When Will the Age of Video Game Movies Begin?

(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)

There’s no denying we’re in the middle of the comic book movie golden age. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is in full force, the DC Cinematic Universe is starting to blossom, and countless other comics are being adapted into a number of different forms. Movies based on comics have been around for decades, and they’re not stopping anytime soon, but what about the other things out there to be adapted? Board games seemed like the “next big thing” at one point, and surely Young Adult literature is having quite a bit of success, but where Hollywood always goes back to is video games, despite years of poor products that have yielded even worse returns. So when will it be the age of video game movies?

The most recent video game movie to hit was Need for Speed last March. Though not well received critically, the film grossed over $200 million globally with a budget of just $66 million. Some video game movies have pulled in this kind of success, but they’re the exception to the rule. Other examples include Prince of Persia, which brought in $336 million, but with a budget of over $200 million and quite a bit in advertising, it wasn’t considered a success. The Resident Evil films manage to do gang busters at the international box office, but for every “RE” movie you get a Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and House of the Dead.

So why don’t they work? What is it about this particular form of media that seems to be so hard to crack when adapting to a feature? The primary factor is the loss of player choice. When we play video games, we become the subject of the story, it’s an experience motivated by our choices and what we want do. Watching a film is a (mostly) passive experience. It’s going to play out the same way every time and nothing we do can change that. This does make some games more susceptible to adaptation, such as The Last of Us and the Uncharted series, which are cinematic in their execution from start to finish.

Another reason they don’t work is the source undergoes far too much change in its journey from game to film. Take Tomb Raider for example, the original games focused almost solely on Lara Croft and her adventures, yet the film has to pad it with tons of filler characters and for some reason a giant robot for her training exercises. “Yeah that sounds like a video game! Put it in there!” To take it a step further, dare I even mention the Super Mario Bros. movie? There are counters to this, going back to the Resident Evil films, which reflect the games almost in name only, and yet they continue to see a lot of success.

There’s also the notion of fan connectivity to the game that serves as a negative influence on video game movies. Fans are so in love with what the game is that when they see a film that is different from their own interpretation (whether that be a substantial or marginal change), they immediately trash it. This isn’t a problem exclusive to video game films either, lest I remind you what site you’re reading currently, but it certainly comes up more in regard to video game films.

So how do they make video game movies work? Let’s follow the superhero model. How did those start working? Filmmakers passionate about the source material is a good place to begin, and we’re already seeing this with Duncan Jones hard at work on the Warcraft movie. They need not even stick strictly to the terms and stories of the game as long as they can nail a tone and character that fits in line with the already-established mythology (Blade, X-Men, Iron Man, etc). It’s safe to say many issues with video game movies can be traced back to too many cooks in the kitchen as well. It’s a pipe dream to imagine that video game companies would set up their own studio and core “story groups”-like Marvel Studios (though Ubisoft is trying to do this), but if the people that know the games can have a hand in the adaptation, you’re on the right track.

There is also a road for video game-based movies that studios/developers need to decide on quickly – either strike while the iron is hot or wait and hope your product delivers. I remember when Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory came out and it featured a “teaser” for the Splinter Cell movie, which still has not materialized. At that time, a Splinter Cell movie would have been well-timed. The franchise was still at an all-time high, and had just debuted what is still the best entry in the series, but now, seven years and three games later, it seems a long shot. But there is still hope! Success can be found in the hayday of something’s popularity (The X-Files: Fight the Future) or well after it’s faded (Star Trek ’09), but execution is still key.

One more thing to keep in mind: aim small. Video game movies aren’t superhero movies just yet, so don’t go spending hundreds of millions of dollars and expect an “Avengers”-level return. Start small and expand from there. Despite what the blockbuster climate tells you now, you can still make a considerably profit from a small production – see the recent American Sniper or Fifty Shades of Grey.

When we look at the history of video game movies, we see a lot of wasted potential and poor craft, yet we still maintain hope for the future. Coming up are movies based on Hitman, World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, The Last of Us, and countless others that are in development. If the people behind these productions can learn from the mistakes of the past, it’s possible that movies based on video games could cease being the laughing stock of adaptations. At one point, the idea of a cohesive comic book universe on screen sounded like a cute idea, but now it’s a cultural juggernaut with billions of dollars underneath it. The age of video game movies is coming, hopefully sooner than later.