Willis playing ‘Apocalypse’ now

Bruce Willis has received an equity interest in L.A.-based company Activision and profit participation as well as a fee for his work on an upcoming vidgame, “Apocalypse.”

Activision is combining digitally scanned images of Willis’ face with “motion capture” footage – a process in which an actor wears sensors and his movement is logged by a computer to enhance realism of the game character – and using voiceovers by the actor.

“It’ll look like Bruce, sound like Bruce and move like Bruce,” said Alan Gershenfeld, Activision VP of creative affairs and production.

Rather than fighting against Willis’ character in the futuristic action game, players will team up with him. “It’s the equivalent of a buddy picture in a game,” Gershenfeld said.

The title will be released on Sony’s PlayStation platform later this year.

The deal was brokered by the William Morris Agency’s Arnold Rifkin, who is Willis’ agent, and Lewis Henderson of WMA’s new media department. While neither Activision nor WMA would disclose terms, analysts estimate the deal is worth around $2 million.

The deal marks the first time a major Hollywood star has formed such an alliance with a vidgame company. Other actors have lent their images to original CD-ROM and Internet projects or even appeared in filmed footage, but none of these thesps has been A-list. When likenesses of major stars have been included in vidgame properties, they’ve generally been gleaned from existing movie or TV footage.

In other cases, actors have done voiceovers for documentary-type CD-ROMs, such as the work Jodie Foster did for a disc called “Reel Women.”

Virtual Willis

Activision, a publicly traded company that moved from Silicon Valley to L.A. to gain proximity to the entertainment industry, said the decision to go with a virtual version of Willis was deliberate.

“Film and video are not inherently interactive on an action level; they’re linear,” said Gershenfeld. “With a completely virtual Bruce, you can manipulate him in real time.”

Activision has worked with William Morris on previous transactions with writing and producing talent. Gershenfeld acknowledged that the game company’s existing relationship with the tenpercentery helped cement the Willis deal.

“Our previous deals have worked out very well. If that hadn’t been the case, it might have been different: A lot of interactive companies have hit hard times and are struggling. Agencies have to be careful about who their clients work with,” he said.

Gershenfeld himself comes from the film production business, having previously served as an exec at Pressman Films. “There’s been a lot of bad acting in computer and videogames, so the concept of an actor appearing in interactive entertainment has gotten a bad reputation – not entirely undeserved,” he said.

In the past, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has acknowledged that agents were leary of letting their clients appear in vidgames, fearing that a failure in that market would be more damaging to a career than a failure at the box office.

Difficult deal

“This type of deal isn’t an easy thing to pull off,” agreed Gershenfeld, adding that it “took years of work” to get to the point where a top star would sign on for a vidgame project.

Industry sources said Willis’ equity participation in both the title and the company were keys to making the deal happen. “He’s not going to get anywhere near the money he’d get for a film,” said a source. “But he’s taken risks in the past with other interesting opportunities that have been presented to him, whether for movies or something like Planet Hollywood, so he’s open to new things like this.”

Sources speculate that Willis’ deal may pave the way for other marquee talent to get involved with digital media. “Companies like Microsoft are getting greater access to talent. The payment will have to come in unique forms, but we’ll see more deals like this start to happen,” predicted one.

Unlike many other publicly traded vidgame companies, Activision’s stock price has remained fairly steady over the past year, trading in the range of $9-15. In its report for the second fiscal quarter of 1997, which ended Sept. 30, 1996, the company stated that its net revenues and gross profit margin had both improved over the previous year’s second quarter.

Activision’s stock closed at $15 on Tuesday before news of the Willis deal had reached the markets.

Analyst Mike Yocco of Paul Kagan & Associates follows both the film and vidgame businesses. He praised CEO Kotick for striking a deal with a top star who has appeal to vidgamers.

“For the niche market that likes action films and PlayStation games, Bruce Willis appeals to those people,” Yocco said. He added that in Japan, where PlayStation has a relatively large installed base, Willis is a big box office draw.

Gershenfeld said Activision is concentrating on the production and release of “Apocalypse” before turning to other potential properties with Willis.

But, said Yocco, “Kotick knows he has something here. This may be a multigame deal, with room for sequels, especially since they’re giving Willis participation.”

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