Game Over for Hollywood

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.

Last Monday marked perhaps the biggest kickoff in entertainment history, but Hollywood was just sitting on the sidelines.

Analysts are predicting that the roll-out of Grand Theft Auto IV, the newest installment of the ultra-violent video game franchise, will be a blockbuster by any standard. Ben Fritz, who writes about video games for Variety, pointed out – weeks ago – that the release of Grand Theft Auto IV is slated to "be right on par with the biggest movie debut of all time, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. For those of you who don't own Disney stock, the third Pirates movie grossed $404 million worldwide in its first week.

GTA4, as it's known, is expected to be so big that some feared it would cut into box office for this summer's tent-pole movies. Though the results from the game aren't yet in, it seems that the worries were for naught. Iron Man, the summer's first summer film, opened to a whopping $200 million globally this weekend.

So Iron was impervious to Theft, but common sense tells you that blockbuster games have to take some action from action flicks: after all young males may have an unlimited supply of testosterone, but they don't have unlimited time and money. There is precedent here; according to Variety's Ben Fritz, TV viewing among young men dropped precipitously in the days after Nintendo released its big game earlier this year.

No matter what happens with Grand Theft specifically, it's clear that video games are starting to pick Hollywood's pockets in general. While box office and DVD sales are flat, US video game sales tripled in the past decade to an astonishing $9.5 billion, according to gaming's trade organization, the ESA.

Hollywood has held its nose occasionally and made movies based on games. And they often come up with home-grown games to help sell their movies. But both strategies reveal a weak understanding of games and gamers.

Trying to force a plot on largely plotless video games has resulted in some memorably bad films. Can you say Super Mario Bros: The Movie? In any event, the most widely touted reason for making movies based on games, the "built-in" audience, has proven to be nonsense. You get nothing from people who've never heard of a game and those that have are likely to excoriate it for being untrue to the original. And it has to be untrue untrue to the original – it's not a game, it's a movie.

Games based on movies aren't a bad idea in concept. It's just that they've typically been slapped together by the studios as nothing more than a marketing tool. In fact, the web site "film school rejects" lists the ten worst video games of all time, and six are based on movies. And one of them is The Matrix, and you'd think that would make a great game!

Gaming is big and it's just getting bigger, both for hard-core gamers and the rapidly growing sector of what's called "casual gamers." Sure, studio execs Jeffrey Katzenberg are admitting that video games are hurting home video sales. And guys like Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski and uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer have said they want to get into games. But games are not movies; they involve a different skill set and mind set. But there is crossover and the studios need to use their deep pockets, marketing savvy and creative genius to create their own blockbuster games of their own. The first step will be getting their collective minds around the fact that they're in the entertainment business and gaming is entertainment, with a capital cha-ching. The second step will be letting go of the idea that you have to control how the story ends, or that the story has to end at all.

It's true that Sony is already in the gaming game with their PlayStation. And some studios have started to invest in game companies. But as the twelve-steppers say, "half measures availed us of nothing." The studios need to get off the joystick and get into gaming big time before it's game over.

For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman and that's The Business Brief.




Matt Holzman