In 2005, Roger Ebert jumped into the debate of video games as an art form, firmly stating he believed they never could be art, and only conceded later that they could possibly - for select people - actually be art, but they still never would be for him. Society at large has not yet accepted video games as an art form, but the idea of adapting stories told in the most popular games - however loosely - has been around in Hollywood for 20 years now. Since the release of the first game-to-film adaptation, "Super Mario Bros.", in 1993, we've seen a steady stream of them hitting theaters, but last month's trailer for "Need for Speed" points to the beginning of that steady stream's transformation into a raging river.
25 video game adaptations have been produced in Hollywood and seen wide release in the US in the last 20 years. However, not a single one of them has garnered anything close to critical acclaim, with the worst of them ("Double Dragon", 1994) being called "an incoherent children's adventure based on a popular video game," and the best ("Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", 2001) lauded simply as a "mesmerizing technical achievement."
On top of that, less than half of them (11, to be exact) would be considered big successes at the box office. Many were outright failures, not making it as far as breaking even - "BloodRayne" (2007), for example, made back less than 15% of its budget - and still others only found marginal success, with profits coming to a fraction of the films' production and marketing budget. "Prince of Persia" (2010) with Jake Gyllenhal as its frontman and a $200 million budget (among the top 30 most expensive films of all time) pulled in a meager-by-comparison $335 million worldwide, making it second to only "Green Lantern" as the least profitable $200 million movie of all time.
There is one (flawed) diamond in the rough, at least as far as studios are concerned: the Resident Evil franchise. When the first one released in 2002, it went on to gross over $100 million at the box office, on a budget of only $33 million. Four more movies and ten years later, the franchise shows no signs of stopping (a sixth film is in development, set for release in 2014) grossing nearly $1 billion worldwide on a combined budget just under $250 million, despite being pretty much panned by critics across the board (do you guys even listen to us?). If you take these films out of the equation, that leaves a paltry number of successes and none that have gone on to become franchises.
That brings us to the present. 2013 is a rare year in this period with no video game movies. The gap, however, comes at the beginning of a big change, as the floodgates have been thrown open, clearing the path for that raging river to come pouring through. As it stands, there are 16 total game-to-film projects in the works at various studios. Seven of these are expected to hit sometime in the next three years, either with already-set release dates or vague targets. 2014 brings two, with "Need for Speed" and the sixth Resident Evil film. Another three in 2015 with the unique "Assassin's Creed", the animated "Ratchet and Clank", and the long-floundering "Warcraft". Beyond that, things get hazy and a little crazy, with Hideo Kojima's impossible-to-follow Metal Gear Solid franchise and the dubious Angry birds slated to hit the big screen.
What is it, exactly, about this future slate of game adaptations that makes them so different? Well, first, rumors are pointing to bigger budgets practically across the board. Only three video game films have been produced with a budget of $100 million or higher - chump change in today's blockbuster-centric film culture - but many of these future projects are expected to be bigger budget affairs. The other big difference is creative control. So far, video game adaptations have had little to do with the writers and developers that produced the games, as the studios would buy the film rights and leave the creators with money but little, if any, say in production. The recent popularity (and quality) of comic book adaptations, though, has demonstrated a clear advantage in paying attention to fans of your original medium. Ubisoft - a French developer known for the Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed franchises, among others - has taken a page out of Marvel's book, and established their own company, Ubisoft Motion Pictures, for working on films based on their franchises.
The real interesting thing to come out of this, and what could most color the future of video game adaptations, is the deal that Ubisoft Motion Pictures set up with Sony Pictures to produce the Assassin's Creed movie. The whole point of establishing UMP was for the game developer to retain much of the creative control of the movies they ended up making deals for. Many studios scoffed at their position, but Sony saw moneymaking potential in Assassin's Creed - possibly due to the cash cow that is the Spider-Man franchise - and agreed to the terms. That deal was finalized in 2011, and the movie is set to star Michael Fassbender and start shooting in 2014.
Assassin's Creed isn't all that Sony and Ubisoft have their eyes on, though. The two signed another deal in August to produce a film based on Watch Dogs, a game that won't be released until November (remind anyone of "Jurassic Park"?). And Ubisoft is still working on getting some of their other properties on the big screen. For their Splinter Cell film, they made the interesting decision to cast an A-list star (Tom Hardy) for the lead role before even signing a deal with the studio, giving them a bigger bargaining chip in brokering deals. Several months later, the developer had a deal in place for Fox and Paramount to co-produce the film.
Ubisoft is certainly the most active force in this shift in video game adaptations - and the only studio that's taken direct control so far - but they're not alone. Blizzard, the game industry juggernaut behind the popular Warcraft series, signed a deal with Legendary Pictures back in 2006 to develop a blockbuster film based on the franchise. After spending years in development hell, with Sam Raimi signing on to direct at one point, the project finally gained serious steam this year, with Duncan Jones becoming the new director in January. In September, a slew of stars were said to be in talks to join the film, including Colin Farrell, Paula Patton, Paul Dano, and Anton Yelchin. "Warcraft" is also slated to film in 2014 for a 2015 release.
Our first glimpse of the possible shift in success for game-to-film adaptations, though, could come with next year's "Need for Speed". With rising star Aaron Paul in place as the lead, the project wrapped filming in August and is on-track for its release in March. Coming off his Breaking Bad success, it's easy to see how it could be a box office success, regardless of its quality. And if that's the case it will mean 2014 brings in two more successful video game films (the sixth Resident Evil movie is as close to a sure thing as these things go). Turning the corner into 2015, we would see a record long streak of five game adaptations pulling in substantial profit for the studios, leading right into the releases of big-budget, big-star blockbusters like "Assassin's Creed" and "Warcraft".
With Ubisoft leading the pack, we could be seeing a change to the state of video game movies akin to what Marvel has done for comic book movies. It all started with "Iron Man" in 2009, and four years later, we watched The Avengers gross over $1 billion worldwide, garnering critical acclaim in the process. With Assassin's Creed set to release in 2015 (up against The Avengers sequel, no less), one is left to wonder what 2019 could spell for video game movies.