © 2004 Midway Home Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

Director John Singleton wrote and directed elements of the game Fear & Respect starring Snoop Dogg. Paramount is developing the property as a feature. © 2004 Midway Home Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

Midway Games was working with rapper Snoop Dogg to develop an urban action videogame when director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), an avid videogamer who wanted to get involved with the industry, came on board. He wrote the script and directed the cut scenes and voiceovers for Midways Fear & Respect game, which Paramount is currently developing into a film, according to Brennan. Another Midway game, also in development at Paramount, is the first-person action title Area 51, which shipped in April and benefited from Hollywood voice talent including David Duchovny and Powers Booth, as well as singer Marilyn Manson playing an alien.

The story aspect of games has taken a huge leap in the last four to five years, Brennan says. Each game has its own unique plot, rather than all being similar to each other; dialogue and scripts are increasingly like movies; characters have more personality and backstory; and the storyline is more important. We want to bring more emotions out of game players, Brennan explains. Game companies seeking these qualities often turn to Hollywood scriptwriters, which in turn makes the game more appealing to the entertainment industry.

In addition to the examples cited earlier, other videogame properties in development include Microsoft Games/Bungie Studios $600 million franchise Halo, for which Alex Garland (28 Days Later) has reportedly been retained to write the script, and id Softwares Doom, scheduled for release this year by Universal Studios. Microsoft and id both declined to be interviewed for this story.

Creative Challenges

Game studios and developers retain various levels of creative and financial involvement in films or other media vehicles based on their properties. They may help finance the project, finding a studio to distribute it later, or they may seek studio involvement and financing upfront.

Creatively, game developers typically retain approval rights, so they can ensure that the entertainment vehicle doesnt harm or contradict their characters image. They also provide the studio or licensee with art and background materials. As the IP rights holder, any core features or traits are within our realm, says Buckley.

In some cases, game studios may contribute more to the development of a film, comicbook or TV series. The creators of the videogame could act as directors, producers or writers, for example. This added engagement is likely to become more frequent as more Hollywood talent participates in developing videogames and then becomes involved in subsequent media releases as well.

No matter who is doing the adapting, several challenges face those who attempt to translate games to the screen or page. Videogames tend to be heavy on action and, despite an increasing emphasis on development, relatively light on the plot and characterization that are central to filmmaking. They are nonlinear, versus the straight storytelling of film. And many are first-person games, where the player assumes the persona of the main character, versus the third-person point of view of a film. Youre watching The Rock be the guy you were, Brennan says.

Hollywood is hoping to capitalize on the mega-success of games. Halo 2 generated $125 million in sales on its first day of availability compared to $40.4 million in opening day box office receipts for Spider-Man 2.

Hollywood is hoping to capitalize on the mega-success of games. Halo 2 generated $125 million in sales on its first day of availability compared to $40.4 million in opening day box office receipts for Spider-Man 2.

Hardcore videogamers tend to be tough critics of entertainment tied to their favorite game characters, and some videogame-based films of the past have been perceived by fans as simply advertisements for the games rather than well-crafted, stand-alone entertainment. On the other hand, the fact that films and videogames have different strengths and points of view means they can complement each other, if done right, compounding fans interest in the property.

You have to stay true to the franchise and speak to the fans first, says Brennan, who adds that theres a fine balance between not alienating the fans and still appealing to a mass market. You can include little scenes for fans that the average viewer wouldnt get, he suggests, such as revealing a secret from the game or including an obscure character that would strike a chord with gamers.

Charla and Mika of Backbone Entertainment recommend working with experts in each medium and letting them do their own thing. With Death, Jr., We wanted the videogame and the comic each to be their own and the best they could be, Charla says. One indication of how different the two media are: Charla says the first three-comic series based on Death, Jr. totals 128 pages, but he estimates that all the content translates to about four minutes of full-motion video in the game. Conversely, all the action in the game translates to roughly one page worth of panels in the comicbook.

Over the last 10 years, Backbone has developed more than 200 titles and is best known for creating games tied to well-known franchises such as Disney characters. The better games we made were when we had freedom, says Mika. The license holders were much happier when they gave us that freedom.

That lesson translated to Backbones efforts to extend Death, Jr. As Charla says, We wanted to give [our partners] the freedom to do what they do.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).

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