With Superheroes Slumping, Hollywood Turns to Video Games

The superhero genre, once the bastion of bankability for studios like Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony, is in a slump. In 2023, all three of Warner Bros.’ DC films vastly underperformed. Sony’s February release “Madame Web” bombed so hard Sydney Sweeney joked on “SNL” that no one saw it. And even Marvel Studios, which routinely cranked out $700 million to $1 billion-grossing hits, stumbled with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “The Marvels” — both critical and commercial letdowns.

The superhero genre isn’t dead — Hollywood is still investing heavily in the years ahead — but it is wavering, which is causing studios to consider the “next big thing” should the genre go the way of the Western.

Now all eyes are on making video games, a $56.6 billion industry in 2022, the next movie tentpole IP. Despite failing for the better part of three decades to successfully adapt a video game into a box office hit, Hollywood is banking that the moment has finally arrived.

Recent video game-inspired hits (including “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s”), evolving audience interest and current investments all point to a new era for video games in Hollywood. Not only do video game movies cater to the primary interest of younger generations, but those making decisions at a studio level today grew up playing next-generation games that are now being mined for franchise potential, industry insiders told TheWrap.

Upcoming theatrical titles like “Sonic the Hedgehog 3,” “Borderlands” and “Minecraft” are generating buzz, while Disney recently announced a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, the studio behind the mega-popular game “Fortnite.”

And studios are keeping quality top of mind in the wake of a 30-year stretch of poorly received adaptations that coined the phrase “video game movie curse.”

“In Hollywood, IP is king, and some of these games like ‘Gran Turismo,’ for example, have huge fan bases that haven’t been adapted yet,” Carter Swan, senior producer, IP Expansion at PlayStation, told TheWrap. “This generation of filmmakers and studio execs grew up with games being a much bigger part of their lives and are just more excited than the previous generations to adapt these stories.”

According to a survey of 3,500 fans conducted by Fandom and released in March, 67% of fans are spending the same or more time consuming content or playing video games. But their behavior is shifting — 33% are spending less time on cable or in theaters, and the number one activity they’re switching to is gaming.

Millennials and Gen Z, where Hollywood is aiming its focus, are an “elusive” audience, said producer Adrian Askarieh, who produced movies based on the video game series “Hitman.” So finding their primary point of interest is key.

“For them, video games and video game characters are similar to what the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Marvel characters were for Generation X, but on a far more visceral level,” he told TheWrap. Askarieh added that the fact writers and filmmakers in top positions grew up playing these games has fueled a pivot by networks and studios to produce acclaimed adaptations like HBO’s “The Last of Us.”

“I can’t think of another time where it has been so competitive to acquire film/TV rights to video game IP, and not just the major ones either,” he said.

Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, which after a stretch of well-received but commercially disappointing prestige films has mostly gotten out of the movie business (aside from last year’s Oscar-nominated animated feature “Nimona”), is looking to get back in the game by adapting some of their popular video games, several sources told TheWrap.

Annapurna already announced an adaptation of their game “Stray,” where the player is a cat in a futuristic, “Blade Runner”-esque city. And several other games are being adapted into features at the studio, both live-action and animated, TheWrap has learned.

The highest-grossing movie of 2023 after “Barbie” was Universal and Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which drummed up more than $1 billion at the global box office and spawned a sequel set for release in 2026. Around the same time that Mario was jumping down warp pipes, HBO was airing “The Last of Us,” starring Pedro Pascal, an Emmy-nominated sensation that was based on a more adult-skewing survival video game series.

These titles pack a vital combination of well-known IP and big, theater-worthy storytelling, brought to life by cutting-edge technology from creatives who know and respect the source material. But they’re far from the first attempts to get video games to click on the big screen.

The first video game boom

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in “The Last of Us” (Credit: HBO)

The video game craze of the 1980s, brought on by the beloved Nintendo Entertainment System’s omnipresent popularity, proved there was an audience for these properties.

A wave of adaptations followed in the 1990s, including 1994’s “Street Fighter” and “Double Dragon,” 1995’s “Mortal Kombat” and, most notoriously, 1993’s agreeably deranged “Super Mario Bros.” That ’90s “Mario Bros.” scarred Nintendo so badly that it would be another 30 years before an adaptation of their flagship series would be released.

Over the years, studios made video game adaptations in fits and starts, almost always to critical dismay and only mediocre commercial success. Some high-profile attempts like the Angelina Jolie-led “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in 2001 at least did well enough to warrant a sequel. And there was 2006’s “Silent Hill,” an atmospheric horror movie made by French filmmaker Christophe Gans.

Throughout the 2000s and much of the 2010s, the video game adaptation landscape was dominated by a pair of filmmakers – Paul W.S. Anderson (who made the original “Mortal Kombat” and went on to direct several “Resident Evil” films) and German schlock master Uwe Boll (who made “House of the Dead,” “Far Cry” and “BloodRayne”).

The video game-based film genre was largely interested in cheaper direct-to-video projects (Boll’s forte) or mid-budget zombie movies, which is essentially what the “Resident Evil” films were.

There would be intermittent attempts at more four-quadrant hits, like Disney’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which infamously cast Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian prince (the film took in $366 million on a $200 million budget) and 2014’s “Need for Speed” from DreamWorks, which made a go at the “Fast & Furious” franchise before running out of gas. “Need for Speed” eked out a profit, making $203 million on a $66 million budget, but failed to reach the commercial heights of the “Fast” series.

There were also well-meaning attempts by artful directors like Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft,” Jed Kurzel’s “Assassin’s Creed” and Roar Uthaug’s new “Tomb Raider.”

All of these tried to faithfully capture the spirit of the games they were adapting and were made by filmmakers who understood the value of the source material. And while they failed to connect with audiences or critics, they seemed to suggest that a new video game-based cinematic era was approaching, one where the movies were actually good and people would go see them.

But legacy studios and producers made no concerted effort to back such adaptations. They were even seen as a threat. When “Iron Man 3” opened the same weekend that Rockstar Games’ hotly anticipated “Grand Theft Auto V” came out, Disney was sure the video game would take a bite out of the superhero sequel’s box office. They both won big; “Iron Man 3” grossed over a $1 billion and “GTA V” wound up the second best-selling game of all time, earning over $8.5 billion in worldwide revenue.

There have been a couple attempts by video game studios to produce adaptations of their own beloved IP, always enacting significant creative control so as not to disturb their own profit-makers.

Ubisoft launched Ubisoft Entertainment Film & Television (formerly Ubisoft Motion Pictures) in 2011, but after the underperformance of the Michael Fassbender-fronted “Assassin’s Creed” in 2016, it scaled back significantly. While there are a number of Ubisoft game adaptations in development, including several based on Tom Clancy games (“Tom Clancy’s The Division” movie had Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain attached at one point), the only other film that has been produced since “Assassin’s Creed” was “Werewolves Within” in 2021. It was a low-budget affair, barely released by IFC Films. But it was warmly reviewed, currently sporting the highest scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for a movie based on a video game (in this case a 2016 VR whodunnit).

In 2019, PlayStation Productions opened its doors, producing two movies (“Uncharted” and “Gran Turismo”) plus a pair of television series (“The Last of Us” and “Twisted Metal”). It certainly benefits from being an integrated part of the larger Sony ecosystem. An adaptation of survival horror game “Until Dawn” was recently announced with DC’s “Shazam!” filmmaker David F. Sandberg directing, who has shifted from superheroes to video games.

Breaking the curse

Sonic the Hedgehog 2
“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” (Credit: Paramount)

In 2020, a video game adaptation finally broke through with “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Not the movie, exactly, but the lead-up to the film, when a trailer was released that featured a horrifying new design for the character (who originally debuted in a 1991 Sega Genesis game) and fans revolted. The filmmakers, seeing the outcry, quickly changed the design.

The movie ended up being a smash, leading to a sequel in 2022. A spin-off Paramount+ series called “Knuckles” and a third installment in the film franchise are also due this year. (“Ugly Sonic” even showed up in Disney’s “Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers” movie.)

“Hedgehog” was proof that listening to the fans, including the filmmakers who were drawn to the project by their love for the source material, could work. And it effectively ended the video game curse.

The long-in-the-works “Uncharted” finally landed in 2022 with Tom Holland, one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Then last year a phenomenally popular adaptation of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse, made almost $300 million worldwide on a budget of $20 million.

In addition to “Sonic the Hedgehog 3,” which is due this Christmas, the big screen will soon see Lionsgate’s “Borderlands” with a cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jack Black, who also voiced Bowser in “Super Mario Bros.”

And next spring sees Warner Bros.’s “Minecraft” movie, starring Jason Momoa, Danielle Brooks and – wait for it – Jack Black, while A24, the coolest movie studio in town, is tackling Hideo Kojima’s critically acclaimed game “Death Stranding” as part of its push into more commercial features.

On the small screen, streamers are getting wooed by that same IP awareness. In addition to “Knuckles” and “The Last of Us” (whose second season is currently in production), Amazon is about to launch “Fallout,” an ambitious-as-hell adaptation of the beloved Bethesda Game series hailing from “Westworld” overseers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan.

And even as the video game industry has cooled somewhat in recent years, studios like Disney are leaning into their popularity in other ways. Disney CEO Bob Iger, speaking about the Epic Games deal last month, noted his surprise in learning that Gen Z and Gen Alpha kids were spending about 30% of their screen time playing games. Iger vowed to create a “Disney universe” around “Fortnite” to leverage the entertainment giant’s IP “in a completely different medium,” but he has not discussed a movie or streaming adaptation.

“More and more video game-based IP will continue to get made,” said Askarieh, who also has “Battle Chasers,” a hybrid comic book/video game adaptation at Alcon.

“But there is something distinctly different this time around, which I believe is the primary factor as to why this is not a short lived trend but rather something that is just getting started,” he continued. ”Quality is now becoming the signature of most of these adaptations. This shift in expectation is a significant paradigm shift.”

That same shift in expectation is what kicked off the superhero movie boom with acclaimed films like Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in 2002, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” in 2005 and Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” in 2008.

But video games already have a leg-up on the increasingly complex world of superhero sagas. Swan was quick to note the difference in approach: “Most superhero stories are very universe based. With video games, each has its own universe, making them all uniquely different.”

Still, Swan has an idea why video game adaptations are better than they used to be. Superhero movies took a big leap forward, for instance, with filmmakers who grew up on older, more serious versions of characters adapted by writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller (whose “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” was published in 1986).

“It goes back to games being a bigger part of the lives of this generation of Hollywood talent,” Swan said. “Most of the best talent today grew up in the console generation and have a better understanding of the type of storytelling that’s been happening in games the last 20 years. They don’t look at them as frivolous arcade experiences.”

Game on.

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