EA Aims to Correct Missteps in Vidgame-to-Film Adaptations With ‘Need for Speed’

Electronic Arts drives already developed project to DreamWorks in effort to correct previous films' missteps

Need for Speed Biz Film
Jameson Simpson

The list of Hollywood franchises based on videogames pretty much begins and ends with Screen Gems’ “Resident Evil” series. But if Electronic Arts has its way, its Aaron Paul-starrer “Need for Speed,” which throttles into theaters March 14, not only will help DreamWorks launch its first such series but change the way games are translated to the bigscreen.

Having watched adaptations like “Prince of Persia” and “Tomb Raider” fail to live up to their vidgame successes, and projects like “Halo,” “Spy Hunter” and “BioShock” fall by the wayside, EA, the second-largest games publisher behind Activision Blizzard, decided to take more control of the development process.

“We wanted to go (to a studio) with a serious movie proposition,” not just a general offer to license the film rights to a game series, says Patrick O’Brien, EA’s VP of entertainment, who oversees the company’s film projects. “Need for Speed” is its first foray into filmmaking. “We thought if we walked in with a script, a budget and the brand, we’d represent what we wanted.”

EA isn’t alone in that regard. French gamemaker Ubisoft, which publishes the “Assassin’s Creed,” “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon” and “Splinter Cell” games, is also taking a creative lead in the adaptation of its properties into films and TV shows, attaching talent including Michael Fassbender (“Assassin’s Creed”), Michael Bay (“Ghost Recon”) and Tom Hardy (“Splinter Cell”) to the projects before taking them to, respectively, Fox, Warner Bros. and New Regency.

EA had been pitched a number of ideas and scripts that could be turned into a “Need for Speed” movie. None fit the brand, says O’Brien, and EA wasn’t in a hurry to make a film. It didn’t need to be. Over the past 20 years, “Need for Speed” games have generated more than $4 billion for the company.

“We just knew we wanted to be patient and find the right people,” says O’Brien, who is quick to admit EA’s core business is about making games and not movies.“But we knew enough that when you’re adapting a game that’s primarily race driven and not story driven, we needed to work with writers who were good at character development.”

The game company met with scribes John Gatins (“Flight”) and his brother, George, both gearheads and car collectors, who pitched a cinematic revenge tale, in which a driver, Tobey Marshall, competes in a death-defying 48-hour cross-country race from New York to San Francisco, an event that’s described as the Super Bowl of underground racing.

While other game-based films hadn’t been able to tap into what made the franchises popular in the first place, EA knew it needed a story that reflected authentic car culture, sold the visceral feeling of action, and had an antihero as its lead character. “We didn’t want a police officer whose job it was to chase racers,” O’Brien says, making an oblique reference to Universal’s “Fast and the Furious” films. “We wanted a guy who worked on cars.”

That the interview with the Gatins took place in their garage full of Porsches and American muscle cars helped them get the gig, and their first draft didn’t disappoint.

“When we got the screenplay, and saw the basic nuts and bolts of the story, it was about a character as opposed to an experience or about cars,” says producer Mark Sourian. “The videogame aspect only enhanced the recognition of the material and was a positive.”

Spending its own development dollars let EA control the project’s momentum. It didn’t want to wind up stuck in limbo at a studio, the death knell for many projects at the majors. With a completed script, it commissioned a budget for the film (around $70 million) and took the property to DreamWorks, which acquired the film rights in 2012, and attached a director — Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”), a veteran stunt driver on “Speed” and “The Italian Job” who had long wanted to make a car chase-filled film in the vein of ’70s and ’80s actioners like “Bullitt,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “The French Connection” and “Vanishing Point.”

The idea to cast Paul came from Steven Spielberg, who was enamored with the actor, who had just won an Emmy for “Breaking Bad.” Spielberg also gave notes for sequences in the film, Sourian says. Not that EA needed much convincing on Paul. “He was in the middle of a wave of success,” Sourian notes. “We felt he lent credibility as an actor that was very important in getting audiences to connect with (the film).”

The pic lensed last year in Georgia, Utah, the northern California coast, San Francisco and Detroit, with a shooting style that reflects how the game feels to players — like they’re driving the car themselves, says O’Brien, who’s also a producer on “Need for Speed,” a rare credit for a gaming exec. (O’Brien, who worked with Waugh on the gamemaker’s commercials, oversees development of the company’s other film projects, which include the comedy “The Madden Curse,” “Dante’s Inferno” and “Dead Space.”)

Meanwhile, knowing the film’s promotional value, Ford Motor Co. jumped at the chance to provide its Mustang as the hero car. The vehicle celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a redesign, and Ford is heavily hyping its tie-in with the film on TV and via other campaigns. And through DreamWorks, EA also has benefitted from the marketing muscle of Disney, which is distributing the film. Naturally, DreamWorks would love “Need for Speed” to be its version of “Fast and the Furious.” Legendary Entertainment also is banking on cars, revving up a similar project based on Mattel’s Hot Wheels.

In any event, expect EA to remain involved in the development process on any future films based on its properties.

“We know what works in our space and we bring that to the table,” O’Brien says, adding that the company knows there’s a point in the project when it’s time to turn things over to the  creative and marketing pros in the film space. “There are a lot of people (in Hollywood) who are experts at telling stories, and that’s why it’s all about collaborating with them.”