Hollywood rolls the dice on videogame brands for the bigscreen

Studios not turned away by few hits; more games headed to megaplex than ever

Hollywood hasn’t really scored much of a victory when it comes to turning high-profile videogames into film franchises, with few runaway successes to claim outside of Screen Gems’ “Resident Evil” series. But studios are turning to their videogame consoles more than ever, eager to take another try as they seek out properties with built-in brand awareness that could play at the megaplex.

Among the major titles that have either been set up at studios or picked up by producers over the past year include “Angry Birds,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” “Metal Gear Solid,” “Devil May Cry” and “Spy Hunter,” while “Need for Speed” has received a green light.

Also in development are “Halo,” “Uncharted,” “God of War,” “World of Warcraft,” “Mass Effect,” “Asteroids,” “Missile Command,” “Infamous,” “Twisted Metal,” “Dead Space,” “Army of Two,” “Just Cause,” a sequel to “Hitman,” and a reboot of “Tomb Raider.”

Expect the list to get even longer this year – especially as bold-faced names like Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy and Aaron Paul sign up to star in the pics, elevating the profile of the projects.

It’s not as if games have needed much help to gain respect, as Activision’s “Call of Duty” continues to break sales records with each installment.

The films are seen as a good promotional tool for the games biz.

“The more that the games industry can extend its brand to more consumers, the better,” says Martin Rae, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. “Any form of entertainment with a huge following and fantastic IP will inevitably create a film version. Now that games have become more and more a part of the mainstream it only makes sense that the film industry is jumping on the video game bandwagon to create their own big screen version.”

But the videogame industry isn’t in a hurry to help get the films made. They’re increasingly wary of starry eyed producers looking for an easy hit, and are haunted by previous failures like “Tomb Raider,” “Max Payne,” “Doom” and “Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,” expensive tentpoles that didn’t help attract new fans to the games they were based on.

In most cases, few gamemakers are involved in the adaptations, instead licensing the titles to studios and hoping for a good result.

But that’s starting to change, with French publisher Ubisoft taking a more hands-on approach to how its titles wind up on screen.

Through its two-year-old Ubisoft Motion Pictures arm, company is controlling how scripts for film adaptations of its games like “Assassin’s Creed” and “Splinter Cell” are developed, and has final say in casting and other deals. It locked down Fassbender and Hardy for both and brokered a co-production and financing arrangement with New Regency on the films, which Fox will now likely distribute through its long-standing relationship with the production company.

UMP chief Jean-Julien Baronnet, who once ran Luc Besson’s shingle EuropaCorp, has said it was necessary for Ubisoft to take a more active role in film in order to preserve the DNA of its games, which it considers “the fundamental pillars” when seeing them turned into movies.

“There is so much at stake,” he told Variety. “We don’t want to make games just for the sake of movies. We want to make them in concert with the games,” believing a successful film can help boost interest in a game franchise from consumers who may not have been familiar with a title, and as a result, sales.

Ubisoft felt it needed to have its voice heard, even if the demand for more control turned off majors like Paramount and Sony along the way. As they attempted to develop films to be released around the launch of a new game, publishers grew weary seeing their projects stuck in development hell, and watching directors and writers come and go.

Midway’s “Spy Hunter,” for example, has moved from Universal to Warner Bros. and once had John Woo and Paul W.S. Anderson, along with Dwayne Johnson attached. Ruben Fleischer (“Gangster Squad”) is now directing for Warner Bros.

Similarly, Legendary has been developing “Warcraft” since 2005, and after Sam Raimi left the project, has now tapped Duncan Jones (“Source Code”) to direct, aiming for a 2015 release.

“Gears of War” had been set up at New Line since 2007, before the company dropped it last year, and “Uncharted” is still trying to find the right tone and has “National Treasure” scribes Marianne and Cormac Wibberley tackling the project after director David O’Russell sought to rework the game’s characters in his adaptation, which had fans fuming. Neil Berger also came aboard but has since left the project open for another helmer.

Hollywood’s long cycle of development is one reason Microsoft took back control of its “Halo” franchise after setting it up at Fox and Universal as a co-production that Peter Jackson was set to produce with Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) at the helm. After the studios balked at the rising cost of the production and creative controls Microsoft demanded, the gamemaker decided to develop the film on its own with scribes like Alex Garland, in 2007, and still hopes to eventually fully finance the project in the future and exploit it across various platforms including consumer products.

Until that happens, it’s focusing on other projects like its $10 million 90-minute web series “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” which bowed around the launch of “Halo 4” last year, and continuing to publish a successful series of books and other projects that propel the “Halo” storyline forward.

“There’s so much more story that the books and other mediums have delivered,” said Kiki Wolfkill, executive producer of “Halo 4” at 343 Industries, which produced the game, replacing the franchise’s original creators Bungie Studios. “We want to get to a point where a movie makes sense.”

Wolfkill added that one obstacle to making a movie is casting an actor to play Master Chief, the franchise’s lead character who has never taken off his helmet in the games. “There’s a mysticque to him that’s worth preserving,” she said. “But there will come a time when it makes sesne to show his face.”

Yet there still are some positive signs that publishers and Hollywood are more willing to work together.

Besides the growing list of deals, producers are increasingly looking to develop scripts that reflect the game’s tone, character traits and elements of the gameplay – all things that made the games successful in the first place.

That means hiring screenwriters that play games and spending the 10 to 30 hours it takes to complete them.

“The challenge for any writer adapting a game to the big screen is putting that into a two-hour film,” Rae said. “It really comes down to finding what makes that game tick and what resonated with gamers, and being able to infuse that same feeling into the film. With a game like ‘Angry Birds,’ where the popularity really rests in the gameplay mechanics and endearing characters, its up to the filmmakers to infuse that personality into its storyline.”

DreamWorks worked closely with Electronic Arts to revise the original scriptfor “Need for Speed” to include more chases and changed the types of vehicles from souped up customized cars popular in “Fast and the Furious” to actual sports cars that gamers like to race in the game to better reflect gameplay.

“Video games have evolved to have some of the most rich and viable stories and characters in any media,” says Adrian Askarieh, who is behind the film versions of “Hitman” and “Deus Ex.” “Once we treat them and the process with the creative respect they deserve, you will start seeing the ‘X-Mens,’ the ‘Batman Begins’ and the ‘Iron Mans.’ I think we are just about there.”

But Askarieh cautions that producers must be aware of what they’re working with.

“I believe that the very moment we as producers, directors and studio executives stop being concisely aware that we are developing and making “video game movies” and just treat them as viable, and creatively rich source material the way we look at best-selling novels and (primarily in the last 13 years) comic books and graphic novels, that’s when you will start seeing what many are anticipating to be the “Golden Age” of video game to movie adaptations. In other words, the self-fulfilling prophecy of going into one of these projects in a cynical fashion that ironically condescends the source material itself needs to be eliminated from the process.”