Movie and Game Studios Getting the Total Picture

(Top Image Courtesy Of Thq Inc.; Bottom Image Courtesy Of Sony Pictures)
By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, July 20, 2006

"Monster House," the new animated movie from Sony Pictures, is hitting the big and small screens almost simultaneously this week.

The movie, featuring the voices of Steve Buscemi and Kathleen Turner, opens in theaters tomorrow. The video game, available for Game Boys and PlayStations, reached stores earlier in the week.

Video game sales have struggled lately, but Hollywood seems to be giving the industry a boost this summer. Game sales were up 25 percent for the month of June, according to research firm NPD, thanks in part to a tie-in game for the new Pixar Animation Studios flick "Cars," which has sold 696,000 copies so far. A game for "Over the Hedge," another recent animated movie, has also been a strong seller.

More tie-in games and movies are on the way. Next month, your kids may be clamoring to see, and play, "Barnyard," a story about the secret lives of farm animals. The game will be available on the PlayStation 2, the GameCube, the Game Boy Advance and even the old-fashioned Windows PC.

Movies and the video game industry have had a sometimes rocky relationship over the years. Things got off to a less-than-auspicious start a couple of decades ago, with an Atari game based on "E.T. the Extraterrestrial" that was so bad, some blame it for causing a game industry crash.

For game fans, there's usually been something a little suspect about movie tie-ins. The typical cutting-edge video game takes more time to make than the average action movie, so game developers are often rushed to get their product out the door to meet a movie release date -- sometimes before all the glitches are cleaned out.

John Ardell, global brand director for kids' titles at THQ, the publisher behind the Cars and Monster House games, says that relationship has changed.

"Five or 10 years ago, [movie tie-in games] were all bad," he said, "but you just couldn't get access out of studios. They would wake up at the last minute and say, 'We want a video game with this.' " Sometimes, he said, "You wouldn't even get a copy of the script. You would have to sit in a room and read it."

These days, there's much more cooperation, he said. For example, THQ got to use Cars characters designed by Pixar Studios that the animation company ended up not using in the movie. "Cars" director John Lasseter met with the game's team regularly during its development. The game features the voices of the same actors, such as Owen Wilson, and the same rock soundtrack.

For a game publisher, designing a game that will be locked in step with the Hollywood marketing machine can have sales benefits. But when a movie flops, a game has little chance of breakout success, whether it's any good or not.

Reviewers and fans loved a slick Chronicles of Riddick game based on the two Vin Diesel action flicks, but the movies themselves were somewhat flop-ish and probably held back game sales. The game sold 310,000 copies, according to NPD. By one industry rule of thumb, a game isn't profitable these days until it sells 500,000 copies.

Some forward-thinking film companies are trying to figure out how to make the video game before they even get a movie studio's green light.

DragonFire Productions, which is still in the process of securing financing for a movie about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, recently hired game industry vet Michael Zyda to write a five-page game "treatment" of its screenplay. "As you read through the script, it's incredibly visual," Zyda said. "It feels like it should be a game."

Zyda said a major game publisher is considering his treatment. Zyda doesn't want to say which publisher for the record, but it's a safe bet that company isn't Electronic Arts.

EA, the world's largest video game publisher, has suffered a string of movie tie-in flops over the past few years -- "Catwoman," anyone? -- and Frank Gibeau, general manager of publishing at the company, says the company has become less interested in playing the movie tie-in game.

EA now believes it can generally make more profit by developing original content than by signing a deal with Hollywood, he said. Though the company has made hit games with "Lord of the Rings" and Harry Potter tie-ins, it recently gave up rights to develop James Bond games. Movie licenses are "rental items," he said, and he would rather own his titles.

"Movie license guys are not stupid," he said. "They figured out how lucrative games are and they've been jacking up their rates."

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