Misquoted Again - Hollywood Style: Bullshit Edition

I started this blog when I was grossly misquoted as announcing a game based on the film "Juno." While it is a great film, there is really not a lot of content lending itself to a game, and I have never represented a property controlled by Fox or anyone involved with the film. I figured the best way to do it was to write my own stuff.

Well, consistent with my new theme of "everything old is new again" the blog is coming full circle. I am returning to the original purpose and providing a platform for correction. If Ashton Kutcher is more powerful than CNN, I must at least be a speed bump relative to the Hollywood Reporter, the most recent proponent of the brutal marriage of free speech and truthiness. Sometimes misquotes are by ommission, some are by commission and in very special cases, like last week when I was quoted in an article of games based on film licenses, they are both. My quote said:

Keith Boesky, a principal at Boesky & Co., says that studios are creating most of their own big games now, both out of a desire to control different incarnations of their franchises and because game publishers are increasingly gunshy about film-based games that aren't proven franchises.

"The biggest problem for Hollywood right now is that publishers aren't nearly as receptive to licenses as they used to be," Boesky says, citing such recent disappointments as "The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena" and "The Godfather II."

"The only thing a game publisher is really going to want is a film that has two-plus years to release, with a guaranteed release date, with a guaranteed sequel and a guaranteed film marketing budget in excess of $80 million," he adds. "And right now there aren't a lot of those." . . .

"I think the studios are thinking more smartly because they're not looking at games as lunch boxes and T-shirts anymore," Boesky says, citing the hire of such game-industry veterans as John Kavanaugh at Paramount Digital Entertainment and Bill Kispert at Universal Pictures Digital Platforms. "By having people who actually make games involved in the process, they're getting better at how they do it."

The omission happens in the third paragraph and is the more egregious liberty taken with what are presented as my words. But in a rare effort at clarity, I am starting with the first and ignoring the very clear fact the collection of words surrounding my name read like they were assembled by a young child of a far away country using English words for the first time - "more smartly" "getting better at how they do it."

The first paragraph is an act of commission as I NEVER SAID IT. What kind of asshole who makes his living at the nexus of Hollywood and games would continue to work in this market if he believed publishers and consumers do not want to buy games from films? Not this one. I sold more game into film, films into games and developers to make games based on films than anyone in the world. I planted my stake here because I believe it is a good market. When the question was asked, the subject was fresh on my mind because one week earlier I was asked to provide a written response to the claims of a May 18th LA Times Blog Post entitled, "Movies may be booming, but video games based on them are not." I was sent the post and asked for my perspective.

Here is the original post.

A big year at the box office isn't doing much for video games based on them.

As movie studios and media conglomerates get increasingly involved in the video games based on their film and TV properties, some to the point of investing hundreds of millions of their own dollars, April U.S. sales data from the NPD Group provides some sobering news. All five of the most recent video games based on movies have sold poorly or moderately:

"Wanted: Weapons of Fate" is the first video game for high end consoles such as the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 financed by Universal (in a slightly ironic twist, it was distributed by Warner Bros.). From its March 24 debut to the end of April, "Wanted" sold only 100,000 units, generating less than $6 million in gross sales. While its performance was hurt by production delays that pushed the game nearly four months beyond "Wanted's" DVD launch in December (it never had a chance of coming out with the film's theatrical debut last June), Universal still undoubtedly had higher hopes given that top-tier titles for the 360 and PS3 typically cost more than $20 million to produce before any marketing.

"Hannah Montana: the Movie," which was published by Disney Interactive Studios, a sibling unit to the film studio within the Walt Disney Co., certainly cost less to make. But 65,000 games sold in the first three-plus weeks is a bad sales figure for any budget and evidence that inexpensive video games aimed at girls, traditionally the foundation of Disney Interactive's strategy, aren't consistently hits.

Electronic Arts' first video game based on "The Godfather," released in 2006, sold a solid 4 million units worldwide. But gamers have proved willing to refuse "The Godfather II" (pictured above). It sold a modest but not disastrous 241,000 units out of the gate, giving it gross sales of under $15 million, and received so-so reviews (in part because of how significantly it deviates from the movie's plot). That means Electronic Arts likely won't pour resources into a third "Godfather" game, a decision that would cause the rights to revert back to Paramount.

"The Chronicles of Riddick" is a dead franchise on the big screen. But the game based on Universal's 2004 film is revered by many fans and critics as the best interactive adaptation of a movie. So Atari, which bought the video game sequel after former publisher Vivendi Games merged with Activision, had every reason to be excited about "The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena," which featured the digital likeness and voice of Vin Diesel in the lead role. Since its March 17 debut, however, gamers have bought only 100,000 copies.

Games based on hit kids' movies are usually as safe a bet as they come. But Activision's adaptation of DreamWorks Animations' "Monsters vs. Aliens" has sold just 161,000 units since it came out on March 27.

(Sales figures don't include the PC versions, though that rarely makes a significant difference.)

In response to the sales question, I wrote (I apologize for the poor grammar and underdeveloped thoughts):

Looking at the movie games you mentioned, Wanted, Riddick and Godfather did not come out with movies. This makes a huge difference. The film game consumer is a completely different consumer than the core gamer. They buy games based on films they like and know the games are on the shelf when the film is out. Remember, Wal Mart is the largest game retailer in the US, and the 110 million per week who walk through the store find out about those games from the movie marketing campaign. If there is no campaign, they don't look. If they happen to stumble upon it, they assume it is old. Their performance is not at all indicative of film based game performance over all. If I had to guess on Monsters vs. Aliens and Hannah Montana - which is what you are asking me to do - I would say they are victims of the economy. After taking the family to somewhere between 50 to 100 dollars worth of movie night, there was probably just not enough left over to buy a 60 dollar game.

You should also be somewhat suspect of the numbers. They are US only, and NPD does not cover all retailers. Depending on the of game, the numbers may be off significantly.

I stand by what I wrote. The three games cited in the article are not indicative of performance of film based games and, while I am not a publisher, I do not believe they are making the publishers any more gun shy of a film based game than the poor performance of the highly anticipated series, Kings, on NBC, as they bear just about as much relevance. The number of licensed games in a publishers portfolio are a percentage of the total output. Because license fees are paid out, the margins are lower than on a wholly owned franchise. In many cases, the decreased margin is made up on higher sales, so licensed properties are a vital part of a portfolio. Like the studios, for the past few years, most publishers have been operating under the "fewer, bigger, better" credo and reducing the total number of games in production. As a result even if the percentage of licensed games remains constant, the absolute number of licensed game slots is reduced, making it more difficult for studios to place anything other than sequels to blockbusters, or the most expensive, hyped films of the year. But the percentage of licensed properties is not constant at every publisher.

The reduced number of slots is further exacerbated by the increased cost of the games. In the last console cycle, games cost 1/4 what they cost to produce today. Publishers were willing to take chances on films without guaranteed sequels because they could earn out on one game. Today, publishers are more reluctant to take in film games today because game budgets are very large, and they can not always realize the return they would like on a single game. They must amortize the budget over a number of games. If there is no film release or marketing campaign, game sequels need additional publisher marketing and still may underperform relative to the initial game. If a publisher has to invest in marketing a game like an original title, they may as well build something they own, rather than something owned by someone else.

While producers, writers and directors do not often understand, the people responsible for gams at studios recognize the publishers license games for the built in marketing. Game publishers have more internal stories than they know what to do with, and if they run out of ideas, they can dig into another pile at the developer level. Except in the rarest of cases, publishers really don't care how unique or special your movie about the potential apocalypse thwarted by missile farting penguins is. If there is no big marketing campaign, fixed release date and a sequel, you will not sell it. If you do, it will be on materially different terms than those received by Marvel or Fox for Avatar or Paramount for Tin Tin. Studios spend more money around the launch of a film than many publishers spend the whole year. This effort lets the Wal-Mart shopper know what is in the box by looking at the cover. If you don't believe me, hold up Bioshock next to a Bond game.

This leads to the third paragraph. I did say the studios are smarter because they are being pro active. They realize the licensing market is shrinking and they using different methods to initiate game production. I mentioned Bill and John because I have known both for a number of years and both are very good at what they do. Bill Kispert actually made games for Universal. He built games for a number of films and in an exercise foreign to most within the studio system, he put his ass on the line and took responsibility for the production before anyone knew whether or not it would work. I know John as one of the best game production people I ever met His hiring is signal Paramount is serious about actually building games. My mention of these guys does not mean production is ramping to the exclusion of licensing, and therein lies the omission. Production is a compliment to licensing.

The complete story would mention people like Mark Caplan at Sony, who along with licensing games for blockbuster features, pulled Ghostbusters out of the archives for a frontline AAA game, introducing the property to a whole new audience; or Sandi Isaacs, who among other things, licensed The Godfather game to EA and while the May 18 blog may question the first week sales of the sequel launched in the off season, it also references sales of the first title which probably accounted for more revenue in 2006 than the aggregate of the previous 37 years since launch or the high margin revenue from the Tin Tin deal announced by Ubisoft at E3 - on a side note, revenue from sales to date actually exceed the opening box office for each of the Godfather films and when coupled with the first game's revenue exceed the total box office revenue of the theatrical franchise; and of course no licensing story would be complete without reference to Rob Sebastian's annus mirabilis, when he had the good fortune to license Harry Potter, AI and Superman in a single year, closing in on USD 100 million no risk dollars for Warner.

So please, I think it is wonderful for you to reach out to perceived experts rather than guessing about how a business works. But if you would like me to be one of them, listen to the words I say rather than hunting for the right ones to support your story.


Craig said…
I remember that Juno "announcement." The sorry state of game "journalism" (equally sarcastic quotes) is a whole other subject...

Haven't seen any advertising for Ghostbusters, but at least they're launching it with the Blu-ray release of the original movie.
Douglas said…
with a reverent nod to the inimitable Mister T, I say "Pity the fool who fucks with Keith Boesky." Believe me. I know. First hand.

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