Video Games: Will Hollywood Never Let Them Go?

Flop after flop, studios just don't get the message — and now comes 'Assassin's Creed'

There have been exactly zero hit movies based on video games, and there’s good reason for it: They stink. It’s a tough experience to get right. Many video games are based on putting someone in first-person situations in which they can figure things out on their own — whereas movies are more passive experiences that require attention to story and character to keep viewers interested.

Though studios have lost small fortunes in their attempts to successfully adapt video games to the big screen, Dec. 21 brings us yet another high-budget adaptation — “Assassin’s Creed,” starring Michael Fassbender.

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“Assassin’s Creed” follows the struggle between two major groups — the Assassins and the Knights Templar. The former group fights for free will, while the other fights for peace through control. A main character uses something called an Animus in order to experience “ancestral memories.” As a descendant of the Assassins, he has to locate certain objects … well, you get the picture. It’s a kooky story about ancient assassins.

The influx of video game movie adaptations began with a certain filmmaker named Uwe Boll. Now often listed as one of the worst directors ever, Boll bought up the film rights to video games on the cheap — and churned out B-movies that didn’t exactly earn a good name for game adaptations: Think of “Bloodrayne,” “Alone in the Dark,” or “Far Cry.”

However, what Boll did was get Hollywood’s attention. The ball was rolling and studios everywhere wanted a course correction in the video game adaptation market. The budgets got bigger, but the audiences mostly stayed the same. “Hitman” in 2007 didn’t break $40 million domestically and was a nonstarter of a franchise film; it rebooted only last year with a film earning just over $20 million.

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Even films with more respectable casts and crews were snubbed by audiences. In 2010, “Prince of Persia” starred Jake Gyllenhaal, was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), and was directed by Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”). With a $200 million production budget, the movie didn’t even scratch $100 million at the domestic box office. It was another nonstarter of a franchise film.

Hollywood, however, can be hard of hearing. This past summer gave us the $160 million “Warcraft,” based on one of the biggest video games of all time. The film was savaged by critics and didn’t cross $50 million domestically. Despite a more respectable haul overseas, it’s a another franchise nonstarter that failed to pique the interest of audiences.

Audiences may be in for another shiny, lackluster film meant as a two-hour commercial for a video game — rather than a great movie.

Now comes the $130 million “Assassin’s Creed,” with the critically acclaimed Fassbender taking on the lead role. Despite major studios like Universal and Disney failing before it, 20th Century Fox is betting it’ll be the one to break the perceived glass ceiling on video game movies. Sure, audiences have said they have no interest and would rather video games stay video games — but since when did audience reactions truly affect decisions in Hollywood?

Just look at how long it took studios to jump on making faith-based films or military stories aimed more at Middle America.

Even the company behind the “Creed” games isn’t expecting much out of the movie. “We are not going to earn a lot of money from it,” Ubisoft’s European head Alain Corre said to MCV over the summer, according to IGN. Corre said the film was “more a marketing thing” and “good for the image of the brand.”

While Ubisoft may be happy with those comments, it means audiences may be in for another shiny, lackluster film meant as a two-hour commercial for a video game — rather than a great movie.

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert perhaps gave the best thinly veiled warning to Hollywood about adapting video games when he wrote a piece entitled, “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” “I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art,” wrote Ebert.

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The trouble for Hollywood studios investing hundreds of millions in trying to adapt stories most people would rather experience through a controller is that films need to be art to succeed. Whether they are high art or lowbrow art, they must work as a story.

Filmmakers haven’t gotten the message yet — but perhaps one more high-profile flop will convince them.

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