Hollywood and Manufacturers Now Raiding Video Games

WASHINGTON POST

"Not that bad," said James Lim, 16, a student at W.T. Woodson High in Fairfax, Va., suggesting that the swords scene inside the majestic Cambodian tomb in the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" reminded him of scenes in the Tomb Raider video games.

Lingering after Tysons Fairfax Square Cinema cleared out its matinee crowd recently, Lim and several friends considered how Hollywood had fared in translating the adventures of the video game goddess into a film starring Angelina Jolie.

Acknowledging that he has played Tomb Raider a lot, Sam Lee said he had been looking forward to seeing the movie version. "I think it's sort of cool," summed up the 14-year-old Woodson student, "that they made a movie out of a game."

Actually, it's sort of hot.

With "Final Fantasy" and "Resident Evil" following "Tomb Raider" onto the big screen this summer, plus half a dozen other projects in the works, making blockbuster video games into big-budget movies and mass-market merchandise is the hot new trend in the world of licensing.

"It's the emerging trend," says Charles Riotto, president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandiser Assn., the trade group that earlier this month held the International Licensing Show in New York, where about 18,000 attendees and 500 companies sized up the business potential of more than 3,700 "properties," including animated characters, sports personalities and video games.

Of the $97 billion in retail sales the licensing business did last year, video games and computer games accounted for about 11%. "That's a huge business," says Riotto, clarifying that the largest segment of that figure comes from properties licensed to video-game makers rather than video game properties licensed to movie and memorabilia makers, as when Eidos licensed Tomb Raider film rights to Paramount Pictures. "Doing it the opposite way is being developed."

Besides the movie, more than 100 companies reportedly have bought licensing rights to manufacture "Tomb Raider" merchandise. After the film's $47.7-million box-office debut weekend, the online auction site EBay listed nearly 850 movie-related items for bid, ranging from Inkworks' "Lara Croft Tomb Raider Premium trading card sets" to Playmates Toys' Lara Croft action figures and a dozen lunch boxes.

Just how hot popular video games have become is seen in some of the cart-before-the-horse stories coming from both sectors. The Industry Standard, an Internet business newsmagazine, reported in May that a screenwriter who is adapting a novel for the big screen decided to team up with a video game designer to turn the book into a video game first, just to get leverage for the film. And then there's Nickelodeon, the children's TV network that in April signed on video-game manufacturer THQ to make original video games--not games based on existing Nickelodeon programs--and then look into developing them as new TV series, movies, online games, magazines and merchandise.

Not that licensing video-game characters and plots is a new concept. In 1993, Buena Vista made the movie "Super Mario Bros." based on the video game series. A year later, Universal made "Street Fighter" based on Capcom's arcade fighting game. Both were low-budget movies made as campy kids' flicks; both flopped at the box office.

The difference now? "You are seeing it reach new heights because video games are penetrating millions of homes," says David Greenspan, vice president of business affairs at Midway Games Inc., a video game manufacturer whose lineup includes NFL Blitz and Mortal Kombat.

With the gigantic success of PlayStation and the promise of Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's Xbox, Greenspan says, the flip side of video game licensing has arrived: "Movie companies are coming to us for movie ideas."

Riotto says those numbers and demographics are propelling the video-game licensing breakout. "It is the shift in demographics and just the overall total broad-based acceptance of video games now as part of the American culture," he says. "A few years ago, it was just some kid playing games instead of "The Hollywood people are believing in these properties. They're saying, 'Hey, we know X amount of people play these games and, hopefully, that can be translated into movie tickets sold.' "

DAVID GREENSPAN

Midway Games executive

doing his homework. But the statistics have changed."

Reflecting those changes, this nation has a president in George W. Bush who lists playing video games among his favorite leisure activities. According to the Washington-based Interactive Digital Software Assn., a study last year found that 32% of Americans who play computer games and video games are 35 or older and 13% are 50 or older. The association, a trade group representing U.S. computer and video game publishers, says research shows that 26% of the most frequent console gamers are women.

The group's president, Doug Lowenstein, says video gaming has become such a significant entertainment element that he expects sales to match or exceed movie box-office sales within three to five years. "Video games are no longer just relegated to a corner of the house, as they once were," Lowenstein said at the Electronic Entertainment Exposition in Los Angeles last month. "They're in the center of the home, they're on the Internet, they're in the movies. . . . In short, video games are everywhere."

And that creates a lucrative audience that is impossible for Hollywood to ignore. "You have a combination of so many people being into it, and Hollywood . . . looking for properties that already have a loyal fan base," says Riotto, mentioning films that have ready-made fan bases, such as "Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," "102 Dalmatians" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

"It is a much easier process than trying to develop whole new characters from scratch and trying to develop a merchandising program for a whole new product," says Riotto.

Recently, Midway Games hired a licensing agent to pursue opportunities for several of its bestsellers. Midway's remake of its original '80s arcade game Spy Hunter for PlayStation 2 is attracting lots of attention from Hollywood and merchandisers. Scheduled to ship this fall, it already has a strong audience, says Greenspan.

"The Hollywood people are believing in these properties. They're saying, 'Hey, we know X amount of people play these games and, hopefully, that can be translated into movie tickets sold.' "

But Midway isn't going to change how it chooses future titles with an eye toward movie potential, Greenspan insists. "The bottom line is, game developers want to make the best game possible. The developers have to be passionate about the games they're making because they are spending 18 months on it."

Although he's unwilling to speculate how movie deals might bolster Midway's profits, Greenspan says the upside extends beyond the licensing deal. "If a movie comes out and then you make a sequel of the game, the benefit is unbelievable," he says. "The bottom line for me is it is going to help me sell a lot more games, assuming the movie is a good movie."

And that's no sure thing. Danny Simon assures that even if this summer's video-game-to-big-screen movies are all blockbusters, there will still be bad movies made from video games.

In the licensing business for 26 years with video games a specialty, Simon was executive producer of the 1995 movie version of the controversial video game Mortal Kombat.

What Mortal Kombat had and what today's action video games offer Hollywood, says Simon, are a solid "back story," an established universe and characters with their own unique abilities and personalities.

"It's like the comic book industry: Once Hollywood found the comic book industry, they have not let it alone."

Even more promising, explains Simon, is that the video game industry is now akin to the movie industry. Simon predicts the two entertainment media are so alike that the future will find them blurring together. "As movies become more interactive, we will see more of a lessening of that demarcation between the movie and the game," he says.

"We will have those movies in the future where audiences affect the ending of the movie."

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