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Games vs. Toys: The Box Office Battle

There’s a risk in transforming an active experience into a passive one. Just ask Hollywood.

While the demographic for video games and action movies is basically the same, the track record for films based on games has been a pretty dismal one. For every “Tomb Raider”-sized hit, there are a handful of flops like “BloodRayne.”

So what is it about an amorphic semi-tractor trailer that’s so much more appealing than the monsters of “Doom”?

Often, not surprisingly, it comes down to the quality of the films themselves. The “Transformers” series was backed by Michael Bay, one of Hollywood’s biggest hitmakers, while video game-based films often have directors like Uwe Boll, whose work is so reviled that even loyal fans of the games he adapts boycott his movies.

There have been some hits from the video game world. Angelina Jolie’s two “Tomb Raider” films grossed over $430 million. And the three “Resident Evil” films (a fourth is being filmed now) have brought in roughly $379 million.

Those numbers pale, though, when compared to toy-based films. The “Transformers” franchise has made $1.5 billion for Paramount and Hasbro . And this summer’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” has taken in nearly $300 million alone.

A more typical video game-based film grosses under $15 million. Only a handful have topped $100 million, including “Hitman” and “Max Payne.” (“Doom,” based upon one of the most popular franchises in the video game world, only took in $66 million worldwide).

One of the advantages toys have is they don’t come with a locked-in storyline. For years, children have concocted their own stories when they play with their G.I. Joe or Barbie dolls (plans for her upcoming live-action movie, by the way, were announced last month). So when Hollywood comes up with a new scenario for the characters, it’s not jarring – even to adults who have long left the toys behind.

Video game players, though, have guided the characters through elaborate adventures, which they often view as canon. The character’s voices, looks and mannerisms are tied to the experience. And as they’ve played, they feel they’ve gotten to know the hero. Hollywood is forced to compete with those firmly established impressions.

Taking visual liberties is also easier with a toy-based or board game-based film as well. Hollywood special effects can bring childhood imagination to life. Video games already do that.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason a planned movie based on the “Halo” franchise never failed to materialize.

Universal and Twentieth Century Fox were working with Microsoft to put together a film focusing on the Master Chief’s epic struggle against the Covenant – and had even brought on Peter Jackson, who helmed “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, to produce. In-fighting among the studios was blamed for the failed effort, but fear of tackling pre-established impressions of the characters and the game’s world may have played a factor as well.

Despite the risks, Hollywood is showing no signs of giving up on video games as source inspiration. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ben Kingsley will star in next year’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and an adaptation of the Xbox 360 hit “Gears of War” is slated for 2011.

The studio heads are no fools, though. They’ve also got new installments of “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” on the boards.

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