Even though I have no expertise to speak of, I get asked questions by movie fans from time to time. One came through last week from Quentin M. through my Sleepy Skunk facebook page. He stated that once the superhero movie craze feels oversaturated and on the decline in Hollywood, video game movies will be the next untapped market that studios will keep gushing about. He also raised the very good point that while it’s undeniable that movies based on famous video games have seen a fair share of unfortunate attempts, it did take several bad movies for the comic book genre to get the treatment audiences loved. His question was simply whether I agreed, and it got me thinking about why video game movies haven’t been able to pull it off so far.
Is the problem that video games are not taken seriously or that too few consumers care about them? I don’t see how that could be argued considering the incredible growth it has experienced and the fact that the main demographic with the largest residual income (30-45) has grown up with them at this point. Last year, Forbes Magazine was reporting that the global video game industry will reach estimated revenues of 82 billion dollars by 2017. The bottom line is that we love video games, and would love to see great video game movies being released on a yearly basis.
What I perceive instead is a much bigger problem that was omnipresent back in the 1980’s when Eric Roberts starred as The Coca-Cola Kid or Ronald McDonald was making an unintentionally creepy announcement in the middle of Saturday morning cartoons about how he was getting into the movie business. The problem is that no matter how much we love a famous brand, we won’t want to see a movie version of it unless there are characters associated to it that we care about.
For all intents and purposes, let’s say that the CEO of SC Johnson wants to invest 80 million dollars to make a movie about his most prominent brand: Windex. Your first reaction as studio executive should be to laugh out loud and say “Come on, now. Have some self-respect, Sir!” but you are too busy focusing on the fact that SC Johnson is basically eliminating your fixed cost liability by paying for the movie’s production entirely. All you’d have to do is delegate it to capable talent and sell it with a big marketing push and the money will just print itself. Windex is a brand we all know and love, right? The famous hard-surface cleaner has been around since 1933 and its popularity has even led to a “Windex shot” being mixed by bartenders around the globe (vodka, triple sec, and Blue Curaçao for those who had a rough week).
Once you’ve accepted that it’s an absurd proposal that is just too good to ignore, there are basically two ways to tackle this: either you make a movie that puts Windex as a central plot device or you go ahead and make a good movie that could be called something else but somehow includes Windex. If you go with the former, you will end up with something similar to 1993’s dismal adaptation of Super Mario Bros. Audiences will be glad to see a movie that focuses on everything they love about your product. However, your movie will ultimately feel confusing in its intent because of a forced, uninspired plot based on material that wasn’t meant to be on the big screen.
I very much prefer the second approach which would give you a movie like last Summer’s Battleship. You hire talented individuals and make a rehash of Independence Day that gives people what they want. Similar to Battle: Los Angeles but with good looking actors wearing California-bound outfits and more humor to keep it light. Then, once everything is in the can, you slap the product name on the final reel like a red-hot branding iron on a cow’s thigh and you sell it. You package it and you sell it. Audiences who choose to see the movie will come out thinking it was good, which makes it better than the first approach at least. Unfortunately for you, few audience members will choose to see it because they will find the integration of your brand too awkward which will dismiss your effort entirely.
The conclusion is that a Windex movie cannot be made and should not be made no matter how sweet the financial optics might look like. Windex is a window-cleaning product, which does not inspire emotions from people. Batman inspires emotions from audiences because he’s an orphan who lost his parents at a young age and used his intellect and resources to inflict vengeance on criminals. It’s not Batman™ as a brand that keeps us coming back to theaters. It’s his origin story, his internal demons and his ability to overcome fear. That’s what audiences are promised whenever a new Batman movie is announced. Go back to the box-office archive and see for yourself. Brand name movies that succeeded were always blessed with an already established emotional connection to the masses. The ones that failed more than often did not.
On February 7th 2014, Warner Bros. will attempt to cheat that golden rule by releasing The Lego Movie in theaters nationwide. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller – the duo responsible for the surprisingly entertaining Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs – this project aims to promote a brand (LEGO™) to younger audiences who appear to have left their tangible toys and games behind in favor of digital entertainment at an increasingly young age. The attempt is somewhat honorable: By animating the brand and presenting a compelling adventure to your audience, you inspire your target market to renew their excitement for your product. If anything I said above is remotely true, this will suffer the same fate as Battleship and sink faster than you can say ‘E-2’.
Here’s the twist, however: Warner Bros. understood that, and went shopping into their DC catalog to make the movie feature characters we already know and love. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern will finally get to team-up on the big screen – but only as small, yellow parodies of their own legendary selves. Will that brand new formula break the curse and make a branded movie with no characters originally attached a box-office success? If the successful LEGO video game series featuring such character-centric properties as Star Wars and Indiana Jones are any indication, I believe the answer will be a resounding yes.
Next time a corporate marketing team is ready to make a movie in order to revive their brands, all movie studios have to do is to ask themselves two questions: 1) Are there characters attached to this brand that audiences CARE ABOUT? YES / NO and 2) If you answered NO, can you find a way to include characters that audiences CARE ABOUT into the movie in any possible way? YES / NO.
If the answer is NO to both questions, I hope they save themselves the embarrassment and turn down that suitcase of Windex money. Either that or they decide to go for it and provide skunks like me with months of free material to make fun of them. To answer Quentin’s original question, I believe that video game movies will become prominent in Hollywood once the characters that inhabit them have been so well-developed that we genuinely care about them. Perhaps a recent release like the very character-focused The Last of Us could make a great movie. Perhaps it will in a few years. In the meantime, let’s all allow ourselves to dream up fake posters for Windex: The Motion Picture.
“This Summer, The Battle for Survival Will Shine On Almost Any Surface!”
Good job studios. Good job…
– The Sleepy Skunk