In Hollywood, game company Ubisoft takes a thumbs-on approach
For the last two decades, video game movies have been so bad that the genre itself has become shorthand for failure.
So when French game publisher Ubisoft, best known for its “Assassin’s Creed” series and Tom Clancy-branded military games, decided to take a stab at movies, the company didn’t search for a Hollywood expert to be its partner. Ubisoft decided to hire him.
Jean-Julien Baronnet, chief executive of the 2-year-old Ubisoft Motion Pictures unit, takes a hands-on approach to translating his company’s intellectual property from interactive to linear media. The former head of movie director Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp spends one week a month in Los Angeles and is intimately involved in casting, script and filmmaking decisions.
In an industry where licensors are typically expected to leave filmmaking to the experts, Baronnet’s demands for creative control and financial participation helped cause near-done deals with Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures to fall apart, according to people involved in the talks but not authorized to speak publicly.
But with two game adaptations in the pipeline — starring Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy and set up at New Regency Productions — Baronnet is confident his video game movies will make money and reflect well on their source material.
“If you look at past adaptations of games to movies, none were done by an integrated gaming company that put a movie structure inside of itself,” Baronnet said during a recent visit to L.A. “We’re not here to just license and we’re not here to produce big movies ourselves. We are really in the middle of it.”
A list of failed movies based on video games includes disasters like 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” starring Bob Hoskins, Dwayne Johnson’s “Doom” in 2005 and Mark Wahlberg’s 2008 “Max Payne.”
But many in Hollywood still see gold in video games — and not just because they’re a $67-billion global industry, according to research firm DFC Intelligence. Much as comic books have become a prime source for movie ideas, many believe video games are poised to do the same. Other game-based projects in the works include “Need for Speed” at DreamWorks, “Deus Ex” at CBS Films and “Warcraft” at Legendary Pictures.
Ubisoft, a mid-size company that lags behind industry giants Nintendo and Activision Blizzard, turned away approaches from movie producers for years before concluding that, to grow its franchises, it needed a presence beyond games and the Web videos it produces out of its Montreal studios. In dozens of meetings since 2011, Baronnet has made a reputation in Hollywood in the time-honored way: as a man with movies to make and money to spend.
Unlike other game companies, Ubisoft has paid writers to develop ideas and struck deals with A-list stars before getting a studio involved. The goal, Baronnet said, is to ensure that the essence of his company’s games is not lost as Hollywood strangers shepherd them to the big screen.
“With so much at stake, it’s important we don’t give up the DNA of the game, the fundamental pillars,” he said.
Fassbender will play the lead in “Assassin’s Creed,” in which a modern-day man experiences the lives of ancestors who were assassins during the Crusades, Renaissance Italy and the American Revolution.
In “Splinter Cell,” Hardy, best known as the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” will play the leader of an elite black ops military unit.
“We’re looking to bring both an independent and studio mentality to these movies, and both these actors speak to that,” said New Regency Chief Executive Brad Weston.
Beyond extensive creative involvement, Ubisoft also has the right to co-finance any movie with New Regency, meaning it could invest in a second film in either series after forgoing the first. Other studios balked at that demand, since sequels are typically safer investments than originals.
Weston said the quality of Ubisoft’s intellectual property and its role in the development process justifies the unusual arrangement.
“Ubisoft did something very intelligent in bringing people from the film industry who speak the same language that we do,” he said. “We’re working in partnership versus [the more standard method of] us doing the work and then turning it in for approval.”
As scripts are being written, Weston said, the next step is to find directors for the two movies, which are expected to cost more than $100 million each and to come out no earlier than late 2014.
Baronnet is also putting together a pitch for a movie based on the “Ghost Recon” games about a special operations military squad.
And Ubisoft is producing a cartoon series based on its lighthearted “Rabbids” games that it financed through sales to TV networks around the world, including Nickelodeon in the U.S.
With relatively little of its own money on the line, success for Ubisoft Motion Pictures won’t make a dent in the bottom line of a company that generated revenue of $1.4 billion in its last fiscal year. Still, hard-core players are sure to analyze every detail of the movies, while for millions of non-gamers, the films will be their first exposure to “Assassin’s Creed” or “Splinter Cell.”
“We don’t want to make an average movie,” Baronnet said. “We want to make a movie that will serve the brand and make happy the gamers and also the non-gamers. I think it has never been done before, but we can build this bridge.”
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