Every time we write about the current renaissance of video game adaptations in the world of film and television, it’s difficult to pin down the reason for this renaissance. The basic business case for adapting video game stories is the same as it was in the 1990s and 2000s: games have built-in audiences, and their adaptation can bring that audience to theaters or streaming services.
At this year’s DICE conference, we may have finally gotten a practical answer. During a conversation with Jake Zim, senior vice president of virtual reality at Sony Pictures, we asked the Tinseltown exec about the phenomenon.
We’d heard in the past that the reasoning was that Hollywood studios build closer relationships with game makers when choosing options for these properties, but Zim had a broader view of what’s going on. In his opinion, it’s a numbers game, and when it comes to fresh original franchises, video games reign supreme over other mediums.
“Creativity is always driven by a challenge or a problem,” Zim explained. “The problem with that is: where do you come up with new ideas?
Zim called this an “incomplete” theory, but adds nuance to why production companies and distributors are suddenly working so closely with game development teams, as with the HBO series based on The Last of Us.
What’s different about adapting video games to film or television?
While the last decade hasn’t been a total death knell for original screenplays (Everything Everywhere All At Once, Jordan Peele’s filmography, and even Netflix’ Stranger Things have all become huge pop culture moments), executives looking for properties to adapt have really started the Burn through customization sources of the previous generation.
Marvel now gives niche characters like Agatha Harkness their own TV shows up to their necks, and Netflix’s most recent hit was another adaptation of the ’50s comic The Addams Family.
With that, video games remain a new territory to explore. And not just fresh soil—it’s soil that is rapidly bearing new fruit. The same day I spoke to Zim, Sons of the Forest launched on Steam and has since sold two million copies. There’s a good chance executives at horror distributors like Universal are eyeing games like this for adaptation.
Zim’s role at Sony was to experiment with how best to adapt the company’s film and TV brands to virtual reality gaming. Games like Ghostbusters: Rise of the Ghost Lord and Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son have been greenlit under his watch, and his team’s workload will only increase with the release of the PlayStation VR2 headset.
For now, according to Zim, his team is focused on how Sony can create new experiences for fans of its franchises like Men in Black, Jumanji or Breaking Bad. But when meeting directors and writers working on the live-action versions of those franchises, he said some of them are also interested in working on VR. “A lot of the filmmakers and showrunners that we’ve spoken to and who work on the shows when we’re making games have basically said, ‘I can’t wait to do a VR project.'”
He pointed to director Neil Blomkamp (who has previously experimented with interactive creations with Unity) as an example, noting that the director regularly drops by his office while editing his next film.
There’s good news and bad news in the video game adaptation frenzy
Zim’s logic regarding the current wave of video game adaptations definitely looks at the problem through a supply-and-demand lens. When the supply of viable real estate to adapt is low, executives and creative minds will look elsewhere to meet demand.
For many developers, a perspective like Zim’s will be welcome. If your game is doing well, you’d probably be happy to sign an option agreement with a studio to promise creative contributions to the adaptation so fans of your game don’t feel like what they love has gotten cheaper.
But a look at the history of the adjustments could raise some red flags if this type of deal becomes an attractive target for investors. You can look at the comic book adaptation boom of the 90’s to 2000’s as a key example. During this period, the gold rush in licensing comics for adaptation prompted some comics creators to create comics explicitly for the purpose of adapting them for film or television.
They even had a wave of “Ashcan” comics – single-issue stories that barely hit store shelves, just to establish a trademark and were bought as a potential next big hit in Los Angeles. The 2011 sci-fi film Cowboys and Aliens was an infamous example of this trend. Multimedia company Platinum Studios, which produced the original comic on which the film was based, was buried in a sea of lawsuits circa 2013.
The lesson from this brouhaha would be to beware of business models that only create content that is licensed to other companies.
So while market forces for game customization may be favorable at the moment, developers looking to sign such deals should keep an eye on what the landscape is like in the next 5-10 years. (And please, don’t just start a game studio to create games that have multimedia properties, I beg you).
Zim’s take on how Hollywood executives view the video game world definitely seems spot on, although I have to say there’s still something sad about the core business logic. It’s been a very tough two decades for major original films – both because of risk aversion to the amount of money it takes to produce and a lack of audience interest.
Game developers love to talk about how they’re constantly inspired by great classic movies like Ridley Scott’s Alien. If the market is only flooded with video game adaptations, where will these original works come from?