Entertainment

How a tiny team of gamers became the force behind video game movies

Video game adaptations are taking over Hollywood. Companies like dj2 are the masterminds behind the scenes.

Sonic the hedgehog

Dj2 raised its profile in Hollywood by helping shepherd Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie and its sequel.

Photo illustration: Sega/Paramount Pictures; Protocol

There’s a creative arms race happening in Hollywood, and it’s all about video games. Just in the last few months, Sony released a film based on its Uncharted game series, set a 2023 release window for HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us and attached “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski to a film based on its samurai action game Ghost of Tsushima.

On the streaming side, Amazon has gotten in the game with God of War, Fallout and Mass Effect projects in the works, while Paramount said its Halo-inspired live-action series has helped its new streaming service achieve record revenue and user growth. And Netflix has continued to lead the game adaptation charge by announcing a BioShock series with Take-Two, renewing League of Legends animated series “Arcane” for a second season and teasing fans with a synopsis of its upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 anime spinoff “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.”

At the center of the surge is dj2 Entertainment, a small independent production company that raised its profile in Hollywood by helping shepherd Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie and its sequel into two of the more successful video game adaptations of the last two decades.

While the streaming services are all turning to video games in the never-ending hunt for new content, dj2 is already setting up shop on the ground floor with deep connections to the game industry. The team, just a handful of people working out of Los Angeles, is now optioning everything from big-budget blockbusters to indie game adaptations with Oscars-level ambitions.

“We’re all actually gamers. If we were to turn our computers around in our office, we have every platform available,” said Dmitiri Johnson, co-founder and CEO of dj2. When considering an adaptation, “we don't care how many copies something sold,” he said.

Instead, it’s about creating film and TV that can transcend the source material and stand alone as a successful artistic and commercial product. “The mom test: My mom could watch this movie and find out after the fact it was based on the game,” Johnson said. “As again, starting from a place of fans, if we don’t wake up passionately excited — because it’s hard to get TV shows and movies made — it doesn’t make sense.”

Dj2 is an independent production company, meaning Johnson and his team divvy up various projects among themselves and help ferry them to completion, including helping with the original pitch and the chaotic work of coordinating all the moving parts required to get a film or TV product off the ground and into production.

That often means acting as the middlemen between game studios and Hollywood production companies and ensuring not only that the creative process remains intact, but also that the project is getting the budget it needs and the right talent to make sure it doesn’t fall flat. “Can’t have [creatives with] too much control — then you get the Assassin’s Creed movie — or Hollywood having too much control, and then you get the Mario movie,” Johnson said.

“It was not uncommon for Hollywood to take those game rights and say, ‘Go in the corner and let the grown-ups handle this,’” Johnson said of past game adaptations that failed spectacularly. As producers, he said, it’s his team’s job to act as the bridge between games and Hollywood.

While all dj2 employees are gamers who obsessively play whatever it is they’re trying to adapt, they also require a similar level of commitment from the people they work with. “Every exec we talk to gets a game code,” Johnson said. “[We say], ‘Go and play it, and then come back and have an informed conversation.’”

Escaping the video game adaptation curse

For Johnson and his team, the recognition Hollywood is now showing the game industry is a long time coming, and only natural after the proven track record of comic book and graphic novel adaptations. “This is an initiative we’ve been screaming to studios about since the early 2000s,” he said.

The issue, Johnson insisted, was not that games were inherently poor fits for adaptation, but rather that Hollywood of old simply didn’t get it. Studio executives and producers were picking the wrong material, the wrong talent and delivering it in the wrong format, and results showed that. While Marvel perfected the superhero film and is now giving room to more experimental takes on comic book adaptations, the producers behind video game adaptations never quite figured out a winning formula — or even what genre made most sense.

Every exec we talk to gets a game code. [We say], ‘Go and play it, and then come back and have an informed conversation.’

That’s how we ended up with the long string of game adaptation flops, from the disastrous (but now cult classic) “Super Mario Bros.” in 1993 and “Street Fighter” in 1994 to the Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil movies of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Starting two decades ago, there were also a number of big-budget projects with A-list names that only further soured Hollywood on trying to pump transmedia products out of the game industry: the subpar “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie in 2003; the “Doom” movie with The Rock in 2005; and the “Prince of Persia” film starring the very non-Persian Jake Gyllenhaal in 2010, to name just a few.

Not a single one of those films has a rating higher than 40% on Rotten Tomatoes. While they did earn back their budgets and then some (save “Doom”), they’re widely considered creative stains on the game industry’s quest for mainstream acceptance. Gyllenhaal has been especially open about the travesty of his video game foray.

In the years since “Prince of Persia,” it seemed as if the industry learned very little. There were films based on Need for Speed, Assassin’s Creed, another Tomb Raider (this one with Alicia Vikander) and Warcraft. All of them performed better than their predecessors — Warcraft especially overseas, where it became the highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time. But the poor reputation of game adaptations didn’t dissipate.

“There was this stigma that video game adaptations suck and they don’t work,” Johnson said. “In the same way producers were going after NYT bestsellers and comic books and graphic novels, if you put the right talent behind it and have authentic people working on it, you can get something great.”

‘Detective Pikachu’ and the rise of the prestige adaptation

So what’s changing now? Well, for one, the adaptations are getting better, but that’s partly because people are taking more (and bigger) creative swings.

“Netflix gets a lot of credit,” Johnson said. “A lot of [Netflix subscribers] don't watch [traditional] TV. They watch stuff on their computer or phone. They’re also going to be your gamers. Creating content for those people was a really smart move initially. You can look at the game adaptations and see that it’s some of the best-performing stuff on there.”

The streaming service has had a large role in putting game adaptations back on the map, not necessarily as critical darlings but far more in the realm of prestige entertainment than before. It’s done so by focusing mainly on television and a mix of both live-action series and animated ones.

“In terms of the dam breaking, certainly people like Netflix [pioneered] in terms of being one of the first to back that kind of content and see the potential,” said Dan Jevons, dj2’s co-founder and co-producer on the “Sonic the Hedgehog” films, who’s now overseeing several of the company’s high-profile adaptations. It also helps, he added, that “creative and the executives buying movies grew up on games; they’re all game fans.”

“The Witcher” has been a resounding success for Netflix, and adapting the work has proved slightly easier for the company because the series is based on an existing book series with a built-in narrative roadmap, while at the same time drawing on the popular video game series with a massive global fan base. The same can be said of “Castlevania,” the fantastic animated series from writer Warren Ellis and co-showrunner and producer Kevin Kolde that draws loosely from the game’s narratives but also bases much of its world-building around existing Dracula lore.

Netflix gets a lot of credit. A lot of [Netflix subscribers] don't watch [traditional] TV. They watch stuff on their computer or phone. They’re also going to be your gamers.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” Johnson said. “Even though ‘Witcher’ was based on the book, it had a fan base from the game. All the sudden you're getting successful adaptations, and now you have streamers and the traditional studios competing for these things. It just creates more heat.”

Video game adaptations are now attracting top-tier writers, actors and directors in a way they never did before. Legendary Pictures, which ultimately lost money on Warcraft but saw the promise in video game adaptations, produced arguably the most important tide-shifting video adaptation of the last five years with 2019’s “Detective Pikachu,” a live-action film that heavily relied on CGI to bring its titular character to life. It starred Ryan Reynolds, who went on to star in the video game-inspired film “Free Guy.”

“Detective Pikachu” earned a rare 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, performed well at the box office and in turn helped pave the way for Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” and its sequel. “It took ‘Sonic’ and ‘Detective Pikachu’ and ‘Castlevania’ on the TV side to work,” Johnson said. “Leading up to ‘Sonic,’ we were beating down doors. The day after ‘Sonic’ dropped, we had every studio in town calling us.”

Now, dj2 is at the center of some of the most high-profile game adaptations in the industry. Beyond helping co-produce the Sonic films, the team is working with Netflix on a Tomb Raider animated show; indie developer ZA/UM on a Disco Elysium TV series; Legendary Entertainment on Life is Strange and My Friend Pedro projects; and iconic Hong Kong martial artist and actor Donnie Yen on a Sleeping Dogs adaptation, with plenty other adaptations in the works.

The company also has a first-look deal with Amazon to produce new films and shows as well, the first being an adaptation of Hazelight Studios’ It Takes Two in collaboration with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Seven Bucks Productions. And last fall it signed a first-look deal with game publisher Raw Fury, the company behind acclaimed indie titles like Sable and Norco, with the goal of turning indie hits like those into award-worthy film and TV. Johnson’s firm is also dabbling in games and other alternative media, having worked with the company Genvid Technologies on an interactive Facebook reality show called “Rival Peak.”

The tide turning is not just because the video game industry has a fast-growing and massive global fan base with more financial might than Hollywood. It’s also the fact that games come in all shapes and sizes, spanning and mashing up genres in ways other media has never dared to try.

“The gaming industry has expanded the genres that people take seriously quite a lot over the last decade or two,” said Stephan Bugaj, a producer and chief creative innovation officer at dj2. Bugaj joined in 2015 after working at Telltale Games, where he was the creative development director on its episodic narrative games, including those based on “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.”

“Some of the best writers in the world are making stories for video games,” Bugaj said. In many cases, those writers and game directors, like Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us) and Josef Fares (It Takes Two), are now executive producers on the respective film and TV adaptations of their games.

Conversely, because the games that are being adapted have become so much more sophisticated, more established names in Hollywood and beyond are joining new projects. Emmy Award-winning writer Craig Mazin of HBO’s “Chernobyl” is working directly with Druckmann on “The Last of Us” as a co-writer, while Sony tapped indie writer and director Takashi Doscher to work with Stahelski on the Ghost of Tsushima adaptation.

“The gaming source material has gotten so much richer and broader in recent years,” Bugaj said. Hollywood is now finally paying attention, he said, and “looking at games more broadly as source material, more like you would look at books or comic books. Given the size of the gaming industry, some of those games have pretty big fan bases.”

Bugaj makes the point that a moderately successful indie game can command a fan base much larger than other source material Hollywood mines for adaptations. “Even little indie games can be selling 50,000 or 100,000 copies. Compare that to the publishing industry that’s a NYT bestseller,” he said. “The game space is reaching a lot of people, reaching a lot of people globally, and not just in North America or Western Europe. There’s a lot of growth and excitement and a lot of people just jazzed about the material.”

“When Warner Bros. made the Burton ‘Batman,’ it was a huge risk — a serious take on comic book material,” Jevons said. Dj2 is looking at many of its upcoming indie projects in the same way, acknowledging that, much like comic book films, it may take a fair amount of bold experimentation and ambition before you end up with the gaming equivalent of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” or Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen.”

But because of gaming’s bigger audience and the diversity of stories that can be told, the team thinks it’s a matter of when, not if, video game adaptations end up stealing the show at awards ceremonies. “We’ve been screaming from the rooftops, ‘It’s not games that are the problem, the adaptations are the problem,’” Jevons said. “And people are listening.”

Correction: A previous version of this article listed Adi Shankar as the primary showrunner of Netflix's Castlevania; that is incorrect, Shankar was an executive producer, but showrunners included writer Warren Ellis and executive producer Kevin Kolde.

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