The Geek Beat: Why the Next Batch of Video Game Movies Could Change Everything

The Geek Beat: Why the Next Batch of Video Game Movies Could Change Everything

Sep 10, 2013

It seems ridiculous to even consider this, but I'm beginning to think some of the upcoming movies based on video games might actually be, well... good.

I know what you're thinking, folks. This is crazy talk. A good movie based on a video game is like the chupacabra. Most people have never seen one, and the few who claim they have tend to get sympathetic looks from friends and family with a tighter grip on reality.

But hear me out on this...

Over the past few decades, we've been handed dozens of films based on video games that were, for lack of a more extreme word, disappointing. They were the product of an industry that knew little about making movies, and had neither the resources nor the interest to get involved with that side of the entertainment business. In many cases, the film rights to games have been sold in order to get funding for a sequel or the studio's next project, with the license going to the highest bidder rather than the most competent filmmaker.

It's a recipe for mediocre movies that -- despite the rare, semitolerable film that managed to come out of it -- has stained the entire genre.

But here's the thing: it's not too different from the situation that comic book movies found themselves in not too long ago.

Before Christopher Nolan reinvented Batman and Marvel rewrote the book on building a cinematic universe, movies based on comics were largely viewed as the bottom of the filmmaking barrel (with a few, notable exceptions like Tim Burton's Batman and the early Superman movies, of course). The rights to characters were being sold off to the highest bidder with little regard for the end result of all these sales -- an environment that led to much of the confusing cross-company licensing issues that Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. are dealing with now.

In those days, comic book publishers didn't get involved with the movies based on their characters, and despite the rich storytelling history of the source material, the best audiences could hope for was a film that was just okay... for a comic book movie, that is.

But eventually things started to change for movies based on comics as publishers began taking more interest in their properties outside the medium that gave birth to them. Every small victory in Hollywood fueled the next project and allowed the characters' most popular caretakers to play a bigger role in their lives beyond the page.

Cut to today and the momentum behind Marvel's cinematic universe now seems unstoppable, and Warner Bros. is poised to do what was once thought impossible: bring Superman and Batman together on the same screen. We live in a world that has become the photo negative of what was expected of comic book movies, and there's good reason to believe video game movies are next in line for a renaissance.

In the last few years, sales of the latest installments of various game franchises have begun outpacing that of any movie or music album (that's any movie or music album -- not some movies or music albums). And with that surge, many game publishers have found themselves with the resources to think outside the box when it comes to their games' potential. 

In May 2011, game publisher Ubisoft (Assassin's Creed) made headlines when it announced the creation of Ubisoft Motion Pictures, a dedicated film division of the company tasked with producing movies and television projects based on their games. With net revenue over $1 billion and multiple blockbuster franchises under its banner, Ubisoft took the unusual step of taking on much of the production costs for its film projects -- and demanding an unprecedented level of creative control from any studios they partnered with in return. While several studios balked at Ubisoft's requirements, some clearly saw the potential in such a wide-reaching, wildly successful franchise, resulting in Sony winning distribution rights for the studio's flagship project, the upcoming Assassin's Creed movie.

And though some questioned Sony's decision to risk so much with so little control, the announcement last year that Michael Fassbender had agreed to coproduce and star in Assassin's Creed not only silenced many critics, but also led some skeptics to wonder if Ubisoft's plan was so crazy it just might work.

In the time since, things have only gotten more optimistic for Ubisoft's cinematic future and that of several other game studios with films in the works, many of which have taken significantly more creative control of the films being developed from the company's games than they have in the past.

Projects like the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider movie franchise, which is taking cues from the critically praised, gritty reboot of the game series that put the emphasis on character development and storytelling over sex appeal, would seem to indicate that Hollywood might finally be starting to “get it” when it comes to video game movies -- with some help from the game publishers, that is. Similarly, an upcoming film based on the endlessly deep, cyber-centric world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution appears to have significant involvement from Eidos Montreal, the studio responsible for the game's celebrated mix of action and futurist philosophy.

Looming above all of these projects, though, is Ubisoft's slate of homegrown films that make me believe a video game movie can be something to look forward to without a hint of irony.

Along with Assassin's Creed, the studio has a film based on Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell in the works that puts Tom Hardy -- again, a very credible, smart actor -- in a similar coproducer/star role to Fassbender. And though there are four more films in the works from Ubisoft, the most intriguing aspect of all the projects is the level of control Ubisoft maintains.

As someone who grew up during the dark days of comic book movies, it's difficult not to see the parallels -- and potential -- in the evolution of movies based on video games. As we've seen time and time again, all it takes is just one big hit to give a studio enough momentum to see its vision through, and in doing so, blaze a path for other studios (and publishers). The success of Iron Man made it possible for the rest of the Marvel movie-verse to take shape, not just on the screen but as a filmmaking force in Hollywood. I can't help but ponder the effect a wildly successful Assassin's Creed could have on both the genre of video game movies and the status quo in the filmmaking industry.

And that's why it seems pretty safe to say that -- to paraphrase an overused phrase from the comics industry -- the next few years really could change everything we know about video game movies.

 

Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and is still not quite sure how he ended up writing (and talking) about comics, video games, and movies for a living. His personal blog can be found at  MindPollution.org, and you can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.

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