Hollywood is in crisis... and it thinks video games are the answer

Opinion: Movie studios are desperate for gaming's cash, reveals film journalist Jamie Russell...

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Hollywood is in crisis. Last year, box office attendance sank to its lowest level for 16 years. The industry's chief execs are already soul-searching. Universal president Ron Meyer shocked everyone by confessing: "We make a lot of shitty movies. Every one of them breaks my heart."

Opinions vary why box office attendance is falling: Poor quality control? Online piracy? The recession? Or is it the rise of videogames? Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 made $1 billion in 16 days, becoming the biggest entertainment launch in any medium ever. "Call of Duty is more than a game," said Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision. "It's become a major part of the pop cultural landscape."


He's right. Games are becoming complete entertainment franchises, and companies like Ubisoft and Valve are branching out into comic books, novels, toys and web shorts. "It's pretty clear that our customers are cross-media consumers," Gabe Newell at Valve explained a couple of years ago. "If they like a game, they want to see a movie; if they like a movie they want to be able to run around and shoot rockets off in those spaces. They're telling us we don't have the luxury of just being a games company anymore."

So, in one corner we have a struggling business. In the other, a rapidly growing industry that's expanding beyond its core competency. Hollywood needs videogames as much as videogames need Hollywood. There's just one problem: neither side understands the other.

The two industries are as alien to each other as the Borg and Ewoks. Games are based on code, algorithms and CPUs; publishers see themselves as technology companies first and foremost. Hollywood is glitz and glamour; it's an industry of ego. Putting the two worlds together is a cross-cultural clash.

"We don't share the same language," reckons designer Jason Vandenberghe, a veteran of EA, Activision and Ubisoft. "Hollywood is a culture of personality where people with strong personalities can convince you even if they don't know what the fuck they're talking about. The game industry sells systems. We don't trust those types of personalities. It's an engineering culture where you have to know what you're talking about. You can't be a bullshitter."

It's a culture clash with a long and colourful history. In the 1970s, Warner bought out Atari and tried to turn games like ET: The Extra-Terrestrial into extensions of movie marketing. It was a strategy that crashed the US games videogame industry overnight and took videogames back to zero until Nintendo stepped in.

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In the '90s and '00s the same thing happened again: Hollywood saw the videogame industry's revenues, panicked and raced to get a slice of the action either by opening their own studios or by bringing Hollywood talent into games. It always ended badly. Spielberg's DreamWorks Interactive is one of many studio game divisions that folded, eventually reemerging as EA LA. Meanwhile, actors' egos were bruised when they realised that games didn't need celebrities.

The people caught in the middle of all this were the talent agents who had to mollycoddle filmmakers and stars to help them understand the new gaming medium. One former agent at International Creative Management told us: "I've had actors and actresses who did voice-work on games require hair and makeup at reception".

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