Monday, November 9, 2009

Videogame companies set-up studio pics

Videogame companies set-up studio pics

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Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Eidos look to the big screen
Where Marvel and Hasbro have led the charge for movies made from comicbooks and toys at the megaplex, Electronic Arts now hopes to do the same for films based on videogames.

A year after the second-largest gamemaker announced plans to use films as a way to grow its top franchises, it has set up six projects at studios around town or with high-profile producers, proving that despite a string of creative and financial blunders in the past, Hollywood still believes that a popular game franchise can turn into a successful series of tentpoles for studios.

One reason is the considerable coin the games biz rakes in: While overall sales are down 13% this year, videogames are still expected to generate approximately $20 billion in 2009.

EA already knows a thing or two about franchises, having produced over the years major moneymakers such as "The Sims," racer "Need for Speed" and the annual "Madden" football game.

Yet when the company realized it was focusing too much on sports games or pumping out sequels and expansion packs for aging franchises, and licensed games based on movies and TV shows, EA ponied up millions in development dollars to launch new titles to excite gamers, and possibly turn into new franchises -- titles including "Spore," "Dead Space," "Army of Two," "Mirror's Age," "Dragon's Age" and the upcoming "Dante's Inferno."

EA hopes those games don't just play on videogame consoles but also perform as lucrative sources of revenue from the sale of comicbooks and novels, toys, apparel and collectibles, as well as TV shows and movies.

For example, for last year's release of its sci-fi horror actioner "Dead Space," EA paired up with Image Comics to produce a comicbook whose plot served as a prequel to the storyline of "Dead Space: Downfall," an animated direct-to-DVD feature that ends where the game begins.

As part of a multipic deal, Starz Media's Film Roman produced the DVD toon, and aired the feature on its own cabler Encore. It's producing another animated feature that will bow around the release of "Dante's Inferno" early next year that has various Japanese and Korean anime artists conceiving their vision of the nine levels of hell.

EA shunned the idea of a multiplatform entertainment strategy in the past, thinking it distracted developers from making quality games.

But after leaving EA for three years, John Riccitiello changed that corporate decree when he returned to the company as CEO in 2007, pushing the idea that if a game can appeal to more than the hardcore gamer, it could sell more copies in the long run.

"Our goal is to get really good movies made that our discerning fan base will want to see, and reflect really well on EA and our titles to the millions of people who don't play our games," says Patrick O'Brien, VP of EA Entertainment, the division tasked with shepherding the game maker's nontraditional entertainment efforts. "We want to hit consumers where they are. They watch movies, spend a lot of time on the Internet, watch TV."

O'Brien has much bigger pictures in mind than DVD movies, however, eager to erase the stigma of bad videogame movies by placing its adaptations into the hands of notable screenwriters, directors and producers, through the help of United Talent Agency, which reps the gamemaker in Hollywood.

* This month, "Ice Age" creator Chris Wedge signed on to direct "Spore" as an animated creature feature for Fox that Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, who penned Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" and the Ben Stiller pic "The Return of King Doug" at Paramount, will script. EA and Fox are especially high on Wedge after "Ice Age" turned into a major franchise for the studio, generating $1.9 billion from three pics since 2002.

* EA and Fox are also developing a live action take on "The Sims" that John Davis is producing, while Film Roman is also developing an animated TV series based on the "MySims" games.

* "Bourne Ultimatum" scribe Scott Z. Burns is penning "Army of Two" at Universal; Peter Berg is attached to direct.

* Strike Entertainment ("Dawn of the Dead," "Children of Men") and U are behind a version of "Dante's Inferno" with Dan Harris ("Superman Returns," "X2: X-Men United") scripting.

* DJ Caruso is aboard to helm "Dead Space," with Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey producing through their Temple Hill ("Twilight") shingle. It's not yet at a studio.

* And Avi Arad, who helped Marvel launch "Spider-Man" and its other superhero film franchises, is now behind a number of videogame pics, including EA's alien invasion actioner "Mass Effect." The project, too, has no studio home yet.

EA isn't alone in its Hollywood aspirations.

Other publishers have recently sought out major movie deals, with Universal developing bigscreen versions of Take-Two's "BioShock" and Atari's "Asteroids," while Jerry Bruckheimer produced Ubisoft's potential "Prince of Persia" franchise at Disney. Eidos' "Tomb Raider" which already spawned two pics at Paramount with Angelina Jolie as the treasure-hunting adventurer, is getting a reboot over at Warner Bros. The studio also has a version of Capcom's "Lost Planet" in the works with Arad.

If it gets its way, EA wants to time the release of a film adaptation around the launch of a new game or vice versa.

But while it can take up to two years to produce a game, O'Brien has found it can take longer to deal with the studio development process in Hollywood.

"We've had to go through a huge educational process," he says. "It's a system that we'd like to move a lot faster than it does. We are a company with living, breathing franchises. The reason we are making movies is to support our core business. But things need to move on a snappy timeline for that to make sense."

That's why until those movies can be made, EA is producing its movies direct-to-DVD, which it will also distrib digitally through videogame consoles, or pursue other opportunities. A new deal with IDW Publishing will result in comicbooks for "Army of Two" and "Dragon Age" early next year. A series of novels based on "Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning" already has been launched.

While it may not be able to control how quickly films can get made -- unless it decides to fund those projects, which it has yet to do -- EA hasn't lost all of its control over the creative process.

Rather than simply handing its games over to studios, EA remains hands-on as a producer in order to retain a say over the final film. It has a lot to lose, with a disappointing pic potentially hurting game sales. But it has a lot to gain should the film turn into a blockbuster.

For EA's adaptations, scribes have been given the freedom to run with their own ideas and not stick too strictly to the action or plots that play out in the games, because the thinking is that being too faithful to the games has resulted in lackluster films in the past.

"We explain what the world is about, what the missions are about, and then we leave the guy to do his job," Alain Tascan, VP and general manager of EA's Montreal studio, which produces "Army of Two," has said. "The way you tell a story in eight hours, 12 hours, and develop the characters, is completely different than two hours."

O'Brien believes the various spinoffs can deepen consumers' connection with a game.

"A good movie is seen by a couple hundred million people," O'Brien says. "Movies can introduce our titles to people who are not part of the two to six million people who play them every day," as well as introduce them to auds in other countries who may not be familiar with EA's franchises -- especially in Asia and South America, where EA is still growing.

The company hopes to eventually replicate much of the success Hasbro and Marvel have had in producing successful films that can in turn drive their core businesses.

"Those are companies I very much admire and watch closely in their evolution," O'Brien says.

It was only a matter of time before videogame publishers became more active in film.

"We've all been sleeping giants," O'Brien says. "We've had a great business and huge growth, but people haven't been as focused on ancillary stuff. When you look at what companies like Marvel have done, there's every reason to do it and no reason not to. It's just clear that if you can devote some resources to exploring and then pushing those kinds of productions, the payoff is significant."

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