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Hollywood Taps Videogames as Source of Inspiration

For the past dozen years or so, Hollywood has leaned on classic (and not so classic) television shows as the source catalog for new films.

As that trend comes to a close, studios are focusing more and more on the videogame industry.

Dead Island
Credit: Deep Silver
Dead Island

Despite the tarnished history of videogame adaptations, studios are moving forward with more than dozen big-screen gaming movies. What's amazing, though, is it's possible — just possible — that some of these films might not stink.

Studios are grabbing up option rights to games that have a high buzz factor left and right. Among the most recent to be acquired is "Dead Island" by Lionsgate.

The game itself is a mediocre zombie-killer title, but the trailer that introduced it was a masterpiece, full of emotion and telling a story in a fascinating non-linear fashion that is immediately captivating.

And as it turns out, it was less the game that interested the studio as that trailer.

"Like the hundreds of journalists and millions of fans who were so passionate and vocal about the 'Dead Island' trailer, we too were awestruck," said Joe Drake, co-COO and motion picture group president at Lionsgate. "This is exactly the type of property we're looking to adapt at Lionsgate — it's sophisticated, edgy, and a true elevation of a genre that we know and love."

"Dead Island" isn't the only title that has turned studio heads using something other than gameplay. Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema are planning to bring "Mortal Kombat" to the big screen after a 14 year absence on the strength of a series of YouTube videos that were produced by a fan of the game.

Kevin Tancharoen, director of the 2009 film "Fame" and longtime "MK" player, put together a video with friends and friends of friends (including actors Michael Jai White and Jeri Ryan) that went viral when he accidentally made it public, rather than private on YouTube. Warner later commissioned him to oversee nine live-action shorts to lead up to this year's new installment of the game, which ultimately proved to be one of the most successful in the series. Now he'll helm the big screen version.

Analysts say the increase in upcoming game-based movies makes sense, but comes with plenty of challenges.

"Clearly [publishers] are creating valuable IP," says Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities. "This isn't any more outlandish than the 'Brady Bunch Movie' or 'Game of Thrones' being turned into a miniseries. The difference is 'Game of Thrones' has thousands of pages of prose and 'The Brady Bunch' has over 100 episodes of content. Games are typically two or three episodes with not very deep plotlines."

For publishers, the adaptations present the opportunity to showcase their games to an audience that might have bypassed them the first time — or, in some cases, to strengthen consumer loyalty around brands.

Among the game-based films in various stages of development these days are "Mass Effect,"from the Electronic Arts trilogy, Take-Two Interactive Software's"BioShock" and Activision-Blizzard's juggernaut "World of Warcraft,"with Sam Raimi attached to direct. (Activision is also said to be shopping its "Call of Duty" franchise, though no deals have been formally announced.)

The biggest danger with migrating games to films is the built-in audience — gamers — is intimately familiar with the story and the characters, so taking too many liberties can be catastrophic.

That's a lesson Sony-owned Columbia Pictures is taking to heart. Last year, the company announced David O. Russell, director of "The Fighter" would write and direct the adaptation of the hit "Uncharted" action-adventure games (whose first two installments have sold more than 6 million copies).

When Russell announced he wanted to move the film's story away from its Indiana Jones-like roots to one focusing on a family of art thieves, the gaming world groaned. And Sony listened.

In July, the studio replaced Russell with Neil Burger, who promised to bring the game back to its origins — and just like that; the film promptly regained the support of the player community.

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