Blasts from the past

Studios increasingly mine libraries in search of videogame gold

From “Scarface” to “The Godfather” and “Reservoir Dogs” to “Dirty Harry” and “Taxi Driver,” classic movies will be getting new life via high-profile games in the next year.

And as for 007? While Sony’s still trying to figure out the superspy’s next chapter on the bigscreen, EA is hard at work on its sixth Bond game, based on 1963’s “From Russia With Love.” Sean Connery has been signed to voice the character he originated more than 40 years ago.

Eager for high-profile intellectual property to get gamers’ attention but looking to avoid the costly licenses and tight deadlines that can come with games tied to new movies, publishers are increasingly looking to older movies that still have cachet.

In addition, studios get what’s essentially free money for titles sitting in their libraries. If they want to up the ante, they can tie games into other marketing opportunities, as Universal is doing with Majesco’s “Jaws” game that will be timed to the 30th anniversary DVD re-release.

As media congloms increasingly see back catalogs as key engines for growing revenue (witness the Sony-led $4.8 billion acquisition of MGM), games are becoming an increasingly important part of the equation, next to the dominant DVD.

Because of the time it takes to make an A-list game and the care studios take with their classic properties, it’s only now, about five years after Hollywood got serious about vidgame licensing, that a number of classic movie-based games are close to coming out.

“We have always looked to our library for creative consumer products ideas, but with a crown jewel like ‘Godfather,’ you have to do a lengthy due-diligence process on the team and the creative vision,” says Sandi Isaacs, who oversees game licensing for Paramount.

In a few cases, like “Godfather” and “Jaws,” the properties are so iconic that the leap to a game platform seems a natural. Some titles are drawing on interest stoked by other media.

” ‘Scarface’ still resonates in today’s culture in large part because it has become celebrated in the hip-hop community,” says Ed Zobrist, senior VP of global marketing for the game’s publisher, Vivendi Universal Games.

Developers say such resonance with the gaming demo is one of the key elements they look for when adapting a classic movie.

“We have a set of criteria for identifying them,” says Universal interactive VP Bill Kispert. “There should be an iconic character or world; a cult following or affinity group that will respond to it; and, if possible, an upcoming media event around the property to help with marketing.”

One thing that’s not necessary seems to be approval of those involved with the original movie. While a number of actors from the original are lending their likenesses or doing voice work for these new games — including Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Connery — “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola has publicly rapped Paramount and EA for making a game based on the pic.

Studio execs note that they own the rights and while participation from creatives is always welcome, it’s not necessary. After all, games are serious business in Hollywood.

While some classic movie licenses go for less than new pics, others can be a windfall. Because they don’t come with the onslaught of studio marketing support that a new movie receives, advances against royalties for classic movie licenses are typically mid-six figures as opposed to mid-seven figures for a new big-budget pic.

But license costs can reach seven figures for the biggest classics, like “The Godfather.” Once a classic is an established hit in the gaming world, the rules of the market take over. After several hit games made with one-off deals, it’s estimated that MGM netted around $50 million for the seven-year license it gave Electronic Arts in 2003 for “James Bond” games.

With millions in license fees floating around, studios are only going to look more intently at opportunities to adapt games from older film titles. U is searching for the right opportunity to exploit its roster of monsters, while Par sees possible gold to mine in its John Wayne Westerns.

If any of the next year’s slate of movie-classic games hit big, publishers are sure to start searching for more. How about gamers walking the streets of L.A. in Humphrey Bogart’s shoes or trekking along the yellow brick road in Dorothy’s ruby slippers?