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Kissin’ Cousins: Relationship Drama Between Video Games and Movies

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Kissin’ Cousins:  Relationship Drama Between Video Games and Movies

Kissin’ Cousins: Relationship Drama Between Video Games and Movies

Common Ground

It is no secret that, in developed countries around the world, watching movies and playing video games are two of the most popular pastimes around. The popularity and universal appeal of these two forms of visual entertainment is largely due to the many attributes they share. In fact, one could even consider the video game to be the much younger cousin of the entertainment film.

Movies and video games have the capacity to be enjoyed both individually and in a communal setting. Both involve varying levels of interaction between the viewers or players and the screen and can elicit active or passive participation. Both can be enjoyed from a first, second or third person perspective. Both forms of entertainment are generally easily accessible, affordable, and provide a high level of entertainment value per dollar spent. When it comes to fun, many would agree that movies and video games give you most bang for your buck (sometimes literally!).

Another reason for the widespread popularity of movies and video games lies in their inherent versatility. Video games and movies can both be customized to appeal to fans of any age or gender. Either entertainment genre can be as high or low concept as the creator wants. Either can also be as realistic or fantasy-filled as the creator’s imagination allows. Additionally, while many movies use video-game-style special effects, many modern video games also incorporate actual movie scenes into the gaming experience. This synergy provides for tremendous potential within each medium.

They also share a similar history: development as home entertainment. Up until the advent of home video in the late 1970’s, movie lovers had no choice but to go to a theater to see a film. Likewise, video game lovers had to go to a video arcade with a pocketful of quarters to play their favorite video games. Today, consumers are no longer required to leave their homes to enjoy video games or movies. Advances in home based technology allows fans to enjoy either of these pastimes while sitting on the couch in their pajamas with a bowl of hot, buttery popcorn.

Many aspects of their respective histories and attributes share a likeness. It only makes sense that the line between the two forms of entertainment has become increasingly blurred over the decades. It is also no surprise that these cousins have become creative influences on one another as well as partners in mutually beneficial cooperative marketing efforts.

Movies Based on Video Games

Tron, the story of a computer programmer trapped inside the software world of a computer mainframe, was released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1982. It was the first feature film created with a computer game theme. It was also a box office success that spawned the subsequent creation of a Tron video game as well as a movie remake some thirty years later in 2010. However, even though Tron may have been the first movie based on a computerized game, it was not actually based on a video game as we know them today. That movie would not be made for another decade.

In 1986, Nintendo released the Super Mario Bros. video game. Who would have guessed that a Japanese game about two Italian plumbers would be a formula for American success? Yet, that is exactly what happened. Because of the Mario Bros. unique appeal, just about every young person in the mid-80’s had either a Nintendo Entertainment System or desperately wanted one. Within a matter of months Nintendo became the major player in the gaming world. To date, Super Mario Bros. has sold over 40 million copies, making it the best-selling video game in the Mario series and the second best-selling game in the world.

By the early 1990’s, the success of the Super Mario Bros. video game inspired Roland Joffé, of Lightmotive Productions, to try to further capitalize on the brand in the form of a movie. Joffé successfully pursued Nintendo for the movie rights and in 1993 the Super Mario Bros. movie was released.

According to Ben Reeves, of GameInformer.com, “Joffé’s Lightmotive production company was inexperienced, but Joffé had directed the Oscar-nominated films The Killing Fields and The Mission, which gave the studio some clout. Nintendo was intrigued by Joffé’s ideas, but it was more interested in the fact that Joffé had agreed to let Nintendo retain merchandising rights from the film…. In a rare moment for the character, Mario’s future was now partially out of Nintendo’s control.”

Nintendo recognized the potential benefit a Hollywood movie could bring to the Super Mario Bros. brand and relinquished permission for just $2 Million. After all, a movie based on the popular video game was destined to be a hit… right? Wrong. When the box office receipts were tallied, it had recouped only $21 Million of its $48 Million budget. The Super Mario Bros. movie was a complete flop.

According to the film’s director, Rocky Morton, “From everyone’s point of view, the film was a mess…..It just got rushed into production…I don’t think anyone was really happy with the end result.” But, despite its failure at the box office, Super Mario Bros. succeeded to help to pioneer a new movie genre and encourage movie makers to consider incorporating video game themes into their films.

Since Super Mario Brothers, dozens of video game-based movie titles have been released. Learning from Mario’s mistakes, many of the recent video game themed movies have done highly respectable numbers at the box office.

The survivor horror game, Resident Evil is one example of a successful video game turned into a successful movie. It earned $102 million worldwide at the box office and spawned five sequels. According to Chris Morris of Variety.com, “Resident Evil is an abstraction in the film world. It’s a franchise based on a video game that not only has found an audience, but also continued to build on it with each release. That’s a feat Tomb Raider couldn’t manage, even with Angelina Jolie filling out Lara Croft’s short shorts.”

With Resident Evil the movie, writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson chose to center the films on a hero not featured in the video game. It was a bold move that turned out to be a stroke of genius because it allowed him include characters from the game that players identified with, but without preconceived notions of how those characters behaved. It was a big risk that paid off.

In Jamie Russell’s book, Generation Xbox: How video games Invaded Hollywood, producer Larry Kasanoff agrees with Anderson’s approach. “My philosophy always was: the reason why people fail making movies from video games is because they try to make movies from video games,” he says. “I thought: we’re not making a movie based on a video game, we’re making a movie based on the story that the video game is based on. The story is the center of the wheel and the video game is the extension of one of the spokes.”

Kasanoff produced the movie Mortal Kombat, based on characters from the popular video game. Although he admits the story line was weak, Kasanoff proved to every Hollywood producer considering the video game genre that the bar did not have to be set very high as long as the movie stayed true to the mood of the game without trying to copy the game verbatim. According to Jamie Russell, “New Line and Midway’s executives were right: Mortal Kombat the movie was a piece of shit. But with the right Midas Touch even turds could be gold-plated.”

After years of trial and error using different video game themes in movies, and vice versa, content creators are better understanding what works and what doesn’t. With so much information to consider in retrospect, a curious trend has surfaced: video games that are made into movies tend to be much better received than the opposite scenario. In other words, movies that are made into video games have a much harder time getting respect.

Video Games Based on Movies

Many video games releases have been based on successful movies. Summer box office smash hits like The Matrix, Spiderman and The Incredibles have been made into video games. Yet even when they are fortunate enough to have decent sales (which they usually do not), the computerized spin-offs have not been able to satisfy the fans that made the movie brands so popular in the first place. And yet the motivation to make some of these games still seems to make sense.

In June of this year, Matt Wilson of TheRobotsVoice.com suggested that people don’t buy movie-based games based on how fun they are to play. He writes, “I don’t really need to tell you that virtually all video games that come out as promotional tie-ins for movies are awful. Even the ones that should be no-brainers. Like, Iron Man games? Those ought to be great. They are anything but. Games based on franchises from Friday the 13th to Jaws to Robocop have all been atrocious. And there’s a reason for that. People are going to buy games based on the movies they like, whether they’re playable or not.” Nowhere does this trend seem to be more apparent than with Enter the Matrix.

The first Matrix movie opened to rave reviews and earned over $463 Million at movie theaters worldwide. It later became the first DVD to sell more than three million copies. The Enter the Matrix video game received overwhelmingly negative reviews. Yet despite the negative feedback, the Matrix brand was strong enough to attract solid game sales of about 5 million copies.

In large part, its high sales numbers was due to the fact that it was released between the first and second movie sequels as a bridge for Matrix-addicted fans going through withdrawal. However, most other video games (usually based on titles that have nowhere near the hype of The Matrix) tend to be complete failures. Jeffrey Grubb, GamesBeat writer for Venturebeat.com, says they may soon be a thing of the past.

“The concept of games based on movies as we know it is coming to an end.” writes Grubb. “Smartphone apps and intelligently designed productions about famous characters (like Batman: Arkham City) are displacing the market for cobbled-together blockbuster tie-ins on the consoles. Of course, few will become weepy when they hear that news. After 30 years of terrible commercial cash-ins, gamers are ready to move on.” He attributes the abundance of “terrible commercial cash-ins” to a sub-standard sub-culture that developed decades ago within the movie-based video game world… and never went away.

Wedbush Securities research analyst Michael Pachter told GamesBeat in an email interview, “From the beginning, movie-licensed titles established a reputation for being shoddily produced. The 1982 release E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 is one of the earliest and most extreme examples of how the film-to-game process works. Atari, the game’s developer and publisher, finished negotiating for the movie’s rights in the summer of 1982 and left a single employee…in charge of adapting E.T. in only five weeks to hit the holiday release window. The result is one of the most famously terrible experiences of all time… Movie licenses have faded in popularity…Poor quality hurt some licenses a lot.”

It can be challenging to make the gaming experience comparable to the movie viewing experience given the technical and budgetary limitations these sorts of video games face. But should comparability even be the goal? One company has found an answer and it is an emphatic “No”.

The Brothers, The Cousins and The Future

Warner Bros. is known for their long history as a big time movie studio having produced hit after box office hit. These days they are diversifying their entertainment offerings even further. This includes a headfirst dive into the realm of movies’ not-so-distant cousin: video games.

While most of the other major entertainment companies have all but abandoned the video game business, Warner has bought and expanded franchises. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment has developed several video game titles and plans to continue to enhance its catalog by adopting a new business and marketing model for movie based video games. Unlike their competitors, they are not tying these expansions to individual films. Instead, they are using overarching movie brands as the marketing basis for original game programming.

DC Comics is the publishing unit of DC Entertainment, a company of Warner Bros., and so there is no surprise that Batman was at the heart of Warner Bros.’ most successful game release last fall. The video game Batman: Arkham City was released a full eight months in advance of the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. When the dust settled, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment unit had one of the year’s most highly anticipated, favorably reviewed, and biggest money making titles. Batman: Arkham City sold over 6 million copies and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

But Warner Bros. is not limiting their potential video game sales to teenager and older demographics. Warner has found an additional way to capitalize on the Batman brand by targeting younger kids through their Lego video game series. According to President of Warner Interactive, Martin Tremblay, “Warner Interactive spent more than $200 million to buy Lego games maker Traveller’s Tales in 2007. Its games, including Lego Batman and Lego Harry Potter, perennially rank among the industry’s top 10. Traveller’s Tales’ success is the primary reason Warner Interactive was profitable from 2008 to 2010.”

Warner may be onto something, as were the creators of the Resident Evil movie. By capitalizing on the familiar brands without encroaching on the familiar narratives, companies are able to engage current fans without having to compete with what those fans loved about the original incarnation, whether it was as a movie or video game.

That sort of forward thinking approach combined with the increased availability of smartphone and tablet movie-based game apps is a clue as to what the future of the relationship between movies and video games may look like.

As far as anyone can predict, the cousins will remain close. But, instead of trying to copy each other, seems as though they’ll just share the family name and resemblance and behave each in their own unique fashion, as cousins often do. New titles will continue to be developed, and new approaches will be experimented with, but one thing’s for certain: movies and video games are here to stay and will continue to find new ways to work together in the new millenium.

Sources: Wikipedia.org, Gamecubicle.com, Variety.com, DenofGeek.com, Imdb.com, GameInformer.com, Indiewire.com, LAtimes.com

Researched and written by: Teighe Thorsen, Darnley Hodge, and Carlos Parada
Edited by: Teighe Thorsen