Why Don’t Video Game Movies Work Out So Well?

What do you do when something fails? Keep making more I guess!

There’s an ongoing curse that has been in Hollywood for decades now. For some bizarre reason, a movie studio will obtain the rights of a video game franchise to try and turn it into a movie. In most situations, it then takes years and years before the movie even makes it to the script writing stage, where if it’s very lucky, it then gets a director attached to it and things can finally start rolling. But then the movie comes out, the reviews release and it more often than not bombs at the box office. So how is it these multi-million dollar video game franchises fail all too often at the box office? Well there’s actually multiple potential reasons why.

Budget & Over-expectations

We’ll start off with what is perhaps the biggest and main reason why they fail: the budget and the overzealous expectations studios seem to have for these movies. In the last decade alone, there have been approximately 6 video game movies that have actually grossed more than $300 Million. That might seem like a lot of money, but according to the companies that made them, most of them were actually considered box office failures. In some of the more recent examples, the budget has been extortionate to the point they spend way too much money on CGI and not enough on the actual promotion on the film, often leaving it to word of mouth alone from the fan base of the video game franchise to do the job for the film studio.

Take the Warcraft movie for example released in 2016. Now personally I actually enjoyed the movie, even though I can somewhat see why others disliked it. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the movie had a net production budget of around $160 million and needed to earn at least $450 million in order to break even (“break even” means to neither lose or make money). In the end the movie earned slightly less than that at around $434 million, and suffice to say the chances of a sequel aren't looking good. There’s no denying that all studios involved were relying on a number of factors to make its money, the first being off the back of the hit MMO World of Warcraft. Back in its prime, World of Warcraft had peaked to well over 13 million concurrent subscribers per month. With a $15 monthly fee, this would make the game earning $195 Million per month from the subscription price alone. Right there that’s 13 million players who all know of Warcraft’s existence and then if you include many the millions more who probably played in the past and maybe those who vaguely heard about it, that’s tens of millions of potential people going to see it. A huge proportion of those viewers too, which brings me to my second point, would be coming off the back of China. WoW is exponentially huge in China to this day, and this was even proven when the Warcraft movie hit theatres over there. Over 50% of the movie’s earnings were from China alone, whereas the United States, which also has a huge following of the game, only accounted for 10% of it.

You'd think movie studios were perhaps smart to realise this too, but it also often seems like they expect a video game movie to make the same amount of money as its actual game counterpart, except they’re forgetting the price of a movie ticket is 4 times less than the price of a video game. A video game sells for around $60, while a movie ticket only sells for around $15, and even less in certain circumstances. Say for example a video game makes $1 billion in sales; chances are a movie of the same franchise might only make something on the lines of $250 million if the same exact people went to watch it. It’s a funny thing the box office, as you have movies which absolutely no one knew about until its release making hundreds of millions of dollars, and then you have well known established video game franchises making only a couple hundred million. Of course the budget isn’t the only factor as to why these movies seemingly bomb.

Casting & Performance

When a video game movie gets announced, multiple articles are made by other websites on who would be the “perfect choice” to play “X character”. Some recent examples are perhaps Daisy Ridley (Rey from Star Wars) playing Lara Croft in the 2018 Tomb Raider movie, Nathan Fillion to play Nathan Drake in the planned Uncharted movie or even Dave Bautista to play Marcus Fenix in the planned Gears of War movie (which, to be fair, even Dave himself feels he is perfect for the role… the guy literally looks like him for crying out loud!).

In the end though, movie studios seemingly choose the most baffling cast members, most often due to the script changing a character to be someone else entirely or adding completely new characters because… reasons? It’s understandable why movie studios want such big names in their movies though, as in certain situations an actor brings in an audience who might not have heard of the franchise previously. But you’ve got to admit, I don’t know where these decisions came into the planning of the movies:

  • In 2008, Mark Wahlberg played Max Payne, a role he received a “Worst Actor” nomination for, as his version of the titular character did not at all resemble the broken, beaten, but ultimately bad-ass man that many had come to know.

  • In the Resident Evil films, almost every character was portrayed the total opposite on how they are portrayed in the video games, and even the lead character Alice, portrayed by Milla Jovovich, was created as a new character for the films for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

  • With Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, many believed Danny De Vito would be a perfect fit for the gruffer Pikachu, but instead it went with Ryan Reynolds which, while his performance is rather charming, is the complete opposite on how he sounds and is portrayed in the video game.

  • Super Mario Bros… uhh… shall we just skip over that one? It would be easier on everyone.

Too Unknown of a Franchise

There are current movies in the works based on video game franchises even your grandmother has probably heard about, with a Call of Duty film, Minecraft film, Tetris film and a new Mortal Kombat film all in the works. Yet for some reason or another, movie studios buy the rights for a video game franchise that, while yes may have a niche following on video game platforms, most people probably wouldn’t have ever heard of. Take Alone in the Dark for instance. Many years ago these were well crafted, little 2D horror games, only to get progressively worse when they hit 3D. For some reason though a movie was made about them franchise, directed by Uwe Bowl (who as we all know now, utterly despises video games) and was panned by critics.

Then there’s the Postal movie, directed by- oh… Uwe Bowl again. Now personally I’ve never played the Postal games, even though I have mildly heard about them. But to make a movie out of it, to spend millions of dollars with absolutely zero promotion and actually assume the world had heard of the franchise was asking way too much. Let’s look at one more, say the Far Cry movie. While in recent years its popularity has increased, suffice to say when its counterpart movie came out more than a decade ago, hardly anyone had heard of the franchise, not to mention the plot and action of the games were somewhat generic. So again it’s actually quite baffling why anyone at the time would vaguely make a movie out of it. Who would even go out of their way to make a Far Cry movie back then anyway? …UWE BOWL AGAIN?!

Game-to-Movie Translation

There are some absolutely bonkers, but totally creative video games out there. With games such as Undertale, Fez, The Binding of Isaac and the like all hosting their own unique style of gameplay, it would be baffling if anyone said “let’s make a live action movie about them” as they just wouldn’t work in the real world. They exist in their own little worlds where such things are a possibility and would take a lot more than a script and a couple of cheap effects to get right. Not to mention going back to the previous point, the general public most likely hasn’t heard of them (no, not you, the "more" general public).

In certain situations though, it does work. Take Pokémon: Detective Pikachu for example as ever since Pokemon was a thing, people have questioned how on earth a live action movie with all these different creatures in it could work. And yet, somehow they did it. They succeeded! On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have some which just… don’t. The Super Mario Bros. movie is one such example. You’ve probably heard of the franchise about two Italian plumbers with eccentric accents travelling through warp pipes, stomping on enemies and trying to save the princess from a giant turtle named Bowser. In a video game, you don’t really think about it as it’s just how it is; it’s the gameplay you focus more on than the actual story, because the gameplay gives the world a bit more sense. To then make a movie out of it with the entirely of the gameplay cut out where you have to have characters talk rather than play? Oh dear oh dear…

Then you have titles where there’s zero story, which make you question how a movie would ever be made for them. Take the upcoming Tetris movie for example… the game is about fitting blocks into lines and that’s it. How the hell do you make a 1 hour and 30 minute movie out of that?! Most recently though, you have a video game movie being made where it takes a beloved aspect of a character and completely change it to fit the world it is about to enter, which brings me onto the final point.

Bad Press

Sonic the Hedgehog. Need I say more? When the movie was first announced as live action, many questioned on how Sonic would actually look in the real world. Would he be human like? Would they keep him exactly how he is portrayed in the video games? Many people came forward with how they hoped Sonic might look in our own world, and most depictions actually made a lot of sense and fit in quite well. Then the Sonic the Hedgehog movie trailer dropped and my god were many freaked out on how he looked. People hated it so much that the movie was delayed to allow the studio to change his appearance to make him more like his video game depiction.

This is something that happens a lot with not just video game franchises but book and television franchises too. People get word on a studio completely changing how a character looks or who they are or how the world is just to save money or because they don’t want to take the risk as it might not make sense. When that happens, you have millions of angry fans who know the video game franchise all too well either boycott the movie entirely or talk so badly about the movie that it affects the decisions of others on whether they go and see it.

In the last couple of years though, video game movies have improved since the 2000’s, and in certain cases it appears that the director’s and studio’s making them try to take a bit more care. For example the 2016 Assassins Creed movie actually had Ubisoft tied to the project, even if that too didn’t pan all too well either. The 2016 Warcraft movie also had Blizzard Entertainment attached to it. The same could be said with the 2018 Tomb Raider movie (one of the better video game movies), which also had Square Enix attached to it, and was even recently announced to be getting a sequel. Of course not all of these movies received critical praise, and may have just been due to creative conflict with the developers. But with more and more video game movies being announced, it does seem like said movies may soon start to get the love and care they rightfully deserve.

I hope they are anyway...

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