Videogame-to-film crossover success has been spotty, but Ubisoft believes it has broken the code for a potential 'Splinter Cell' franchise
The videogame industry has a problem when it tries to turn its top franchises into movies: They don’t usually work.
The reason is simple. In most cases, there’s little to adapt. And if there is, the best parts already have appeared in a film or two, considering most games tend to be developed by cinephiles who are quick to pay homage to moments, even designs, from past favorites.
With that in mind, French gamemaker Ubisoft enlisted some outside help as it looked to launch “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell” as a potential film franchise starring Tom Hardy. The most recent game, “Splinter Cell: Blacklist” is out now.
Ubisoft’s Toronto studio tapped production company Starlight Runner to pour over the history of the games and their spinoffs to produce a so-called bible that breaks down every element of the series, including detailed descriptions of characters, their signature moves, types of weapons used, plot points and locations.
In so doing, Ubisoft’s film arm, Ubisoft Motion Pictures, headed by former EuropaCorp exec Jean-Julien Baronnet, essentially wants to avoid having another “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” on its hands. The pricey actioner, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and released by Disney in 2010, was meant to launch a new family-friendly franchise but got buried at the box office as the film failed to capture the essence of the game that made it a hit.
Similar books that Starlight Runner has produced for other clients, including Disney and Bruckheimer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Men in Black,” and Microsoft’s “Halo,” have run hundreds of pages. The tomes are elaborate productions that resemble the kind of art- or coffee-table books that a high-end publisher like Taschen would create: The “Pirates” volume is bound in leather, with a skull and crossbones embossed on the cover. The book for “Men in Black” weighs nearly 20 pounds and is bound in silver nitrate fabric.
The bible, or “franchise assessment,” for “Splinter Cell” will be equally lengthy, given that Starlight Runner has had a lot to sift through.
Ubisoft has released seven “Splinter Cell” games since 2002, along with a graphic novel, digital comicbook and novels, all with original storylines revolving around Sam Fisher, a former Navy Seal and CIA operative who carries out missions for a top-secret initiative within the National Security Agency.
Fisher’s a weighty character with enough tormented backstory and flaws for a screenwriter to work with, but putting a finger on just what elements of the games would make for a good movie could prove a little overwhelming given the amount of material on hand.
While “Splinter Cell” already was popular, Ubisoft wanted the Fisher character and his world to become more distinct and recognizable in a way that could engage not only the game’s existing fanbase but also newcomers to the series. That’s especially key as the gaming industry becomes increasingly competitive, with more bigger-budgeted games vying for attention each year.
“In videogames there are a lot of stealth action games and spy games,” says Starlight chief executive Jeff Gomez. “It’s all about identifying what makes it different from anything else. What will distinguish these games that are so amazing to look at is the story, and how you resonate with the character.”
In the “Splinter Cell” games, Gomez’s team kept coming across the notion of the Fifth Freedom. The concept, briefly mentioned in the games, refers to the 1941 Four Freedoms address Franklin D. Roosevelt gave on the eve of U.S. entry into WWII. The address examined the essential human liberties FDR felt should be protected: freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear.
“The underlying foundational notion of ‘Splinter Cell’ is the fi fth freedom, (the one) granted to Sam Fisher to do anything necessary to preserve those four other freedoms,” Gomez says. “It’s fascinating, and I think it’s going to become a significant aspect of the property.”
Starlight is considering the concept as akin to James Bond’s “license to kill” — and latching onto it like the magic in “Harry Potter” or the Force in “Star Wars.” “There’s something potent in this that informs how ‘Splinter Cell’ stories can be told moving forward across any medium,” Gomez says.
Ubisoft’s team of gamemakers knew about the Fifth Freedom, but hadn’t made it a focal point of the games. “It was always there, but it was only a subtext,” Gomez tells Variety. The Starlight topper believes the concept can add a layer of complexity to the narrative: “(With) what this character is going to have to grapple with, how far does he have to go before he loses his soul and betrays everything he stands for?”
That’s heavy stuff. But finding things like the Fifth Freedom is why Jade Raymond, who oversaw the development and production of “Splinter Cell: Blacklist,” the latest game in the series, turned to Starlight Runner in the first place. As a gamemaker, Ubisoft was too close to the property to identify what could turn it into the kind of iconic franchise that can cross over into novels, comicbooks, movies and future games.
Says Baronnet: “When we started Ubisoft Motion Pictures, we wanted to be able to maintain creative control of our franchises. We wanted to be in a situation where we’re not making mainstream movies but movies that can respect the DNA of our game franchises.” In order to do that, it needed to know the details of that DNA.
Gamemakers are so focused on developing gameplay — how characters move, what set pieces need to be designed, what villains need to be fought — that character development is often left by the wayside.
“The Sam Fisher character has evolved a little bit over the course of the past decade from game to game, but it’s always been secondary to the plot,” Gomez says. “When you’re thinking of a transmedia strategy, you have to flip those things. You have to think what his ethos is and what his underlying world is all about.”