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Turning good video games into great films April 14, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in Games, Movies, Review.
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Group of game-industry veterans think plotlines should be the priority

At the end of a long day working in Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y.P.D. detective Max Payne returns to find his home being ransacked by armed junkies. High on a new designer drug called Valkyr, they open fire on the cop, who stumbles over the dead bodies of his wife and newborn daughter. Killing the murderers doesn’t quench Payne’s thirst for revenge, and he sets out to find the sources of Valkyr and make them pay.

It sounds like the setup for a movie—and it is, now. “Max Payne” will be released in 2009, courtesy of 20th Century Fox, with Mark Wahlberg in the starring role. But the story didn’t start as a screenplay; it debuted seven years ago as the plot of a videogame and spawned two interactive sequels before making it to movie theaters.

Since its earliest days, the videogame industry has been enamored of Hollywood, and with turning big-screen stories into interactive worlds—with a range of success. Atari’s E.T. game is said to have ushered in the videogame industry crash of 1983, but blockbuster franchises have come out of Harry Potter, Shrek, and Lord of the Rings. More recently, Hollywood has been mining videogames (and their huge male fan base) for box office gold. The results have been just as mixed.

“Few games have translated well to film,” says Michael Pachter, videogame analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities, in New York. “’Doom’ was a flop, as were the second ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Super Mario Bros.’ movies. ‘Resident Evil’ has done well, as have the Lara Croft films, so I’d say it’s hit and miss.”

Now, some of the people behind “Max Payne” are trying to change that. In June 2007, Hollywood producer Scott Faye, owner of Depth Entertainment; Scott Miller, also head of game developer 3D Realms; and Jim Perkins, former CEO of game developer-publisher Arush Entertainment, formed Radar Group. Rather than creating a game, then licensing it as a film, or vice versa, Radar will cultivate story lines—“storyverses” in company parlance—that transcend any one medium, whether linear or interactive. From there, they can spin out movies, videogames, comic books, and anything else that might emerge.

“I think that because we’re starting at the outset, both cultures will have an incredibly solid foundation for an ongoing evergreen franchise,” says Faye.

In addition to Max Payne, Perkins and Miller have helped develop highly successful game franchises including Duke Nukem, Prey, Doom, Blood, and Shadow Warrior. Together, their games have sold more than 35 million units globally. The pair have also founded, expanded, and sold three successful publishing companies — Arush Entertainment, to a foreign-distribution company in 2004; Gathering of Developers, to Take-Two Interactive in 2000; and FormGen, to GT Interactive in 1996—generating a combined $1.5 billion.

They’ve invested some of those proceeds into Radar, which has three games in development: “Earth No More,” an environmental-disaster action story; “Prey 2,” an alien-invasion game with a Native American protagonist; and Incarnate, a horror story in which evil must be hunted down and imprisoned (and whose concept came from Hollywood screenwriter Frank Hannah, who wrote “The Cooler”).

Usually, a movie based on a game gets green-lit only after the game has been released and built an audience. But Depth Entertainment is already shopping Radar’s stories around to studios—even though the games are still a few years away from hitting shelves. Merchandising and expanding an intellectual property from the get-go has been a long-standing Hollywood strategy, but the concept is still new in the game business, where all the focus generally remains on creating the game.

The typical game developer turns to a publisher to cover the costs of producing a game and subsequently surrenders ownership of that property. Once the game recoups the publisher’s loan, the developer begins to earn royalties. Radar is instead taking original ideas, partnering each with a game developer—it will work only with independent shops like Human Head Studios and Recoil Games—and then cutting distribution deals with publishers. The startup is working with retained adviser Gallipo Group, a new videogame venture-capital company, and expects to have $90 million in funding by this May.

By 2011, Radar plans on releasing three or four games per year, with eight to 12 projects in development at any one time. The franchises are expected to launch on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 platforms and gradually expand to Wii, Nintendo DS, and PSP.

One thing the company principals won’t ever do is license a Hollywood property. They’ll leave that task to companies like Brash Entertainment, which is sinking all of its funding into movie properties like Saw, Speed Racer, and Space Chimps. Miller believes that’s a doomed enterprise. But without a Hollywood association to fall back on, Radar’s games will have to be stellar to win over fans.

Coming soon to a theater near you? If the story’s good enough, yes.

~farhanriaz

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