Comic book movies currently make up an impressive portion of each year’s blockbuster releases, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the 21st century started delivering hit after hit, the genre of superhero movies was something of a jokey niche that wasn’t taken seriously by critics and didn’t make much impact at the box office. Outside of the heavy hitters like Tim Burton’s Batman movies and Richard Donner’s Superman, comic book movies had much smaller budgets and far more limited audiences than they do today.
The genre of video game movie adaptations is currently even worse off than the comic book movie genre was pre-2000. It doesn’t have a Batman or Superman equivalent in terms of box office takings (the highest-grossing video game movie is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time with a worldwide gross of $336 million, which is still considered a box office flop due to its $200 million production budget), and outside of the few that scraped their way into being labelled “mediocre,” video game movies have been thoroughly panned by critics.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why video game movies have struggled so much – it can’t be entirely Uwe Boll’s fault, after all. Even after so many disappointments, many gamers still dream of seeing their favorite titles given a decent big-screen treatment, and some have predicted that a turnaround is on the horizon. Marvel movie producer Avi Arad has said that all the video game genre needs is one really great movie that “goes through the roof,” and then studios will be falling over themselves to throw funding into the genre. It’s something we’ve said as well over the last five years on the site, as video game property after video game property gets picked up by Hollywood producers – including Arad himself.
The video game movie genre has been quiet of late, with the exception of Need for Speed and the moderate yet steady success of the Resident Evil series. Many projects, like the proposed BioShock movie, are stuck in the mires of development hell and may never get out. The release schedule for the next few years looks quite a bit more busy, however, and there’s one big change about to be made to the ways in which they’re produced.
As a rule, video game movies are not made by the same people who made the video game. In a lot of cases it seems like the writers and directors of these movies haven’t even played the games. In 2011, Ubisoft set out to change this by founding Ubisoft Motion Pictures, a film production branch that will collaborate with partners like New Regency to produce movies based on some of Ubisoft’s best-known video game franchises, starting with Assassin’s Creed in 2015. By creating their own studio, and fronting the development costs, Ubisoft scared most studios by how much creative control they were gunning for. They were close with Sony but they pulled out as well, opening the door for a partnership with New Regency.
Comparisons to Marvel Studios seem very apt, and all eyes are on next year’s release of Assassin’s Creed to see if it can become UMP’s Iron Man. There is a lot riding on the success or failure of this movie, and other studios may also believe that getting the original game creators involved could be the key to success; Sony Pictures’ upcoming adaptation of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, for example, will be scripted by the game’s director, Neil Druckmann.
The Last of Us isn’t the only Naughty Dog game that Sony is developing for the screen. The studio is also planning a Shadow of the Colossus film directed by Josh Trank and is still making an Uncharted movie, based on the Indiana Jones-esque adventures of fortune hunter Nathan Drake, and development is currently running relatively smoothly with Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) already attached to direct. This of course, is after Neil Burger left the project, and after Sony dropped director David O. Russell and star Mark Wahlberg after insurmountable criticisms for attempting to make an Uncharted film that had little to do with the game.
Meanwhile, Blizzard Entertainment and Legendary Pictures’ World of Warcraft adaptation Warcraft just completed filming with a release date set for 2016, and the Hitman franchise is getting another movie tie-in, Agent 47, which has already begun production.
Do video game movies really stand a chance?
It’s easy to get excited about the possibility of video game movies finally making it big, but there’s no guarantee that the success of comic book movies foreshadows the success of another geek niche genre. For starters, when we talk about the success of comic book movies, what we really mean is the success of PG-13 superhero movies based on comic books. Stray outside of that specific definition and box office success becomes a lot less guaranteed.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, despite positive reviews and a passionate fanbase, gathered a mere $47 million at the worldwide box office, a significant loss based on its $60 million production budget. Kick-Ass‘ R-rated subversion of traditional superheroes grossed only $96 million. Meanwhile, New Line Cinema’s adaptation of Y: The Last Man was stuck in limbo for a decade until, this year, the rights finally expired.
Video games do not have a unifying idea like “superhero” to cling to. There are superhero games, certainly: the inFAMOUS series stands out as one of the great originals, and there are a multitude of excellent comic book-based games like Batman: Arkham Asylum and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. As a medium however, video games have no equivalent to the comic book superhero. Shooting people in the face, maybe? It seems to be a popular theme.
One advantage that video games do have over comic books when it comes to finding an audience for tie-in movies is their consumer base. According to Comichron, Diamond Comic Distributors reported total North American comic book sales in 2013 added up to $516.77 million. By contrast, the industry-tracking NPD Group reports that the US alone spent $15.39 billion on video games in the same year. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 51% of US households own at least one dedicated games console. Last year’s biggest video game success, Grand Theft Auto V, made a staggering $800 million within 24 hours of its release. It’s clear that video games are big business. Call of Duty proves it annually with some of the largest entertainment launches in the world.
Even given how successful the video game industry is as a whole, however, movies based on individual franchises and games can’t just rely on their existing fanbase. The main titles in the Assassin’s Creed franchise usually sell between 7 and 10 million copies within their first year, which means that even if every single one of those players went to see the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie, UMP would still need to appeal to a much broader audience in order for it to succeed at the box office.
Is Ubisoft already building a shared universe?
One of the keys to Marvel Studios’ success – and something that other studios are now moving towards emulating – is the creation of a shared universe that spans several franchises. When properties are tied together in this way, it encourages audiences to become attached to the universe as well as the individual characters, and to want to see more of that universe. The real test for how successful this model will prove is Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie about characters who will (literally) be alien to the average moviegoer, but will nonetheless be accessible due to their place in Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Here’s where things get really interesting: since Ubisoft Motion Pictures was founded, Ubisoft has inserted Easter eggs into Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, island adventure Far Cry 3 and upcoming hacker game Watch Dogs that indicate all three franchises potentially exist within a shared universe. All three of these games have movie tie-ins on UMP’s development slate.
In the Far Cry 3 downloadable expansion Lost Expeditions, protagonist Jason Brody explored a compound and finds a folder with the Abstergo logo on it (Abstergo being the modern-day face of the Templars in the Assassin’s Creed franchise). Many more folders like this can be found in the compound, and the player can also find a letter that references the Pieces of Eden, critical plot elements in Assassin’s Creed, and gives an access code for the elevator: 122112. The number is a clear reference to the 21st December, 2012, a date that is predicted to bring the end of the world in the Assassin’s Creed games.
Watch Dogs, which releases this spring, is set in an alternate version of Chicago where everything electrical and digital is controlled by a central operating system called CtOS. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the player can hack into Abstergo Entertainment’s computers and find an e-mail from the Blume Corporation, the creator of the CtOS technology in Watch Dogs, encouraging Abstergo to install a localized system at its Montreal facility. Walking around the offices, the player can also listen in on Abstergo employees discussing Blume and even talking about going to work there.
Watch Dogs hasn’t been released yet, but even the marketing for the game has featured references to the other two Ubisoft franchises. Screenshots of the protagonist, Aiden Pearce, using his smartphone show an upside-down version of the Assassin’s Creed symbol among his apps, and a recent trailer showed a character with copies of Assassin’s Creed II and Far Cry 3 on his shelves.
Easter eggs are common in video games, but these seem to go beyond the usual nudges and winks and instead attempt to seriously establish connections between the three different game worlds. Perhaps it’s just Ubisoft’s love of conspiracy stories becoming contagious, but it’s possible that UMP has similar plans for its Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs and Far Cry movies, and that the games are actually laying the groundwork for a shared universe. That would certainly be a clever way to attract fans of the movies to play the video games upon which they’re based.
Before any of that can happen, however, UMP still needs that one big hit to blow the roof off. Assassin’s Creed will star Michael Fassbender in the lead role, and Justin Kurzel (who directed Fassbender in a recent adaptation of Macbeth) was recently reported to be in final talks to direct. The screenplay was originally penned by playwright Michael Lesslie, but has since undergone rewrites by Scott Frank (Minority Report), and writing duo Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Tower Heist). UMP has boldly staked out a summer release date for 2015, which means that the studio considers Assassin’s Creed to be a potential blockbuster.
Will Assassin’s Creed kick off the video game movie revolution? It’s still too early to tell, but at least it’s not too early to hope.