Friday, May 9, 2008

We're Going to the Movies: Bioshock Edition


Bioshock is set up at Universal to be a movie and it appears to be on track to breaking the bad transition mold. Take 2 appears to realize games are not like books or comic books. Story cannot be lifted from the game, it must be created from the universe the game established. The story is drawn from, but not dictated, by the game.

Bioshock is a stand out game by every measure and deserved to sell each of the 2 million units it sold and more. But if each one of these 2 million purchasers goes to see the film on opening night, it will generate box office of $20 million - a bit of a failure. The first job of the studio is to make the film appeal to a broader audience than the game. The job of the publisher, is to make sure the film does not alienate the gamers. This means the film is answering to two masters from the start. Other game to film transitions fail when the story either plays too closely to the game narrative, which is already derivative of a film, or the story ignores the game and alienates the core game audience.

It sounds like Take 2 is on the right track. They attached a powerful writer and director to the property and both are familiar with the property. It sounds pretty simple, but it rarely happens. I remember meeting the writer of a famously disappointing game based film who explained his only contact with the game was over the shoulder of his kid. Gore Verbinski comes to the property through discussions with its creator, Ken Levine. In an interview with Ben Fritz, Gore acknowledges the value of the small but critical core audience:
I think we'll go right up to the edge with the Little Sisters. I don’t want to soften it to the point where the core audience feels betrayed. At the same time, the gameplay is completely different than it will be for an audience watching.

He says the movie is going to go, and wants to get into production, but stops short of providing a release date. The game film marriage is not exactly made in heaven. Games pursue a fire, ready, aim approach, while films pursue a ready, aim fire. Games go from acquisition to full production. Films go from acquisition to development, to production. The studio will commission scripts until the right one comes along. Sometimes, the scripts veer off irretrievably into the wrong direction, or the film loses its priority, and the project is set aside for a while - development hell. If and when an acceptable script comes along, if the studio is still interested, if the market is still accepting of the content, if the right cast is available, if the budget is acceptable, if forecasts show recoupment plus profit, if lightning strikes the right executive in the right place to tickle his balls just right, and, and, and, the film is green lit for production.
"Bioshock" publisher Take-Two Interactive is getting a multimillion-dollar advance against gross points on the pic. It's believed to be the biggest videogame-to-movie deal since 2005, when U and Fox signed onto the since aborted "Halo" pic, for which Microsoft got $5 million against 10%.

Take-Two executive chairman Strauss Zelnick said the "state of the art" deal is structured so that "Bioshock" won't end up in turnaround like "Halo," which is back with Microsoft.

This is good news, because the last two "state of the art deals" employed by his agency, CAA, didn't work so well. On each of Doom and Halo the films were sold with a fuse. If the film was not in production within a certain time from sale, the rights reverted. This results in the studio being forced to either put a film into production which could use more script work, as was the case with Doom, or pass because the script in hand does not support the budget - Halo. Tomb Raider's aggressive progress to production was effective because it kept the studio continuously working on the project, but did not force their hand with a guaranteed production date. These types of structures are necessary not only to avoid the turnaround referenced by Mr. Zelnick, but to avoid development hell, the worst of both worlds. You lose your property and the film does not come out.

Rights acquisition is something completely different to a game publisher than a film studio. In a Game publisher's mind, every game started is more likely to be completed, than not. Once acquired, games go into full production and it is difficult to stop the train. Even though they should, publishers are loathe to kill games in production. They will continually throw hundred dollar bills into the pyre of sideways productions rather than shut them down. If a game executive advocates termination to his boss, it means their decision to spend every preceding dollar was a mistake. Film studios believe the vast majority of projects acquired, will never make it to the screen. By breaking the process is broken into two distinct stages, development and production, they can kill a project before the significant costs are incurred, and they kill more than they make.

The quote appears to lump gross participation into the support for guaranteed production. I don't think this is what he meant. If anything, gross points will reduce the likelihood of production. The studios, like any other business, look to the bottom line. A lot of gross participants means the film must make more money to cover production costs. The studio will be out a significant amount for acquisition, the first draft of the script from this high profile writer, Take 2 is a gross participant and Gore is likely a gross participant. Right now, there is no major star on the film but if one is added, he or she will add up front costs and more gross out the door. Each one of these costs makes the greenlight decision, which is largely driven by likelihood of profit, a harder to make. Fortunately for the budget, there is no producer in there to add to the load. Mr. Zelnick explained:
Zelnick, who was president of Fox in the early '90s, led the dealmaking for his company, rather than set the project up with a producer.

"One of the things we decided early on is that we didn't want to go through a producer," he commented. "It's terribly important to us to have a meaningful influence on how this project is produced. We didn't want any insulation between us."

I didn't think we needed a producer on Tomb Raider either. The studio executives explained how much more effective we would be if it was just us and them. Why would they lie to me? They were such nice guys. Then Leigh Brecheen, our lawyer stepped in. Producers are your advocates, she explained. You are selling one film. Producers build their deal over their years in the business. Each success gives them more control and more input on future films. In our case, the producer had final cut, a right Take 2 probably did not secure, but I am only guessing. Successful producers also have many properties and relations, and they leverage each one to maximize the success of the others. We listened to Leigh and handed the property to Larry and Lloyd, and Leigh was right. Not only did their years of film making experience create and mold the vision of the film, they secured better talent than we or the studio would have alone - Angelina Jolie - and on a number of occasions they stopped the studio from throwing the film into production too quickly. Mr. Zelnick's quote makes it sound like all of this is done without the rights holder. Thanks to Leigh, this was not the case for us. Much to Larry's chagrin, for good and bad, Eidos had significant input. I say for good and bad because we were game makers, not filmmakers. We didn't know how to make a movie.

Having run a studio, Mr. Zelnick has a hell of a lot more experience with film than anyone at Eidos, but he is not a film producer and I wonder whether Universal will listen to the guy who has one deal with them when he fights to ensure a quality production, secure talent, get the expensive writer for the rewrite, get the budget increased for the "one more" effect shots and when the time comes, drive marketing and distribution dollars to release his multiple gross participant bearing, R rated, video game based, Ayn Rand dsytopic future film on to the world wide stage.

Personally, I really hope he does, because after spending so much time playing the game all the way through, I would really like to know what the story means.





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