From “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” which pulled in $433 million globally in 2019, to “Sonic the Hedgehog,” which grossed $319.7 million worldwide last year before the pandemic shut down theaters, the message is clear: Gamers and nongamers alike are looking to explore their favorite video game characters and narratives in different mediums.
Gaming developers are getting in on the action as well, forming production arms to work with networks and Hollywood studios to build on their established franchises. Launched by Sony Interactive in 2019, PlayStation Prods. is developing a star-studded series based on its hit game “The Last of Us” with HBO. Activision Blizzard Studios was working on a film series based on its biggest IP, “Call of Duty,” although director Stefano Sollima said in an interview last year that after several delays, the project was “in limbo.”
Ubisoft Film & Television, a subsidiary of game publisher Ubisoft, is taking a different approach. It’s producing upcoming adaptations of its most popular franchises, such as a movie based on “Tom Clancy’s The Division” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain and an “Assassin’s Creed” TV series, both at Netflix. But it’s also taking on projects that draw on the larger gaming community, tapping into a desire to see stories that are universal — whether you are into gaming or not.
“Senior Esports,” a movie in development with Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein writing and directing, is based on a 2019 Wall Street Journal article about a group of senior citizens who aim to take on the youth-dominated world of competitive gaming. Apple TV Plus’ “Mythic Quest,” which invites viewers inside the often eccentric process and personalities behind video game development, wraps its second season on June 25.
“‘Mythic Quest’ is a show that takes place in a video game studio, but at the same time, it’s a show about a modern workplace,” says Jason Altman, head of film and television at Ubisoft. “It’s a show about people who work in a creative enterprise. It’s a show about people who exist in this world where they’re constantly between the creative and the commerce, and I think a lot of people, especially who work in creative industries, identify with that.”
“The throughline for all of our projects is that they’re smart, they’re quality and they’re unexpected content with broad appeal that are accessible to gamers and nongamers alike,” says Margaret Boykin, head of film development at Ubisoft, who cites a 2020 report from the Entertainment Software Assn. that found that more than 214 million people in the U.S. play video games one hour or more per week.
And some of these projects also aim to combat stereotypes and address issues within the gaming community that it presents. For example, a large part of the article on which “Senior Esports” is based, Boykin points out, is showing that esports can be more inclusive beyond the young men that are typically associated with professional gaming. “Mythic Quest,” meanwhile, shines a light on the female experience at gaming companies.
While Ubisoft is banking on its most famous names — like the “Assassin’s Creed” series — it’s also taking chances on its lesser-known titles. Horror comedy “Werewolves Within,” which debuted at the Tribeca Festival and hits theaters on June 25, is the first project that Ubisoft Film & TV has independently produced and financed; it’s based on a little-known 2016 VR game of the same name. Boykin acknowledges that it’s “far from what I think people think of as classic Ubisoft IP.” But when Mishna Wolff, a candidate from Ubisoft’s Women’s Film & Television Fellowship, pitched the idea, the company wanted to explore the possibilities — even if “Werewolves Within” wasn’t the most bankable name in its library.
“It was about supporting someone’s creative vision and giving them a place to explore an idea that was unexpected but really smart,” Boykin says. “[Wolff] just had such a smart pitch, and we all felt like we wanted to see where it could go, and we loved the script that it turned into.”
Danielle Kreinik, head of television development at Ubisoft, says the company strives to make its series accessible to everyone, whether fans of the original IP or not. “We really think of our TV series and films as another doorway for people to enter,” she says. “There really is no baseline of knowledge that they have to have coming in,” she adds, citing HBO’s megahit “Game of Thrones.” “Not everybody read the books, but when you really enjoy the characters, you enjoy the world. You’re gonna go back and spend more time in it.”
Ubisoft is also banking more and more on anime, with a “Splinter Cell” series in development, a “Far Cry” show and spinoff “Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix,” all at Netflix. Hugo Revon, director of development at Ubisoft Film & TV, notes that video games and anime “share a lot in terms of community and history.”
“The current generation of creators grew up with both,” he says, “and they want to elevate some of their most beloved characters in a mix of golden age anime style and western animation.”
When it comes to sticking to established IP, Revon and Helene Juguet, managing director of Ubisoft Film & Television’s Paris branch (which handles the animated properties), acknowledge that the fans are passionate about staying true to the source material. But it’s also a chance to explore more of these established characters; Juguet, for instance, teases that the “Splinter Cell” series will explore “new sides” of protagonist Sam Fisher.
“We stick as much as possible to the source material and ensure that our writing, art and visual teams immerse themselves in the game’s DNA, sometimes even flying them to our gaming studios to meet the game creators,” she says. “Our creative license is not about reinventing what’s already been told. It rather lies in looking at those worlds through a different lens: we really want to let the creators bring to life their vision of our IP! We give them the freedom to propose unexpected storylines, characters, and style.”