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How Hollywood Is Beating Its Final Boss: Video Game Adaptations

With ‘Mortal Kombat,’ ‘Uncharted,’ ‘Halo,’ and ‘The Last of Us’ leading an adaptation deluge, video game IP has finally leveled up

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This week on The Ringer, we’re hosting the Best Video Game Character Bracket—an expansive competition between the greatest heroes, sidekicks, and villains of the gaming world. And along with delving into some of those iconic figures, we’ll also explore and celebrate the gaming industry as a whole. Welcome to Video Game Week.

In November 2001, a poll on the official Mortal Kombat website asked readers to respond to a rumor that a character from the famous fighting-game series would die in the third Mortal Kombat–based movie, which was believed to be in development despite the flop of 1997 sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. But the poll left out what would be the eventual victim: the movie itself. Initial efforts to complete the trilogy suffered a Fatality at Hollywood’s hands, as did an attempt to reboot the big-screen series in the early 2010s. Then a new director and producer pressed reset, and last week, a well-received trailer confirmed that the third Mortal Kombat movie would finally arrive on April 16. For the first time in decades, Raiden’s dubious assertion in the 1995 original applies to the film franchise again: “The essence of Mortal Kombat is not about death, but life.”

Mortal Kombat will be the first of a few major video game adaptation dominoes to topple after refusing to fall for years. A movie adaptation of Uncharted, which was first floated in 2008, cycled through six directors and several scripts before finding its forever director, Ruben Fleischer, last March. Fleischer wrapped shooting last October, and after a final, pandemic-induced delay, Uncharted—now starring Tom Holland, Antonio Banderas, and Mark Wahlberg, the last of whom was supposed to play Nathan Drake a decade ago but will instead appear as Nathan’s older mentor, Victor Sullivan—is due out next February 11.

It may be beaten to screens by Halo, which was teased as a future film more than 15 years ago and morphed into a Steven Spielberg–produced TV series almost eight years ago. After a COVID-19-caused hiatus, the series resumed production last November and could debut on Showtime later this year. Then there’s The Last of Us, which was in the works as a film for several years until reincarnating last March as an HBO series. This month, the trades reported that Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey would star as dual leads Joel and Ellie when the series reaches screens, presumably in late 2021 or early 2022.

All four of those high-profile, perpetually delayed video game adaptations are slated to escape from development hell, Doom Slayer style, within the next year. Whenever they come out, they’ll have to fight for eyeballs with a legion of faster-gestating transplants from the gaming world. After years of neglect and reputation-tanking treatment by Hollywood, video game adaptations are an “area that’s been just growing exponentially,” says Simon Pulman, an entertainment lawyer and a frequent negotiator of rights acquisition deals. In addition to endlessly doubling down on existing film and TV properties, Hollywood has belatedly discovered the revenue-generating potential of an interactive medium whose best-selling titles hardly overlap with established scripted franchises.

Individual breakthroughs have helped demonstrate the viability of video game adaptations. Last year, Sonic the Hedgehog became the U.S. market’s highest-grossing video game adaptation ever, ranking third on the year at the domestic box office (and sixth worldwide) even though its theatrical run was curtailed—and in some markets, postponed—by the coronavirus. (Sonic narrowly edged out 2019’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu in the U.S., though the latter, like 2018 arcade adaptation Rampage and 2016 domestic dud Warcraft, made more worldwide.) Like the aforementioned four would-be blockbusters, Sonic was the culmination of decades of start-and-stop development. Sony Pictures acquired the rights to produce and distribute a Sonic movie in 2013, but Sony subsequently put it in turnaround, and Paramount Pictures rescued it in 2017.

Dmitri Johnson, who coproduced Sonic, was involved in conversations about an adaptation dating back to 2012, the year after he founded dj2 Entertainment, a production company that specializes in video game adaptations (and has a first-look deal with Legendary Television, a division of the company that wants to turn Pokémon into a cinematic universe). During initial email exchanges about the Sonic idea, Johnson says, “Everyone thought it was a joke.” It seemed serious several years later, when Sonic produced Paramount’s biggest opening since summer 2018 and snapped the idle Marvel’s 11-year streak of having the highest-grossing superhero film of each year. (If you consider Sonic a superhero, which Wikipedia evidently does.)

“Shortly after that, the incoming calls definitely increased from studios [and] networks saying, ‘Hey, whaddya got next?’” Johnson says. “And I think from the business side, that’s when that part clicked.” Mike Goldberg, a partner at talent agency APA who represents Johnson, says Sonic was “a huge win for the concept that movies can actually do well based off video game IP. It isn’t a curse, it’s all about what that partnership looks like and what that execution is.” (A Sonic sequel is scheduled for next April.)

Sonic’s success followed close on the heels of a huge hit for Netflix, The Witcher, which premiered in December 2019 and soon soared to the top of sketchy streaming-series ratings reports. Although The Witcher was based on the same-named book series by Andrzej Sapkowski, it’s closely associated with the more popular video game series by CD Projekt Red, whose fans (including series star and multitime Witcher 3 player Henry Cavill) embraced the show. The Witcher, which boosted sales of the games and books and soon spawned a Netflix prequel, was “something that really raised all tides” in the adaptation arena, Pulman says. Johnson, who’s producing several video game adaptations for TV, also credits TV with paving a path for an adaptation feeding frenzy on both the big and small screens: “Creatively, I think there’s been things like Castlevania ... playing a big role in taking some of the early chances with game adaptations and seeing some of those things work to a large degree, because there weren’t a lot of expectation around them and they kind of surprised people.”

Four years ago, I wrote about why Netflix’s then-upcoming Castlevania series might be the bellwether of an onslaught of small-screen video game adaptations. Streamers were starving for content, and decades’ worth of video game IP was withering on the vine. The world-building potential of TV made it the perfect place to do justice to sprawling video game properties, and episodic releases of narrative games were already perfectly tailored for TV’s traditional structure. Up to that point, the limited list of TV adaptations of video games leaned toward kid-friendly cartoons, and few forthcoming series had been announced. Yet conditions seemed favorable for what I optimistically labeled “TV’s video game gold rush.”

That rush has arrived, and producers and distributors are panning for potential hits. Uncharted and The Last of Us were likely two of the 10 adaptations of PlayStation games—seven movies and three TV shows, including Twisted Metal and Final Fantasy—that Sony Pictures’ CEO said his division was developing as of last December. Last month, Netflix announced that a Tomb Raider animated series (executive produced by dj2) would join its suite of video game projects, which includes animated series based on Cuphead, Devil May Cry, Dota 2, Sonic the Hedgehog, Splinter Cell, Angry Birds, Cyberpunk 2077, Diablo, and Dragon’s Dogma, an Assassin’s Creed live-action adaptation, two Resident Evil adaptations (one CG, one live action), and movies based on Beyond Good & Evil, The Division, and Dragon’s Lair.

Netflix, which also invested in a 2020 documentary about video game history, High Score, has been the most aggressive snapper-upper of video game rights (and video game executives, although that also works the other way around). “It may have something to do with Netflix being a global distributor of content and recognizing the global nature of the video game audience,” Goldberg says, adding, “They’re ahead of the curve on that.”

But Netflix is not alone. The creators of HBO’s Westworld are making a Fallout TV show for Amazon, and developer/publisher Ubisoft—which, like Sony, has its own film and television division—is mining its own, non–Assassin’s Creed catalog for scripted content, including series based on Rayman and Watch Dogs. Other adapters have targeted Brothers in Arms, Overwatch, League of Legends, Ark: Survival Evolved, Hyper Light Drifter, and Disco Elysium, among other games, and titles from Myst to Destiny are being touted for their multiplatform potential. Lists of forthcoming movie adaptations boast big names from Firewatch to Minecraft to Metal Gear Solid (starring Oscar Isaac)—and that’s not counting the many new movies whose concepts or choreography are inspired by games, or the multiple TV shows about making games.

“I feel like we have extreme growth ahead of us,” says Goldberg, who estimates that he’s done more than 40 adaptation deals for video game projects on film or TV over the past three to four years. “The ways that Hollywood is now treating the video game partners differently, it feels like there’s an opportunity to do so much more.”

Not even grading on a curve can contradict the accepted wisdom that historically, Hollywood adaptations of video games have been bad. Some of that terrible track record is attributable to the inherent challenge of porting interactive IP to a non-interactive medium, coupled with a lack of emphasis on story and character in early games. But part of the blame lies with moviemakers who didn’t have a handle on the material and didn’t care to collaborate with an upstart entertainment industry that was seen as less sophisticated.

“In the past, when a studio would take a game IP, be it Super Mario Bros., or name an early adaptation, I think it was common practice to take the IP, ‘Thank you very much,’ and kind of shove the partner to the side,” Johnson says. A popular video game, Pulman adds, “was seen as a piece of IP that had some name recognition, but there wasn’t really a desire on the part of the producers to really understand and respect the source material.” The Super Mario Bros. movie wasn’t a legendary disaster because it was based on a video game; it bombed because it had almost nothing to do with its namesake. (“This ain’t no game,” its tagline declared.)

Generational change has helped ameliorate Hollywood’s traditional dismissiveness of gaming. Pulman is 38; Johnson and Goldberg are 40. They grew up playing games, as did an increasing number of the producers and distributors with whom they get deals done. “There is a new generation of executives who play games and understand games,” Pulman says. “And therefore, they understand the value of the IP. They understand the value of the community and the gamers, and they’re respectful towards the source material.” But after years of seeing their work butchered on the big screen, game-makers are also insisting on staying involved. “I don’t think I’ve done a game deal in the last three years where the game publisher or the game developer has not been involved in some capacity,” Pulman says. “And that has been a big change.”

Compared to rights arrangements with singular creators, such as comedians, comic book authors, and journalists, video game adaptations are incredibly complicated. Big games are often owned by large conglomerates that are used to exerting creative control. In many cases, they’ve cultivated large and devoted fan bases, and a sum of money that would be life-changing for a lone creator wouldn’t mean much to a major publisher. Some view rights deals as distractions from their core business of making, selling, and supporting games. And negotiations with international companies like Konami, Capcom, or Square Enix can take years to iron out, requiring communication through multiple intermediaries and the determination to overcome a persistent protectiveness over IP. “There’s so much more we haven’t yet announced, just because there’s an extra level of sensitivity when you’re working with video game IP,” Goldberg says.

Nintendo is a notoriously tough nut to crack. “Nintendo’s one of the Holy Grails of video game IP,” Goldberg says. “Unbelievably worshipped and beloved, and unbelievably guarded with their intellectual property.” A new Mario movie coproduced by Shigeru Miyamoto is reportedly coming next year, but it’s best not to count your Yoshis before they hatch (a lesson Netflix allegedly found out when it tried to make a live-action Legend of Zelda series in 2015).

For all of those reasons, Pulman says, “These deals require more creativity and collaboration than virtually any other form of rights deal. Because if you approach it with the typical Hollywood notion of ‘We’re going to take everything from you and we’re going to have full control,’ you will fail.”

Johnson, who aspires to be “the Scott Rudin of game adaptations,” believes collaboration with game designers can be beneficial to both parties. “If a developer/publisher creates this piece of art that we’re all excited enough about to chase, sometimes all over the world, to try to secure rights to adapt it, that is a valuable partner that you want to be a voice as you’re figuring out what the TV show is or what the film is,” he says. In his company’s last pre-pandemic meeting, he spent hours in a room with Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics, understanding “who Lara [Croft] is, who Lara isn’t. What is this world she lives in? What are the dos and don’ts? And really making sure that the partners on that project who didn’t always feel heard in the past, definitely felt like it represented their vision for the IP.” When your task is to transfer gaming’s most iconic female character to TV, he continues, “that’s something you don’t want to take lightly. You want to make sure that you really, really, really hear your partners who have lived with this character for almost three decades.”

Another key to scouting video game material, Johnson says, is that “you have to be OK saying no, because not everything needs to be adapted.” If a game doesn’t lend itself to additional depth, it may be best to set one’s sights on more fertile narrative territory. “We tend to be drawn to worlds that have outstanding characters, where you can build stories that feel organic to that world,” Johnson says. “And if you played the game, it’s going to be recognizable, but it’s going to be a new experience for everyone. … We definitely want to do fan service, but we also want to make great film, great TV.” Sonic worked not just because the movie was hyper-faithful to the franchise (or because Jim Carrey completely committed to being Dr. Robotnik), but because it told a crowd-pleasing story about an orphan finding a family. “It just happened to be a video game character who’s the centerpiece of that story,” Johnson says.

Even though the pace of adaptations is rapidly ramping up, there’s little danger of exhausting the supply. For one thing, publishers are sitting on vast vaults of games that are still waiting for their first adaptation—or, as in the case of Mortal Kombat, a much-needed do-over. “It’s never been more possible to see a reimagining or reboot of something that may have been tried and unfortunately did not connect in years past,” Goldberg says.

But beyond that, new games keep coming—and as the medium matures and incorporates more potent technology and a greater variety of voices, its environments and stories are growing richer (and more cinematic). “Another reason why Hollywood is having this moment right now with games is the storytelling and the ability to tell stories outside the box on the gaming side has increased, in large part due to indie devs [and] indie publishers being able to go pretty much direct-to-consumer,” Johnson says. “You’re not competing to have your game be one of 10 on a shelf somewhere, so we’re really seeing some of the most creative stuff in gaming over the last five to 10 years.”

Johnson and Pulman don’t think video game developers will start making decisions about green-lighting games based on whether they’re adaptable, but Johnson does expect studios and publishers to hire more in-house execs who can work closely with Hollywood producers, agents, and lawyers. It’s also possible that related games and movies (or TV series) may be made and released simultaneously, like the Syfy series and Trion Worlds third-person shooter Defiance. Many Mandalorian fans have noticed that the Disney+ series is structured like a lot of video games, but it also owes its special effects to the same Unreal Engine that powers countless interactive titles. Games, movies, and episodic series are increasingly converging.

In some respects, gaming holds the high ground. As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out two years ago, “gaming is the top money-driving entertainment industry in the U.S., as well as globally.” As the pandemic suppressed in-person activities and boosted solitary pursuits last year, gaming revenue surpassed that of movies and North American sports combined. Gaming is a mainstream metaverse, and gamers once shunned as geeks are a broad and coveted demographic that helps control the cultural conversation. Fortnite stays open for screenings even when physical theaters are closed, and actors who once would have considered it slumming not to be on the big screen will wear a mocap suit or accept a video game voice-over role without qualms.

But even though gaming adaptations are ascendant, one barrier remains to be broken. Movies such as Rampage, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, and Sonic the Hedgehog proved that video game adaptations can be liked and lucrative, and The Witcher was binge bait, but prestigious award wins and widespread critical acclaim eluded them. That, too, could change in the next year. The Last of Us will air on the ultimate prestige TV network and feature actors who appeared in the series that holds the record for the most Emmys ever. It was cocreated by Craig Mazin, who created and won two Emmys for the 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, and it’s executive produced by Carolyn Strauss, a veteran of Chernobyl and Game of Thrones. (Mazin also wrote the screenplay for Lionsgate’s upcoming movie adaptation of Borderlands, which will star two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett.)

The Last of Us, a streaming reimagining of Naughty Dog’s decorated 2013 title, adheres to the modern model of adaptations. First, work with the developer. Mazin is cowriting and co-executive-producing the series with The Last of Us video game writer and creative director Neil Druckmann, and Strauss is joined at the EP table by Naughty Dog’s president and two suits from PlayStation Productions. Second, do something different, which is particularly important when adapting a game like The Last of Us, whose original cutscenes are almost movie-quality. (In 2015, a YouTuber named Grant Voegtle edited the game into into a seven-partcinematic playthrough” so HBO-esque that he earned praise from the game’s cocreator and later got hired by Naughty Dog, where he worked as a video editor on TLOU2.)

During its years in development, Uncharted shifted from a port that could have been redundant or contradicted the existing games to a prequel that can complement them. The Last of Us won’t rewind or fast-forward, but it will restore some deleted scenes. “I think fans of something worry that, when the property gets licensed to someone else, those people don’t really understand it, or are going to change it,” Mazin said last summer. “In this case, I’m doing it with the guy who did it, and so the changes that we’re making are designed to fill things out and expand, not to undo, but rather to enhance.”

In contrast to the past approach to video game IP, in which “people were a little bit dismissive of it or didn’t necessarily take it seriously,” Pulman says, “there are definitely properties that you could see them actually doing something that truly feels like art, feels like something that’s emotional and moving and has top-tier talent.” For Johnson, that’s a validating development. “I remember being mocked when I was saying, ‘The day will come that people will win Emmys and Oscars and BAFTAs on IP that happens to be video game source material,’” he says. “And I feel like we’re closer by the day to having that kind of Chris Nolan–Dark Knight moment where it breaks through in a way that it’s like ‘Oh, that just happens to be based on a comic, but it’s an outstanding movie.’”

It’s taken 50 years for video game adaptations to become Hollywood’s hottest property (other than GameStop-stock stories), and to start rehabilitating their reputation for being as shoddy as most movie-based games. Now it’s up to the movie-makers to conquer their fear of the slightly less known, and to those on the adaptation vanguard to ensure that this latest gold rush, like those before it, doesn’t attract unscrupulous spectators who once again sully gaming’s good name. “Now that we do have the industry’s attention, it’s on all of us who are in this space to not mess it up and make sure that we’re making smart bets, going after smart IP, and really trying to put things together in the best way possible,” Johnson says. “So that this isn’t a fad, the same way comic book movies have moved on since the early Marvel and Nolan Batman films to this thing that’s just there, and it’s not going anywhere.”

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