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Can Studios Crack the Code for a Video Game Movie Breakout in the U.S.?

Last summer, during an annual retreat for Sony studio executives, Matt Milam, vice president for film production and development, led a presentation on what could be learned from the handful of successful video-game adaptations.

Among the titles were the 2016 releases “Warcraft,” which grossed $434 million worldwide, and “Assassin’s Creed,” with global ticket sales of $241 million. Fox’s 2007 release “Hitman” grossed $100 million worldwide.

In theory, popular video-game IP should be an easy moneymaker for studios: Games like “World of Warcraft” have enormous built-in fan bases, and a potential hit can spawn a new franchise, creating opportunities for merchandise and other ancillary revenue.

But, studios remain vexed by how to launch a successful game adaptation that has broad appeal both domestically and internationally. One Sony insider walked away from the retreat presentation feeling unconvinced the film industry could soon crack the formula for a domestic box office smash.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore, notes that the history of cinema is littered with video-game adaptations that have flopped. Among them: 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.,” which had a $48 million production budget but grossed less than $21 million domestically. “BloodRayne,” a $25 million picture released in 2006, grossed only $3.6 million worldwide.

Just two titles have ever grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office: “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” the 2001 picture starring Angelina Jolie, and 2016’s animated “The Angry Birds Movie.”

This year’s game adaptations, “Rampage,” which opened at No. 1 with $36 million thanks to the star power of Dwayne Johnson, and “Tomb Raider” each generated the lion’s share of their ticket sales overseas. The six films in the “Resident Evil” franchise have earned just 20% of their global box office take domestically.

Yet, Sony isn’t alone in the pursuit of a breakout video-game movie franchise. Among them, the major studios hold rights to more than four dozen video games, including the popular “Metal Gear Solid,” “Destiny” and “God of War.” Those projects are in various stages of development, but only a few have been dated for release. Just three adaptations — “Detective Pikachu” (May 2019), “Angry Birds 2” (September 2019) and “Sonic the Hedgehog” (November 2019) — are pegged to release dates.

None of the companies that hold those rights, including Sony, Universal, Warner Bros. and Paramount, would comment on the record for this story, although two insiders — one from Sony, the other from Warners — say privately that there are broad discussions at their respective studios about future game-based films.

Yet, some studio executives and box office analysts hold out hope that with all the massive video-game-inspired movies on the horizon, a pivotal change will see the onset of massive success. “It’s an inevitability that something like that will happen,” says Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who is attached to direct the adaptation of “Metal Gear Solid.” “To me it isn’t a question of if — it’s a question of when.”

Dergarabedian concurs with that forecast. “We’re starting to see maybe a turning point or a tipping point in the evolution of the video-game big-screen adaptation after decades of fits and starts,” he says, adding that studios likely are buying up rights because when success hits it will be “on the order of a magnitude of a superhero universe … that can be worth billions.”

Avi Arad, who was closely tied to the emergence of the soaring success of the Marvel superhero movies, seems to be betting big on video-game adaptations through Arad Prods. His company is sitting on rights to nine game properties, among them potential blockbusters like “Uncharted,” “Borderlands” and “Metal Gear Solid.” Ari Arad, president of Arad Prods., says his goal is to create film adaptations of games in the same vein as today’s hugely popular comic-book movies. And he thinks that’s becoming more likely with each new video-game movie release.

“I’d like to hope that we’re heading in a positive direction in terms of adapting games,” Ari Arad tells Variety. “‘Ready Player One’ and ‘Jumanji’ are interesting examples because they’re so heavily rooted in video games while not being based on any. One of the tipping points for comics to film, in my opinion, is when people who didn’t read comic books seemed to become enthusiastic about accessing that world through a medium they were more comfortable with.”

To do that, Vogt-Roberts suggests, a studio will need to figure out how to recapture the sense of game play, rather than simply parroting the story a game has already told. “How do you re-create and dramatize the active experience of playing video games into the passive experience of watching movies?” muses the director. “Once people figure out how to do that it’s going to trigger things, and not just for gamers. It’s going to be disruptive.”

But neither “Rampage” nor “Tomb Raider” took that approach, he says.

“‘Rampage’ is a type of thing where you’re really adapting an IP in the same way someone adapts Truth or Dare as a horror film,” he explains. “But I can’t tell you if it fully re-creates the feeling I had as a kid [playing the arcade game] punching stuff up and smashing buildings.”

And while the latest reboot of “Tomb Raider” has done much to reclaim the lead character as a strong female, the game’s history is so anchored to the first wave of popular video games, and so steeped in the sexualization of those games, that it’s hard for it to escape that pull, Vogt-Roberts notes. “I don’t view those two movies as that different from each other,” he contends. “It’s not like a ‘Metal Gear’ or ‘Resident Evil’ or ‘Zelda’ or ‘Metroid.’”

Those are the sorts of video games — entwined with deep lore and packed with characters — that could do for video games what movies like “The Dark Knight,” “X-Men” and ”Iron Man” did for comic-book adaptations.

Perhaps one reason video-game movies have languished for so long is that there is a history — one mostly tied to disgraced moviemaker Uwe Boll — of neither respecting nor understanding the source material.

Boll terrorized film critics and video-game fans alike with failed theatrical re-creations of games like “Alone in the Dark,” “Postal” and “Far Cry.” The filmmaker was named the second-worst director of the 21st century by Metacritic (just behind Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer of “Spy Hard” and “Scary Movie” infamy).

But as video games become more ubiquitous and the term “gamer” as pointless as “moviegoer,” directors too have their own history with playing games. Increasingly, Vogt-Roberts says, directors are gamers themselves who are deeply influenced by the ones they continue to play.

“I’m a part of a small percent of people who are directors at this level who grew up on games,” he says. “Those things have a fundamental impact on you. It rewires your DNA.”

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