H’wood Raids Its Past For Interactive Fodder

Seeking to squeeze more bucks from film libraries, Hollywood studios are rummaging in the vaults for old movies on which to base new interactive entertainment. But not every classic may be suitable.

“I’m doubtful that ‘Ninotchka’ is going to be made into a videogame,” opines MGM’s Home Entertainment Division chief, David Bishop.

Maybe not, but plenty of other projects are being pulled from the vaults.

The life and career of Marilyn Monroe, as portrayed in clips from feature films and Movietone News, soon will be available as a CD-ROM with a book tie-in from Fox Interactive and HarperCollins, both part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire.

MGM/UA is eyeing its James Bond oldies for interactive possibilities, in conjunction with the upcoming release of its new 007 installment “Goldeneye.” The “Rocky” series and the sci-fi cult classic “Rollerball” may also become interactive.

“Top Gun,” the 1986 Tom Cruise vehicle, is now a CD-ROM “action flying game” developed by Spectrum Holobyte through a licensing arrangement with Viacom Consumer Products, on behalf of Paramount Pictures.

Stratospheric sales of the “Top Gun” game are predicted by Neil Johnston, products manager for Spectrum Holobyte’s flying games division. He’s betting on name recognition, even if the game doesn’t feature Cruise. The game company’s relationship with Paramount already has yielded “Star Trek” as a title sure to wring the dollars from Trekkers’ wallets.

How far back is Johnston willing to go into Paramount’s vault for interactive fodder? How about the studio’s 1954 Korean War battle epic “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” starring William Holden?

“If it moves fast and/or shoots, I want to make a game out of it,” says Johnston.

Genre based

Christine Ross, director of Viacom’s consumer electronics division, says the choices for interactive material begin with genre – say, comedy or Western themes – followed by a search for film titles to fill the bill. Or they may find films, such as the “Naked Gun” series, on which to base interactive titles.

“I’d like to see a flight-simulator spoof based on ‘Airplane!’ “says Ross.

Paramount’s TV vaults also are being searched for reusable items. One upcoming product is a screen-saver based on TV shows of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, from Andy Griffith to “Happy Days” to “Mork and Mindy.”

A unique approach to an old (but still current) title is the “Star Trek Technical Manual,” which was both a book and a CD-ROM using clips from the TV series. Published by Paramount’s sister company, Simon & Schuster, the book explored the cockpit of the mythic Starship Enterprise through the printed page, while the CD-ROM allowed cybernauts to explore the ship on a computer screen.

Ted Hoff, head of 7-month-old Fox Interactive, says he is primarily tapping the film production pipeline and trying to get a jump on the 15-to 18-month CD-ROM development process by reading scripts when films are greenlighted.

Hoff is delving into the Fox vaults, but don’t look for a game based on the studio’s 1962 WWII epic “The Longest Day.”

“I don’t see going back and making a game out of an old movie,” says Hoff. “The title won’t mean anything to the demographic that buys it.”

Instead of picking vintage titles for single products, Fox is looking for a blend, as in its Marilyn Monroe interactive biography on CD-ROM.

Easy fit

The project is a natural for Fox, since the actress did most of her movies for the studio, meaning clips are freely available. Fox’s ownership of Movietone News also offers incentive for the documentary approach. Moreover, Fox’s tie-in with HarperCollins, which has published Monroe biographies, gives an organizing scheme to the project.

“What you don’t want to do is just re-purpose a film,” says Hoff. “People want to explore with interactive. You have to give them stuff they’ve never seen before. Let them go behind the scenes. Give them a sense of discovery.”

The downside, however, is the tangle of rights and residuals. Any full-motion video clip from any movie requires permissions and triggers residuals to actors, directors and screenwriters. MGM/UA’s recently released “Blown Away” game was developed minus film stars Tommy Lee Jones and Jeff Bridges, and had no movie clips beyond explosion effects, due to the complexity of the rights issues involved.

Without the stars from the big screen to interact with on the small screen, how much interactive value is there in an old movie title?

Hollywood’s talent guilds are watching closely several pending lawsuits by writers against companies reusing their published work on CD-ROM. The outcome could affect how studios go about tapping vintage titles for interactive entertainment.

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