Video game movies have long been seen as cursed, with adaptations usually turning out mediocre at best and terrible at worst. Yet something has shifted in the last few years, with films such as Detective Pikachu and Sonic The Hedgehog proving the formula can work, and studios snapping up adaptation deals at incredible rates. A feature by The Ringer has looked into the phenomenon, tapping a few industry experts to explain how and why the industry interest in games has grown so exponentially.
A few projects were singled out as turning points in the reputation of video game adaptations including Sonic The Hedgehog, the 2020 film which overcame a rough start to become one of the top performing video game movies ever.
Dmitri Johnson, who co-produced Sonic under his company dj2 Entertainment, was involved in the movie’s on-again-off-again production since 2012. He said that “everyone thought it was a joke,” during the early phases of production, but that attitudes changed following the film’s highly successful release. “Shortly after that, the incoming calls definitely increased from studios [and] networks saying, ‘Hey, whaddya got next?'”
“I think from the business side, that’s when that part clicked,” said Mike Goldberg, a partner at the talent agency that represents Johnson. He added that Sonic was “a huge win for the concept that movies can actually do well based off video game IP. It isn’t a curse, it’s all about what that partnership looks like and what that execution is.”
Simon Pulman, a lawyer who is frequently involved in licensing franchises for film, pointed the finger at Netflix’s successful adaptations as a reason for the industry interest. He pointed to the Henry Cavill-led Witcher series as “something that really raised all tides” for video game adaptations.
As far as why some of the new movies have been working out where past video game adaptations failed, all three of the professionals interviewed pointed to an increased spirit of collaboration with the studios and creatives who make the game.
“In the past, when a studio would take a game IP, be it Super Mario Bros., or name an early adaptation, I think it was common practice to take the IP, ‘Thank you very much,’ and kind of shove the partner to the side,” Johnson said.
“There is a new generation of executives who play games and understand games,” Pulman said. “And therefore, they understand the value of the IP. They understand the value of the community and the gamers, and they’re respectful towards the source material. I don’t think I’ve done a game deal in the last three years where the game publisher or the game developer has not been involved in some capacity, and that has been a big change.”
There’s plenty of examples of this spirit of collaboration in upcoming productions, such as the HBO The Last of Us TV series which has brought Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann on as a writer and collaborator.
Of course this doesn’t mean that modern video game movies are all going to be bomb-proof–last year’s Monster Hunter movie failed to hit with audiences or critics, no matter whether they liked the games or not. The Warcraft movie of a few years ago was another high-profile video game flop, but we can only hope that more adaptations of gaming’s most beloved franchises will see success on the level of Sonic, or Netflix’s Witcher.