Hollywood Gamers: Digital Convergence in the Film and Video Game Industries

Hollywood Gamers: Digital Convergence in the Film and Video Game Industries

by Robert Alan Brookey

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Overview

For years, major film studios have licensed products related to their most popular films; video game spin-offs have become an important part of these licensing practices. Where blockbuster films are concerned, the video game release has become the rule rather than the exception. In Hollywood Gamers, Robert Alan Brookey explores the business conditions and technological developments that have facilitated the convergence of the film and video game industries. Brookey treats video games as rhetorical texts and critically examines several games to determine how specific industrial conditions are manifest in game design. Among the games (and films) discussed are Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Spider-Man, and Iron Man.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253222312
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/26/2010
Pages: 188
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Robert Alan Brookey is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northern Illinois University and author of Reinventing the Male Homosexual (IUP, 2002).

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Hollywood Gamers

Digital Convergence in the Film and Video Game Industries


By Robert Alan Brookey

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Robert Alan Brookey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35524-9



CHAPTER 1

PLAYING TOGETHER


The film 300 (2007) surprised everyone. Its subject — the ancient battle at Thermopylae — was hardly blockbuster material. After all, the sword-and-sandal genre had not enjoyed much popularity since Jason and his Argonauts battled Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animated monsters. Granted, Gladiator (2000) did quite well at the box office, but it had Russell Crowe; 300 had Gerard Butler, not an A-list actor at the time and certainly not a box office draw. Still, the film drew an audience. It opened on March 11, 2007, and pulled in $70 million over the weekend, then went on to generate over $200 million in U.S. domestic box office receipts, exceeding all expectations. It more than doubled those receipts in the foreign markets and closed its theatrical run only after racking up $456 million at the box office.

This film had executives in Hollywood scratching their heads, trying to comprehend, and hoping to duplicate, 300's success. Ron Grover, the entertainment correspondent for BusinessWeek, argued that 300 offered several lessons:

Sometimes it really is about what you put on the screen, and maybe you don't need to put as much up there as you might think. As far as epic wannabes go, 300 is modest, yet audiences are eating it up. The nonstop action came from computers, the actors were, well, wooden, and still the trailers and commercials were mesmerizing. Sometimes a great visual is worth more than heavyweight actors and a legion of writers.


Indeed, most of the action in 300 was filmed in front of a green screen, with computer-generated imagery (CGI) added in post-production — a fact not lost on the film's detractors. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon wrote, "300, even with its impressive vistas of computer-generated soldiers, is just a throwaway epic." A. O. Scott, a critic for the New York Times, was equally unimpressed: "I would happily pay a nickel less, in quarters or arcade tokens, for a vigorous 10-minute session with the video game that 300 aspires to become."

Scott's dismissal, however, may actually speak to 300's appeal. Exit polling on the film's opening weekend indicated that the audiences were predominantly male, and half the audience members were below the age of 25. Therefore, the film appealed to the same demographic that serves as the target market for many video games. In addition, 300 did not aspire to be a video game, because it already was one, released about one week prior to the film on Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP). Indeed, 300 signifies a growing trend: the convergence of the film and video game industries and the growing practice of turning films into video games.

The significance of 300 in relation to this trend was not lost on Clint Hocking, a creative director for the video game company Ubisoft, who wrote in his blog:

[W]hile convergence is the buzzword that everyone whispers around the boardroom and at the shareholder meetings, the creatives [sic] in both Hollywood and the game industry are busy proving why convergence is little more than a buzzword. 300is — in fact — the movie that proves that convergence between film and video games is impossible.


Hocking goes on to formulate an argument based on points about art, narrative, and aesthetics; he even references Plato for good measure. Unfortunately for Hocking, 300 made a lot of money, and in the entertainment industry money matters. In fact, Thomas Tull, the executive producer of 300, proved that the convergence between the film and video game industries is more of a reality than Hocking cares to admit. After 300's success, Tull closed a multimillion-dollar deal to start a video game company.

In contrast to 300, DreamWorks SKG never really lived up to industry expectations. When the studio was formed in 1994, it was expected to produce quality content for a variety of media. After all, the studio combined the talents of Steven Spielberg, former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music mogul David Geffen. Although the studio developed a variety of media, including video games, films were its major product. DreamWorks was not without its successes: Saving Private Ryan (1998) won an Academy Award for Spielberg, American Beauty (1999) won three Academy Awards, and Shrek (2001) proved to be very lucrative.

After a decade, however, the partners of DreamWorks SKG decided to sell the film studio to Viacom and go their separate ways. Just before the deal with Viacom was closed, the video game company Electronic Arts (EA Games) announced that it had signed Spielberg to a three-game deal. Under this deal, Spielberg would set up offices in EA's Los Angeles studio and develop three original video games. EA Games would retain the rights to these games, but Spielberg would be able to develop the titles into television shows and films.

This was not Spielberg's first venture into the video game business. In fact, one of the earliest video game spin-offs of a popular film involved Spielberg, though it proved to be a complete disaster. After ET's theatrical release (1982), the executives at Warner Entertainment were anxious to sign Spielberg to a production deal; to sweeten the deal, Warner promised to produce an ET video game. Warner had purchased Atari from Nolan Bushnell in 1976, and this was one of Warner's first attempts to use the video game company to negotiate a film deal. In order to deliver the game in time for the Christmas shopping season (one of Spielberg's demands), the game's production was rushed. Consequently, the ET game was poorly designed and generally rejected by the children for whom it was marketed.

Atari, banking on the success of the film and expecting a run on the ET game, had overproduced cartridges and was stuck with a warehouse full of stock it could not move. To clear the warehouse, the company contracted to have the cartridges buried somewhere in the New Mexico desert. The failure of this particular video game was due to the fact that the experience of the game was far from the experience of the film. ET was a film to which many children had a strong emotional attachment, particularly with the alien who seemed to exhibit human characteristics. A video game portraying ET as a two-dimensional avatar with limited expression and limited movement did little to elicit such attachment or emotion.

Another early example of the failure to converge the film and video game industries was the Super Mario Brothers movie. In contrast to ET, the Super Mario Brothers film (1993) was an attempt to use video game content to sell a film, rather than the other way around. The film was based on the Donkey Kong video game, which was a breakout hit for Nintendo and one of the first video games to incorporate narrative elements. As narratives go, the one in Donkey Kong was rather simplistic: the game character Mario had to save his girlfriend, Pauline, from a gorilla. Mario had to climb a series of ladders and levels in order to reach Pauline, while the gorilla hurled barrels and other obstacles in his path. Obviously, the game provided a rather limited narrative arc with which to span a full-length feature film, and consequently, the film was not well received. As Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times, observed:

This bizarre, special effects–filled movie doesn't have the jaunty hop-and-zap spirit of the Nintendo video game from which it takes — ahem — its inspiration. What it has instead are a weird, jokey science-fiction story, Batman-caliber violence and enough computer-generated dinosaurs to get the jump on Jurassic Park. Eleven-year-old boys, the ideal viewers for this vigorous live-action comic strip, will no doubt be impressed with the expense and energy that have gone into bringing Super Mario Brothers to the screen.


Considering the dismal box office performance (the film generated only $20 million in revenues, while it had an estimated budget of $42 million), it seems the eleven-year-old boys were unimpressed as well.

Given these disasters, it may seem surprising that film studios would still want to do business with the video game industry. Yet, over the years, the technology of video games has improved significantly, allowing games to offer cinematic visuals and complex narratives. In other words, video games have become more like movies, and consequently more movies have become video games. Of the top ten highest-grossing films of 2006, eight had video game releases, and one (Casino Royale, 2006) might have had a video game release had the license for the James Bond franchise not been in transition from EA Games to Activision. The video game releases of 2006 were hardly an anomaly: the previous year, seven of the top ten grossing films had video game releases, and the same was true of 2007.13 Perhaps as the exception that proves the rule, when The Dark Knight (2008) was setting box office records, the absence of the video game was noted:

Why is there no video game based on "The Dark Knight"? For the first time in the film-franchise's history, the caped crusader flew into movie theaters without a video game attached to his utility belt. Despite a plethora of "Dark Knight" action figures, bobble-heads and T-shirts sweeping in Bat-dollars beyond the film's $400 million record-smashing box office, no "Dark Knight" game is following suit. Whatever held things up caused about $100 million in sales to be missed, according to estimates.


Indeed, the release of the video game spin-off has become a common marketing practice, one that carries with it a significant revenue stream.

Granted, not all films are marketed in this way. Independent and foreign films seldom have video game spin-offs; for example, there is no video game for The Hours (2002). Yet many action/adventure films and many films marketed to children and families include a video game component. Furthermore, it is often these types of films that generate the most income at the box office; they are referred to as "tent-pole" pictures because their revenue is used to support the rest of the films on a studio's production roster.

In addition, these tent-pole pictures are often parts of franchises: a series of films, including sequels and sometimes prequels, which are then spun off into a variety of different media and licensed products. In 2006, two of the top ten films were sequels of previous films (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and X-Men: The Last Stand), and two others drew on established content provided by the previous James Bond and Superman films. In 2007, four of the top five highest-grossing movies were sequels, and all four had video games.

Video game spin-offs are often tied to the most successful films in the market and are an important tactic in the larger marketing strategy of establishing a film franchise. Indeed, where the most profitable films are concerned, video game releases are becoming the rule rather than the exception. In spite of Hocking's claim to the contrary, convergence has already occurred. Indeed, shortly after he posted his complaint about convergence, Hocking's own company, Ubisoft, signed on to develop the video game for James Cameron's film Avatar (2009), the first film Cameron directed since Titanic (1997). This book explores the convergence of the film and video game industries. Specifically, I will examine the practices that turn film content into video game content, and the industrial conditions that inform these practices. While video games are also sometimes turned into feature films, this practice is neither as common nor as lucrative. Although there are exceptions (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2001, for example), most films that are developed from video games are not assigned large budgets and do not function as the tent poles for major studios. Therefore, this study will focus on video games that are spun off from films, a practice that has become popular in the twenty-first century. To understand how this convergence has come about, it is important to consider two factors. First, certain technological advancements, specifically the development of the DVD, have facilitated convergence. Second, specific business conditions have allowed the film and video game industries to work cooperatively.


* Lairs, Lasers, and the DVD

In 2005, Hollywood studios witnessed the largest drop in box office revenues in over 20 years, with summer attendance particularly low. Summer is the most important time of year for Hollywood studios, because this is when they release most of their tent-pole films. Market research indicated that the target audience for the summer film fare had chosen home entertainment options instead, primarily DVDs and video games.

The box office has always been one of the more unpredictable revenue sources for the film industry, so studios have come to depend on other markets. Home video is the most lucrative of these markets, because films usually make more money on video than they do during their theatrical release. The revenue generated from video game licensing fees, however, is also significant. Although box office receipts rebounded in 2006 and set records in the summer of 2007, studios are still dependent on these alternative sources of revenue.

For several years, the video game and home video markets were distinct in terms of both content and the physical products themselves. Home videos were manufactured, distributed, retailed, and viewed on VHS tapes. Video games, on the other hand, were manufactured, distributed, retailed, and played on ROM cartridges and CD-ROMs. In 1997, however, DVDs were introduced to the consumer market, and at this point the film and video game industries began selling very similar products. The DVD's impact on the home video market is well documented, but it has also had a significant impact on the video game market. Most home video game systems now use the DVD format, and most video games are published in this format. Consequently, once the DVD was adopted by both the home video and the video game industries, important practices in these two industries dovetailed. To put this in perspective, it will be helpful to review briefly the history of video games and home video.

When the video game business began in the 1970s, there were two distinct yet overlapping markets: arcade games and home gaming systems. Arcade games were housed in large cabinets and placed in amusement parlors alongside pinball machines and pool tables. At about the same time, Magnavox began marketing a home gaming system called Odyssey. Many game titles moved from the arcade to the home systems, and companies like Atari released products for both markets. These markets, however, ultimately diverged, and the home gaming market came to dominate the video game industry. As is often the case, the ultimate dominance of the home gaming market was a matter of economics. Software sales produce the most revenue for the video game industry. Gaming consoles are often retailed as loss leaders, and profits are generated from the licensing and sale of software. While the arcades can promote a particular game, they generate revenue at only a dollar or two per play; new game software can start at price points of $40 and above.

For many years, both the home gaming and arcade markets relied on technology that offered only primitive graphics. As the technology improved over the years, so did the image quality of the games. Polygons are the unit of representation in video games; these polygons are programmed as data and stored on software, and the game systems then process the data and render the images on the video screen. As the images become more detailed and the graphics more complex, more polygons are used and more data are needed. Therefore, advancements in video game technology have required the development of better hardware, capable of processing larger amounts of data, and of software capable of storing and delivering these data.

In 1983, it appeared that laserdiscs would significantly improve the quality of video games. In that year, the game Dragon's Lair appeared in arcades. Dragon's Lair represented a significant advancement in video games because it was based on laserdisc technology that offered full-motion video, rendering complex, cinematic images. Dragon's Lair was "cinematic" in the Disney sense of the word — that is, literally. The game used animation produced by Don Bluth, who had previously worked for the Disney studios, where he contributed to the production of Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Rescuers (1977), and Pete's Dragon (1977).


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Hollywood Gamers by Robert Alan Brookey. Copyright © 2010 Robert Alan Brookey. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1. Playing Together
2. Playing the Games, Being the Heroes
3. Coppola Sleeps with the Fishes
4. Marvel Goes to the Movies
5. Disney Saves the World(s)
6. What Shall We Play Next?
Notes
Works Cited
Index

What People are Saying About This

"Brookey (communication, Northern Illinois Univ.) offers an expansive book that does much more than its modest title promises. Applying, extending, and interrogating ideas from Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (CH, Jun'07, 44-5465), he looks at the economic, aesthetic, industrial, rhetorical, technological, and narrative implications related to the synergistic practices of film and video-game industries. In doing so, he provides a comprehensive transdisciplinary history of ideas, performing a necessary critical convergence in order to encompass the complexity of his topic. Focusing on the Lord of the Rings and Godfather franchises, and also using the Marvel and Disney corporations as touchstones, Brookey successfully harnesses media and cultural studies approaches to create an evolutionary, next-generation game-studies methodology—one that carefully seeks to understand the processes and products of this industrial cross-pollination. Among the important ideas this book explores: the connection between game interactivity and incorporation and consumption practices; author/auteur tensions and reconfigurations within studio systems; and the relationship between intertextuality, fan cultures, 'glocalization,' and cultural imperialism. But this small sample does not do justice to this book's true scope. And Brookey uses game summaries and detailed media and franchise histories to contextualize his ideas. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. — Choice"

J. A. Saklofske]]>

Brookey (communication, Northern Illinois Univ.) offers an expansive book that does much more than its modest title promises. Applying, extending, and interrogating ideas from Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (CH, Jun'07, 44-5465), he looks at the economic, aesthetic, industrial, rhetorical, technological, and narrative implications related to the synergistic practices of film and video-game industries. In doing so, he provides a comprehensive transdisciplinary history of ideas, performing a necessary critical convergence in order to encompass the complexity of his topic. Focusing on the Lord of the Rings and Godfather franchises, and also using the Marvel and Disney corporations as touchstones, Brookey successfully harnesses media and cultural studies approaches to create an evolutionary, next-generation game-studies methodology—one that carefully seeks to understand the processes and products of this industrial cross-pollination. Among the important ideas this book explores: the connection between game interactivity and incorporation and consumption practices; author/auteur tensions and reconfigurations within studio systems; and the relationship between intertextuality, fan cultures, 'glocalization,' and cultural imperialism. But this small sample does not do justice to this book's true scope. And Brookey uses game summaries and detailed media and franchise histories to contextualize his ideas. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. — Choice

Indiana University - Edward Castronova

In touring the half-world of film-games, Brookey shows how brands are cross-marketed and why the production of multimedia brands has failed to live up to the talk.

J. A. Saklofske

Brookey (communication, Northern Illinois Univ.) offers an expansive book that does much more than its modest title promises. Applying, extending, and interrogating ideas from Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (CH, Jun'07, 44-5465), he looks at the economic, aesthetic, industrial, rhetorical, technological, and narrative implications related to the synergistic practices of film and video-game industries. In doing so, he provides a comprehensive transdisciplinary history of ideas, performing a necessary critical convergence in order to encompass the complexity of his topic. Focusing on the Lord of the Rings and Godfather franchises, and also using the Marvel and Disney corporations as touchstones, Brookey successfully harnesses media and cultural studies approaches to create an evolutionary, next-generation game-studies methodology—one that carefully seeks to understand the processes and products of this industrial cross-pollination. Among the important ideas this book explores: the connection between game interactivity and incorporation and consumption practices; author/auteur tensions and reconfigurations within studio systems; and the relationship between intertextuality, fan cultures, 'glocalization,' and cultural imperialism. But this small sample does not do justice to this book's true scope. And Brookey uses game summaries and detailed media and franchise histories to contextualize his ideas. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. — Choice

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