H’wood’s new big game hunt

Production shingles again try to tap into $9.4 billion business

This article was corrected on Apr. 5, 2002.

After failing miserably in the late ’90s to adapt the vidgame biz’s biggest titles into blockbuster pics, the major studios have hit the reset button. They are acquiring another raft of game properties, making the risky bet that their popular appeal will readily translate to the big screen.

Blame it on vidgame industry envy: Last year the biz surpassed the film industry’s B.O. earnings for the first time, collecting $9.4 billion in revenues, thanks to new consoles from Microsoft and Nintendo, along with continued success of Sony’s PlayStation 2. The industry’s previous record was in 1999, when vidgames generated $6.9 billion in sales.

Helping fuel the optimism is the $239 million in worldwide B.O. “Tomb Raider” generated for Paramount last year, and March’s surprising $18 million bow for Sony pickup “Resident Evil.”

Studios see plenty of exploitable elements in hit games: iconic characters, elaborate settings and explosive action, theatrically stylized animated sequences, hip soundtracks. Plus, there is a game franchise’s built-in audience ready to march to the local multiplex.

Yet “Raider” and “Evil” are rare exceptions. The only other successful vidgame-to-film adaptation is New Line’s “Mortal Kombat,” while the long list of failures includes the $145 million-budgeted “Final Fantasy,” one of last summer’s biggest B.O. duds.

And for every pic that makes it to theaters, a dozen more founder in development hell.

Three years ago, the major studios and indie producers went on a spending spree, buying the film rights to a slew of blockbuster games, including “Doom,” “Quake” and “Duke Nukem” only to discover that when an army of screenwriters were hired to adapt the games, there was nothing to develop.

Many games may have dazzling, multi-million-dollar visuals. But filmmakers enamored of the look underestimate the battle to adapt games’ rampant violence, paper-thin plots, laughable dialogue and the interactivity that can’t be replicated in theaters.

Game makers are often the ones borrowing from hit films. Microsoft’s sci-fi shoot-em-up “Halo” features imagery straight out of “Aliens” and “Starship Troopers.” Take Two Interactive’s “Max Payne” echoes the slow motion bullet-time effect that wowed auds in Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix.”

“Good games do not make great movies,” says Renaissance writer Danny Bilson. After scripting Disney’s “The Rocketeer” and exec-producing TV skeins “Viper” and “The Sentinel,” he was recruited by game giant Electronic Arts to script and spearhead development of “The Sims,” “Medal of Honor,” “Harry Potter” and James Bond actioner “Agent Under Fire.”

“There’s a feeding frenzy that doesn’t make sense,” Bilson says. “The game space isn’t famous for its great fiction. People who play games really know which ones are worthy of being a film or not, and there aren’t too many of them. I haven’t found one.”

A generation gap is also to blame, Bilson adds.

“The guys buying them are buying them because kids like them,” he says. “That’s their audience. They go, ‘That’s a hot title. Are the kids buying it? That sounds good.’ It’s a business decision.”

Over the past six months, studios have snatched up film rights to 10 of the biggest vidgame franchises on the market, including “Alice,” “Crazy Taxi,” “Crimson Skies,” “Dead or Alive,” “House of the Dead,” “Max Payne,” “Oni,” “Perfect Dark,” “Silent Hill” and “State of Emergency.”

At the same time, CAA landed Microsoft’s Xbox unit as a client to help the company shepherd its massive slate of games, like “Halo” and “Bloodwake” into pics.

Like Collision Entertainment, which is adapting “Max Payne,” “Alice” and “Doom,” pic producer Zide/Perry , which produced the “American Pie” pics and “Final Destination,” plans to regularly mine the vidgame space for movie ideas and is considering creating an entire division for the task.

“We’re slowly getting in that world,” says principal Warren Zide. “We’re trying not to do things the Hollywood way” — that is, by making a big splash in the business, followed soon by a big mess, and then a big pullback.

Zide/Perry is adapting Take-Two Interactive’s “State of Emergency,” created by Rock Star Games. It also was attached to develop Take-Two’s popular “Grand Theft Auto III” game into a film.

“What we’re doing differently here is buying the rights for a videogame based on its storyline, not on its sales,” Zide says. “Grand Theft Auto III” was 2001’s biggest hit, selling 3 million copies. “State of Emergency,” which bowed this year, is already a hard-to-beat hit.

To transfer that heat to the screen, however, a lot of pieces have to fall into place. Consider the challenges facing these top-sellers:

  • “Crazy Taxi,” a plotless driver game where players pick up and recklessly shuttle passengers to destinations like Taco Bell or KFC. Helmer Richard Donner is attached to the APG project.

  • “State of Emergency,” in which players violently fend off gangs and police while rebelling against the Corporation, a tyrannical group that has a city in an iron grip. Gratuitous mass violence, including gunshot blasts, decapitations and other messy blood letting takes place as hundreds of rioters loot stores and run around clutching stolen VCRs and TVs. New Line has picked up the rights.

  • “Dead or Alive,” a “Mortal Kombat”-like frenzied fighting game that pits heavily muscled characters against each other in an arena. Mindfire Entertainment (“Free Enterprise”) plans to begin shooting the Tecmo game later this year, hoping for a 2003 release. There is no distributor as of yet.

  • “Grand Theft Auto III,” in which players steal cars, beat up or kill a city’s locals and take time-outs with prostitutes while fleeing gangs and working jobs for mob bosses and crooked cops.
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