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Would You Like A Franchise With That? (Games, Comics, and Movies From A Hollywood Perspective)
posted by: Monica Hafer
date posted: 11:28 AM Wed Apr 5th, 2006
last revision: 04:47 AM Thu Apr 6th, 2006

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Click to read.In the darkened theater of my mind, I see all of my favorite games and comics coming to life in brilliant precision, the plots I love coming to fruition with my favorite actors, great locations, and sharp editing. The best adaptations may not be precisely as I\'ve imagined the original game or comic myself, but they capture an essential quality that expands the original work, and I end up thankful when my favorite things successfully metamorphose into another medium.

When the lights come up, I\'m faced with the truth of the situation. In Hollywood today, you have a fifty-fifty chance of seeing a decent movie that\'s been adapted from a game or a comic. Some would argue the odds of seeing a good adaptation are even more dismal. Many of us have railed against \"those bastards in Hollywood\" for ruining one of our favorite titles. But many of us in our lucid moments also realize that every once in a while, Hollywood gets it just right. After working a little more closely with this industry, I have a pretty good notion of what it takes to make it work. There are basically two modes of thought, or business models, in Hollywood which lead to the great and not-so-great comic or videogame movie (or conversely, a great movie begetting a great videogame or comic).

Let\'s start with the bad news first. Much of Hollywood works on the same principles as the stock market: Buy low, sell high. This often means that big companies with lots of dollars to spend end up buying the rights to all sorts of little properties in hopes that one of them hits big in its particular medium of origin. They are then rewarded by having a great asset, which technically can become even better if they get a \"stock split\"-i.e. a franchise. For instance, say I picked up the rights to a comic when it was just at issue #5, and by the time it reached #45 it was the biggest thing since sliced bread. I can then make a movie, sell a book written from the screenplay, repackage and sell the comic, and have a videogame made from the property. We won\'t even mention the obscene amount of money that can be made from merchandising-- action figures, lunch boxes, etc.

The problem then becomes that the rights are not available for some properties because they are owned by someone else. That might mean they are in active development, but more often than not, they are merely being sat upon so no one else can have them. These companies are like the bullies of the playground-- they hoard all the toys for themselves. And if you want to buy a specific property from them to make a film, then of course you\'ll have to make it worth their while. The number of movies which actually get made are exceedingly small compared to the amount of fodder that is available. Some might argue that this is because the studios take a big monetary risk making films and they need to be very selective about their projects. But the real problem is that many of the executives which run these bastions of creativity are not themselves creative, nor are they educated about the mediums on which they base their films. They are business people, and therefore are looking at totally different issues.

Let me give you an example. Earlier this year I wandered into the office of a V.P. of Production and spotted a great game title sitting in his In-Box. When I commented on that fact, he shrugged and said he had gotten it as a gift for his nephew and had only taken the advice of the guy at the store when making his purchase. His phone rang at that point, so I amused myself by looking at his bookshelf. I was again impressed by the fact that he had some phenomenal graphic novels, comics, and fantasy books. When he got off the phone, I once more expressed my glee and seeing so much fabulous fodder for future movies sitting on his shelf. He shrugged again and said he had actually inherited all the things on the bookshelf from his predecessor. He had no idea what the titles were and couldn\'t have told the difference between Gaiman and Goldilocks. What I found out next was a definite eye opener. Part of this man\'s job was to negotiate the rights acquisition on various media that he thought would make a great movie. The games his company was looking at were cheap, the rights were available, and although they weren\'t hugely successful, they had a proven track record of making money. The games themselves had almost no originality or depth, but that was just fine. The game was being purchased to automatically ensure a franchise. And plot was something the screenwriter could inject.

Now one of my screenwriter friends argues that if the game/comic has a \"high concept,\" that it doesn\'t matter what the actual game or comic is like. As a writer, you just take the great overall concept and roll from there. The movie is an artifact all of its own and shouldn\'t have to match up with the source material. He would even go so far as to say that because movies are a whole different animal, that it\'s even better if they don\'t even attempt to stay true. My problem with this comes up when you have a wonderful title that you\'re given that does have originality, depth, and a thriving life of its own. There is a reason why people love the game or comic and that is because the original creator has imbued it with the magic of their art. They have invested creative genius into it. There is a reason that it has become so popular, and it may only be partially due to its high concept.

Now let\'s assume for a moment that a title is given to a screenwriter. The writer in question may be great at other genres of film, but may have no understanding of comics or games and what makes the specific title a great property. They will be writing a script based on fulfilling demands of the studio execs, rather than staying true to the original source material. Or perhaps they will be writing with a broader demographic in mind that the material had been focused toward. This is how some of our favorite graphic novels get to be PG-13 films. The studios don\'t want to miss out on the market of those 13 year olds with all that discretionary income. Some studios are making films on the assumption that R rated films don\'t do well, but I think there are plenty of examples of successful R rated films. Heck, at one time there were even successful X rated films. It\'s just when you mis-target your material to a demographic it was never intended for in the first place you can\'t hope to succeed. It\'s the old adage that if you try to make everyone happy, no one will be.

I was told once by an teacher of mine that the people who translate poetry from a foreign language have to themselves be poets for the work to have the same magic it had in it\'s original language. The same is true for screenwriters who are adapting other works. Sometimes properties are given to great writers who actually understand and love the videogame and comic industry as well as being masters of their own art of screenwriting. They are thrilled to be given the ability to sink their teeth into a world they\'ve loved since they were young. They write a phenomenal script, which captures both the magic of the comic/game world and that of cinema. I urge anyone who\'s ever griped about a movie that ruined one of their favorite properties to actually go read the original script. What you will find is that half of the time, the script was beautiful and brilliant. So what happened to it along the way?

I often think of Kevin Smith\'s attempt at a Superman script when this question comes up. He humorously recounts how, in meetings with executives, they thought it would be really wonderful if Superman would encounter and fight polar bears in the Fortress of Solitude. And as a writer, you either have to decide if you want your job (and thus will accept all of the \"polar bears\" that uneducated executives request you add to your script) or if you want your dignity as a writer and no paycheck at all. As a writer who finds herself poor more often than not, I can attest that polar bears become mighty attractive when you have nothing left in your refrigerator and your landlord wants rent.

Your script, besides needing to glean the approval of production executives also has to run the gauntlet through directors and actors. If the company is trying to attract a specific director, they will do whatever they feel is necessary to your script to achieve that. Also, I\'ve heard horror stories of scripts who were given to the director\'s uncle\'s sister\'s cousin for a \"re-write\" and came back wholly unrecognizable. Then, there are always the stories of prima-donna actors who find it necessary for their characters to do all sorts of things that any self-respecting writer would never have put on the page.

Unfortunately, writers are some of the least respected people in Hollywood, regardless of the fact that without them, no one would have projects to work on. And this applies not only to the screenwriters who are creating the film versions but even more so to the original creators of the games and comics.

Before we get too carried away with hanging the whole of Hollywood, let me put something out there: None of these people want to make a bad movie. It\'s not like the people who made Catwoman wanted to add a Razzie to their list of credits. All people who are involved with making your favorite property into a film want it to succeed. Even if you think that the top exec who wants the film to make money to support his coke habit deserves a flop, think of the massive amount of people who work on a film, from the gaffers and caterers to the lowly janitors. If a type of film flops, then no more films get made, and many people are out of a job.

Part of the problem with large studios making films is that the bigger the budget of the picture, the more the film has to succeed. The risk/reward ratio has to be there. It has to be a \"good bet.\" The pressure for that to happen makes everyone crazy, and thus more likely to bend themselves and everyone else into silly-putty pretzels in order to try to make the movie succeed. This often backfires, and the finished project is so far from the original source material as to be almost unrecognizable. I worked on a movie at one point where there were so many cooks in the kitchen that if it weren\'t for an absolutely brilliant editor, the film would have been like a watercolor picture splattered over with diet soda.

Because the business model that supports these sorts of films is focused first and foremost on the financial and risk/reward ratio, the decisions are made by people who know more about the business end of things than the creative end. Choices are made not on what will serve the original source material or what will make great art, but what will serve the business model and it\'s interests. Of course, this assumes a difference between \"good\" and \"profitable,\" but I think many indy game developers and comic artists would attest to the fact that the quality of their work was recognized by their audience and led to financial success.

Now let\'s look at the other side of the Hollywood dime. There are people who want to acquire specific projects because they love the source material. They are people who desire to add another dimension to something they already love. And what I have seen is that these people really respect the artists who have created the material. They understand that there is creative genius in all the people who come together to make a game or a comic/graphic novel. I\'m thinking of Robert Rodriguez and his willingness to give up some of the things that half of Hollywood thinks is necessary for position/clout in order to make Sin City a film which was true to it\'s original source material and honored the genius of it\'s creator.

Directly related to this in the comic world, we have only to look at Frank Miller and Alan Moore to see how important it is to value the creative integrity of the source material. This integrity, coupled with producers and directors who have a deep understanding of the source material, creates great filmmaking. We have only to look at Sin City and V for Vendetta to see this at work. Let\'s not forget that our modern conception of Batman comes from this lineage as well. I would also argue that films which ultimately failed weren\'t able to capture the original work\'s tone and plot (Elektra, Daredevil, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman -- all great based on great comics). If you ever want to know how hard dealing with Hollywood can be for comic writers, you only have to read Alan Moore\'s bio related to his experience with film.

The movies which succeed require screenwriters and directors which, like poets themselves, are able to understand and translate their source material. They must be well-versed in both the world of film and in the world of games/comics. If they are only committed to games or comics, they will be missing out on the unique and necessary elements which make a film a distinct medium and will therefore fall short. Also, if they have no true understanding of their source material, they are likely to make films which are lifeless and resort to special effects ploys or rest solely on their \"brand name actors\" to pull an audience.

I think that some of the films based on comics and graphic novels have fared better if only for the simple reason that we have had many years to get used to adapting screenplays from books and other written materials. Writers have yet to perfect the transition from videogame to film. This may be because of their epic, multi-faceted plotlines, reliance on individual gameplaying experiences, and highly visual and interactive nature. It is a tougher medium to capture in a linear model. But the gaming world is so compelling and marvelous for many of us, and so many great games are being made, that we very much would like to see their successful transition to film. It is the new wave. If you don\'t believe me, take a look at all the new movies being made from comics and games (I am eagerly awaiting Silent Hill this month, and I think everyone is waiting to find out more about Halo, which is currently listed as in pre-production and due out in 2007).

From a negative viewpoint, the sharks in Hollywood have smelled blood in the water. They know that comic and videogame movies can make money. This means that although there are going to be more rotten movies on the way, it also means that companies will be more likely to bankroll good films as well. And we won\'t know until they hit the big screen. Just look at some of the recent outcomes.

There are some games which have a great concept but you couldn\'t tell that from the film. Doom had the look and feel of the videogame, but failed to generate a compelling plot (which made it necessary to rely on actors to quip their way through an entire two hour block, which, actually, isn\'t all that much less compelling than the actual game plot and dialog). And of all the scripts that could have been made from the themes in Bloodrayne, the film decided it just wanted to be a rehash of every other vampire movie made in the last ten years. But we can at least blame that on Uwe Boll.

Some argue that the Resident Evil films fall into the \"suck\" category, although I happen to enjoy them for what they are. Or perhaps I just like the star. Milla Jovovich seems to be making a habit of being in genre films, starting with The Fifth Element. I recently saw her in UltraViolet, where her hotness quotient was pretty high. The film was extremely visually creative, and featured many recognizable homages to its comic book roots, but the plot of the movie was almost incomprehensible and the dialogue was laughable. Yet I had fun anyway. And it seems like the studios think that Milla is doing something right, as Resident Evil: Extinction is in pre-production as I write this. And speaking of movies that do well enough to get sequels but stink compared to the game, Tomb Raider is a franchise that fails to capture the true magic of the games, and yet keeps on being a success (monetarily speaking) as far as the film world is concerned.

Lest we forget the two-way nature of a franchise, I want to focus finally on film\'s effect on videogames. I have a great deal of empathy for videogame scriptwriters and designers whose job it is to make a game based on a movie. They are often given some hideous deadline to get the game out in sync with the film, they must make concessions to stay true to the film (and not reveal any spoilers if the game is to be released before the film), and thehy are under the same pressures to conform and re-imagine as filmmakers are (what, you thought videogame makers didn\'t have their own set of polar bears?). This need for a franchise often makes games that are not up to the potential that they could have been had they been allowed to have some of their own life and been given more time in development. How often have you rushed out to pick up the videogame adaptation of a favorite film and been stuck with something that was obviously rushed (think King Kong), was exactly like the movie with no surprises, or just seemed like a game you had already played with new characters slapped on an old engine (I swear I had d?j? vu when playing Chronicles of Narnia that I was back in Middle Earth).

Conversely, I was recently struck while playing a videogame made from a movie that I really wish the scriptwriters from the game had been put in charge of writing the film script. It was smart and cool, and heads above the screenplay in quality. Perhaps franchises like the Matrix create the best of both worlds, where the same creative minds are in charge of the movie/game/comic/anime aspects, and all creative pieces stand or fall (depending on your opinion) as one entity.

Finally, the best way for translation of a comic or game to film to work is for everyone involved to focus on the highest service to the creative life of the original source material. When that happens a franchise with real value is made, not because a company wants to make a fast buck from the gullible masses who rely on spectacular advertising and unwarranted hype to make their viewing decisions, but because when you really, truly love something, you just can\'t get enough of it. \"Good\" is always profitable.

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