Majors, gamemakers join for more features

Hollywood can turn comicbooks, action figures, even theme park rides into billion dollar franchises, but has yet to prove it can do the same for vidgames.

That may soon change as studios, thirsty for brand-name source material, have learned lessons from past box office busts, and are willing to collaborate more closely with vidgame makers looking to protect their core franchises with more faithful adaptations.

The vidgame biz generates $21 billion each year — connecting with a huge group of consumers the studios want to turn into ticketbuyers. Last year’s top game title, “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” earned more than $1 billion for Activision Blizzard.

Despite the disappointing B.O. results that destroyed the franchise dreams of previous vidgame adaptations, including “Double Dragon,” “Street Fighter,” “Max Payne,” “Silent Hill,” “Doom,” “BloodRayne,” “Wing Commander” and “Super Mario Bros.,” studios around town are now picking up more rights to titles than ever.

The studio saw the potential of breathing new life into the “Mortal Kombat” vidgame series and the opportunity to exploit the game’s colorful characters and overall conceit not only at the megaplex but across Warners’ various divisions.

“We always thought Midway had the chance to take ‘Mortal Kombat’ to another level,” says Martin Tremblay, president of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. “Since we acquired the company (in 2009), we have treated ‘Mortal Kombat’ like a tentpole release.”

The studio hasn’t been shy in saying it would like to produce a new series of “Mortal Kombat” films, and would pair Boon with a filmmaker to make that happen. (Boon has already endorsed Tancharoen to helm the pic.)

“It’s important to have the creator of the game involved,” Tremblay says. “This is a team effort. You’re not developing a franchise without the support of the entire organization.”

Midway also owned the rights to “Spy Hunter,” “Space Invaders,” “Pac-Man,” “Rampage” and “Joust,” which WB wants to develop as films.

Owning Midway should help speed up the process of getting those pics produced, just as owning and controlling DC Comics is expected to benefit the launch of superhero pics.

Large game publishers including Activision Blizzard, Atari, Capcom, Electronic Arts, Square Enix, Take-Two and Ubisoft, and developers Eidos, Rockstar and Naughty Dog all have high-profile projects set up at the majors around town, including “Hitman,” “Kane and Lynch,” “Just Cause,” “BioShock,” “Red Dead Redemption,” “Dark Void,” “God of War,” “World of Warcraft,” “Infamous,” “Lost Patrol,” “Twisted Metal” and “Uncharted.”

Screen Gems recently landed Capcom’s “Devil May Cry” as a companion to “Resident Evil.” The first “Tomb Raider” was a hit for Paramount, but the sequel put a bullet in the franchise for that studio, and GK Films is now working on a reboot.

Electronic Arts, the industry’s second-largest gamemaker, launched a film division in 2008 to control how its projects wind up onscreen. It’s also a client of Hollywood agency UTA.

While the film arm has yet to produce any live-action features, the division has feature versions of “Dead Space,” “Mass Effect,” “Army of Two,” “The Sims,” “Spore,” “Madden NFL” and “Dante’s Inferno” in development, and has teamed with DJ Caruso, Chris Wedge, John Davis, Scott Stuber, Temple Hill’s Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, Strike Entertainment and scribes like Scott Z. Burns and Dan Harris to tackle some of the projects.

None of the pics are close to getting a greenlight, but that hasn’t stopped EA pursuing other projects, including direct-to-DVD animated features tied to “Dead Space” and “Dante’s Inferno,” as well as a Web series for “Dragon’s Age,” along with novels, comicbooks and merchandise.

“Our fans love our universes and want to consume it in different ways,” says Pat O’Brien, veepee of EA Entertainment. “We’ve got different stories to tell, and a movie or television show is a great way to do that.”

O’Brien admits that keeping the process moving is hard in the film biz. Film is just one piece of the multiplatform transmedia strategy EA has embraced for its properties.

“The slowest boat in the transmedia waters is the film boat,” O’Brien says.

“When we’ve collaborated, the (projects) that turn out the best are the ones we’ve been involved with,” O’Brien says. “We own the IPs (intellectual property), we know our fans and know the characters. It’s a mistake for anybody to have anything but a hands-on approach.”

Vidgamers also are recognizing the potential a film adaptation of a hit title has in exposing a title to nongamers, which could then create new fans for the game and subsequent installments.

“The right movie for the right title brings a significant mass awareness to (the game),” O’Brien says. “It increases the footprint of the title and keeps our fans engaged with it.”

Producers welcome the input of gamemakers.

“We pursue their input,” says Ari Arad, who is behind upcoming film versions of “Uncharted,” “Mass Effect,” “Twisted Metal” and “Infamous.” “They’re a big asset. Their point of view comes from a very mature place. These are very professional creatives” who oversee $100 million projects and lead large staffs.

Arad has experience in adapting well-known properties, having worked with his father Avi Arad to get Marvel Comics’ film division off the ground. Now independent, the duo most recently wrapped lensing a new take on the publisher’s “Ghost Rider” character, which Sony will release next year.

“We generally stay pretty close to the game, but staying faithful to your source material isn’t like a checklist,” Ari Arad says. “Stuff that’s really thrilling to play may not be as thrilling to watch.”

But with “Uncharted,” which has Mark Wahlberg attached to star as adventurer Nathan Drake with David O. Russell helming, “everything that feels great in the game, we’re taking,” he adds.

“They’re justifiably protective,” Arad says. “These games are very expensive to make and are huge profit centers. When you have a bad movie, that can disrupt your revenue source and may not be enough to warrant risking the brand.”

Adds O’Brien, “Anybody who owns a big, valuable brand would rather have no movie than a bad movie.”

Atari, in the midst of trying to reboot itself, may not have an inhouse film division just yet, but the company has set up “Asteroids” at Universal, “Missile Command” with Fox and “Roller Coaster Tycoon” at Sony.

Atari has a hand in packaging talent and script approval rights, with ICM helping reach out to filmmakers.

“I am not a moviemaker, but I appreciate the value of our IPs,” says Atari CEO Jim Wilson, who has an entertainment background, having worked for Disney and Universal. “We’ve been very selective on what we’ve done.”

The company will also look to build key franchises in other categories, which includes film and TV.

Arad is eager to reinvent the notion that movies based on games are guaranteed to be critical and box office duds.

“There was a period when people were suspect of comicbook movies,” he says. “Now when a bad comicbook movie come out, people just shrug. Hopefully we can get games there.”

One lesson learned from misfires is that you can’t alienate the core fanbase. To that end, studios have started enlisting gamemakers to give creative input on scripts, actors, directors, even set design. For studios, which had previously walked away from a game’s creators once film rights had been bought, this relationship is something new.

Warner Bros. has taken things one step further, acquiring publishers outright for full control of their properties.

The first “Mortal Kombat” film came in 1995, when New Line Cinema adapted Midway’s popular series of fighting games into a movie, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, that took in $122 million, but the sequel earned just $51 million, stalling the franchise.

That strategy was on display last week when WB launched a rebooted “Mortal Kombat” game developed by the franchise’s creator, Ed Boon, who returned the title to its gritty roots. Launch was backed by comicbooks published by DC Comics, soundtracks and consumer products.

The studio also gave gamers a look at what a new live-action film may wind up looking like through “Mortal Kombat: Legacy,” a Web series that Warner Premiere produced and is rolling out through Machinima.com over the next two months. Kevin Tancharoen (“Fame”) helms.

Game companies are seeing the value in working closely with development execs, or even launching film units themselves.

Still, collaboration with Hollywood is going to be key to producing a film that benefits both the studios and the game publisher, O’Brien stresses.

Despite all the attention, gamemakers aren’t rushing to get film versions of their properties made.

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