Hollywood Is Not the Answer

21 03 2006

Former Eidos Interactive President talks to GameDaily about the way the game industry should not be looking to Hollywood for answers or vice versa.

“I keep reading these articles about ”Hollywood and Games“ and every conference includes at least one panel addressing ”the convergence of Hollywood and Games.“ As you can see from this quote, the discussion is years old and every generation of development believes they have the answer:

THE HOT TICKET two weeks ago was to Francis Ford Coppola’s hacienda in Napa. Fred Fuchs, head of Coppola’s American Zoetrope, pulled 50 people to the 1,600 -acre estate for a weekend summit on multimedia, complete with five meals and a tour of the vineyard.

After Saturday morning intros, the afternoon was taken up with demos from companies like Virgin Games and Spectrum HoloByte. ”We’re interested in getting into this in a big way,“ Fuchs said. ”We met a lot of fantastic people.“ The future isn’t in licensing and adapting feature films, it’s creating new characters and stories for the interactive marketplace. That’s what we’re interested in. The time has come.” — Variety, May 13, 1993.


The time obviously did not come in 1993, or any year since then. The problem lies not in the search for the answer, but in the question itself. Every panel, every article, every discussion looks for the relevant formula to solve the issue of generic Hollywood meets generic video games. There is no such thing as “Hollywood.” The game industry looks to “Hollywood” to fix story and character issues. However, even “Hollywood” does not look to “Hollywood.” “Hollywood” is a generalization for the industry, which makes linear entertainment. People who make linear entertainment look to individual artists, who based on reputation and work product prove themselves to be relevant to the task at hand. When the game industry references “Hollywood” positively or negatively, the discussion is about the industry as a whole, not the individuals. Why would we look to a generalist to address very specific problems? Do you go to the world’s leading neurosurgeon for a colon scan? The neurosurgeon is a brilliant doctor, probably got higher grades in medical school and definitely makes more money than a proctologist. Unfortunately, he does not know the first thing about looking in your a**hole. Nor does he care to look up there because he can make more money working on the other end. Why then do we look to the most successful people in film and television to make games? When they turn out to bore quickly, or continuously make suggestions, which are irrelevant to our media, why are we surprised? Shouldn’t we drill down and find the people who really know what they are doing, and know the industry?

It sounds obvious, but let me get it out on the table. Linear and interactive entertainment exist in completely different media. Everyone is now saying they know this, but just hear me out. When we think about game producers and game designers, we parse and segment and compartmentalize into genres and gameplay and designs. I do not think id [Software] is trying to figure out how to bring Will Wright in as a lead designer on their next FPS franchise. But the industry is perfectly willing to not only cross genre, but cross media, and grab successful people from Hollywood, regardless of their level of commitment or knowledge, based only on the fact they wrote or directed a cool movie. Over and over again I hear “the guy loves games and really wants to do something.” Well, so does my ten-year-old son, and despite my son’s superior knowledge of the industry and the demographic, he does not have a game deal.

I decided to write this after I sat in yet another panel about Hollywood and Games at D.I.C.E. this year. I wanted to say something about it, but could not think of why it was so disturbing. Then I realized, it was the generalist approach. Because David Franzoni wrote a great film and because Lorenzo de Bonaventura is very successful and well respected in the film business they talked about how they could make the game business better. Rather than a useful panel in which they could have talked about their media and why they are successful, or what their media looks for in games—in other words things they know about—they chose to tell the most successful collective of designers and developers in the fastest growing entertainment sector, what they are doing wrong.

Mr. Franzoni chose to address the lack of emotion in games (again, a recurring theme, but too much to address in this space). He pointed to the pitfalls of trying to design gameplay prior to story. He felt this was counterproductive and would be like “shooting the third or fourth Star Wars movie before the first.” I think he was serious and so did most of the audience who tittered, respectfully, but in disbelief. This disconnect with the relevant audience was only exacerbated by his invitation to gamers to see a dance of a performance of a certain ballet in which the depiction of death was more terrorizing than anything in games. Is he right? Perhaps. Is it the wrong audience? Definitely. Should he be writing games? Only with someone who is willing to endure a steep learning curve. Does this mean no writers are good for games? Absolutely not. Did this lead the portion of the audience who has not yet worked with produced writers to believe they never should? Absolutely. These types of statements lead the game industry to paint linear talent with a broad brush and dismiss the idea of working together.

It is incumbent upon the game industry to do its homework and identify [the right talent], not the guy who made last year’s biggest movie or the guy who wrote the movie you loved since you were a kid. Talk to the representatives and find out if the people know about games and live for them—like everyone working at the developer and publisher—or are intrigued by the prospect of working in games. Find out if the person knows the work schedule, which is very different from what they are used to, and are willing to commit. Then read their work. If it looks good, sit down and talk to them. Tell them what is going to happen and listen to them. Are they preaching, or conversing? Do they understand what you are saying? If the representative is honest with you, he will tell you whether the person you want is right for the job. If he is not, do not ever speak to the dishonest bastard again.

Mr. DeBonaventura addressed games to film. Another area littered with failures, which lead to broad generalizations. I did not want to make a Tomb Raider movie. Even after the films I cannot think of a single economic or financial reason to make a film. My boss, Charles Cornwall wanted to make one. Once the decision was made, I led a team of people committed to making a film happen. I did not write the last sentence because I believe the films were a failure. By the standards of the studio and the industry in which it exists, the films were a success. One film was very profitable and both made their money back. From a game industry perspective, they were not successful. The core audience members were not fans of the film. Mr. DeBonaventura’s statement to the audience was very honest and slices directly to the core of the issue. When asked if there was one thing he would do differently on the Doom film he said, “I would not listen as much to the developers.” He is right.

Once again, film and games are different media. We all agree on that. However, we fail to acknowledge the different ways the industries measure success. In one of the last general meetings I attended at ICM one of the agents was addressing the opening of The Grudge. “What is wrong with America? $40 million opening weekend.” She could not understand why The Grudge outperformed the latest Sundance winning Oscar contending black and white, shaky camera film about the one legged mentally challenged lesbian. This measure was reflected by the industry in this year’s Oscar race. None of this year’s nominees for best film outperformed March of the Penguins at the box office. One measure of success is peer recognition. Like the game business, much of the film business makes films for themselves.

Another measure of success is box office performance. This is like the film business, but a different audience. Taking a look at Halo, we love to throw out game sales numbers. Halo 2’s launch was the largest single day media event of 2004. On November 9, it generated $125 million on sales of 2.38 million units. This is a fantastic performance in any media and should be respected by all media as a model of success. However, it is dramatic underperformance for a tent pole film. If Halo were a film, appealing only to those fans, November 9 would have been a disappointment.

When translating a game to film the producer and studio must determine how to make the film which will appeal to the largest audience. While they will all give a nod to the game, and some will even make efforts to go beyond a mere nod, the very elements which make a game compelling to its core audience can be repellant to the mass market film audience. One of the producers on Tomb Raider once told me the studio was entrusting him with a lot of money; he was not making his movie, he was making the movie which would appeal to the largest audience. Mr. DeBonaventura was right. He should not listen to the developers. They are very successful in the media of games, not film. He is successful in film and he should trust his instinct.

Those are two measures applied on a daily basis. No one ever says, “Box office was low and we will never get an award, but it sure was true to the game.” When the property owner is looking to make a film, they should not ask whether the producer is the guy who can make the best movie, they should ask whether they should make a movie at all. At the end of the day they may get a great movie, and destroy their franchise.

Let’s stop discussing convergence and let’s start talking about specific individuals and specific disciplines which make our industries better.

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