Sonic the hedgehog
Image: Paramount

Video games are fueling Hollywood’s next big wave

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we’re talking about the explosive boom in video game film and TV adaptations, as well as what to read, watch and play this weekend.

Are video game adaptations the new comic book films?

Perhaps you’ve heard that the video game industry is larger than Hollywood. It’s a kind of silly bit of business trivia that gets trotted out now and again to prove the bonafides of the game market. A single game can cost anywhere from four to six times as much as a standard movie ticket (though many of the most popular are free), and substantial chunks of film and TV are subsidized through subscriptions and advertising, making the comparison not as useful as it sounds.

But the two industries, once pitted against one another by artistic and economic merit, are far from competitors. In fact, Hollywood seems to have finally woken up to the value of video game brands as powerful storytelling vehicles, and it’s now set off an entertainment arms race to cash in on adaptations of everything from Halo to Mario to Sonic. This wave of adaptations raises an important question: Can Hollywood now do for gaming what it did for comics?

The Sonic sequel broke a major record. Conventional Hollywood wisdom has been that video game adaptations almost always flop, either because the audience for any one gaming property is too niche or the finished product is subpar. That’s no longer true, and it hasn’t been since 2019’s “Detective Pikachu” broke box office records and earned a rare (yet still modest) 68% on Rotten Tomatoes.

  • The sequel to 2020’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” had the biggest opening weekend of any video game adaptation in history with $71 million in domestic ticket sales. It’s also the second-best-reviewed gaming movie, behind only the obscure 2021 adaption of the Ubisoft VR game Werewolves Within.
  • Now, even if a game adaptation is panned by critics, it still seems to perform well, which is likely more a reflection of the broader diffusion of the gaming audience into mainstream pop culture than is a testament to audiences’ tolerance for lower-quality media in the streaming era.
  • For instance, Sony’s Uncharted has a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it earned nearly $400 million at the box office with an audience score of 90%. The “Sonic” sequel has been almost universally loved by audiences, with a 97% audience score.

Adaptations are everywhere. Since the success of “Detective Pikachu” and TV series like Netflix’s “The Witcher,” game adaptations have exploded, with production studios and game developers alike hoping to replicate the success of Marvel on the big screen and “Game of Thrones” in the living room.

  • Sony is using its popular slate of PlayStation Studios titles to pump out a steady stream of shows and movies through its distribution and production arms. That includes The Last of Us with HBO, God of War with Amazon and a Ghost of Tsushima film helmed by “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski.
  • Netflix has signed up to adapt Capcom’s Resident Evil, Square Enix’s Tomb Raider, Take-Two’s BioShock and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, while Paramount has already greenlit a second season of its live-action Halo show and committed to a Knuckles spinoff in the Sonic universe. Amazon is also working on a Mass Effect show with Electronic Arts and a Fallout one with Bethesda.
  • This isn’t limited to big franchises, either. Production company dj2 Entertainment, which helped co-produce both Sonic films, is now working on adapting indie hits like Disco Elysium, Life is Strange and It Takes Two, with the mentality that smaller, budget-conscious games translate to more adaptable, higher-quality narratives.
  • “There used to be this stigma that video games as source material couldn’t be those smart, character-driven types of films and TV shows,” dj2 CEO Dmitri Johnson told The Ringer earlier this year. “I am of the belief that [we] not only can, but we will win Emmys, we will win Oscars and the source material will be based on games.”
  • In just the last six months, dj2 has signed first-look deals with both Amazon and indie game publisher Raw Fury to produce even more projects.

Comic book movies aren’t getting replaced. Marvel may have moved on from the Infinity Saga, and “Morbius” is its most embarrassing flop to date. But the latest “Spider-Man’s” $1 billion-plus milestone combined with the colossal box office performance of “The Batman” illustrates the maintained momentum for superhero films.

  • Game adaptations appear to be additive, and the comic book genre offers a helpful roadmap for how these projects can transition away from flops to potential critical darlings and award contenders like “The Dark Knight,” “Black Panther” and “The Joker.” The secret: making more films and shows, across many genres and from a wide variety of directors.
  • The highest-profile video game adaptations had to escape development hell. It’s taken decades for another Mario film to get off the ground after the infamously bizarre 1993 live-action one. A Halo film from Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp went nowhere long before the Paramount TV series began, while the Uncharted film took almost 15 years to finally arrive in theaters.
  • To help gaming adaptations mature, there need to be fewer long, tortured journeys like those of Mario, Halo and Uncharted, and more of the solid groundwork and rapid experimentation that helped DC, Marvel and Sony codify their comic book formulas, leading to both commercial and artistic breakthroughs.

We’re likely a ways off from video game adaptations enjoying a “Dark Knight” moment at the Oscars, though efforts on the animation end like Netflix’s “Castlevania” and the League of Legends spinoff “Arcane” make it seem more likely an animated adaptation strikes awards gold sooner than a live-action one does.

But the gaming industry’s Hollywood takeover is just beginning. Soon enough, streaming services and theater slates will be filled to the brim with narratives and characters known best to game console owners. And unlike comic books, which never stray too far from superheroes and the action genre, video games have the potential to tell diverse stories for a far wider audience.

At this rate, a game adaptation might even nab a Best Picture Oscar before a comic book film does.

— Nick Statt


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TGIF: How to spend your weekend

“Pachinko” — Apple TV+. “Pachinko” is a captivating drama that follows the story of a Korean family and the challenges it faces in a world dominated by both racism and economic inequality amid loss and other personal struggles. Based on Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel of the same name, the series effortlessly combines multiple time periods, languages and storylines, demonstrating how world history is very much present in people’s everyday lives. New episodes of the miniseries debut every Friday. If you’re just starting to binge it now, do yourself a favor and don’t skip over the iconic opening credit scene: Its joyfulness helps to both frame the show and celebrate its characters.

How Club Penguin Changed My Life — Chris Gliddon. This week’s news of a major Club Penguin clone closing down over copyright infringement allegations will undoubtedly bring back memories for anyone who has ever stepped a webbed foot into the long-gone kids’ MMO. For a different perspective, it’s worth revisiting this in-depth reflection from one of Club Penguin’s first employees.

BlackPix — Plex, Roku Channel. One of the premises of free, ad-supported streaming (FAST) channels is that they allow for a cable-like leanback experience with content that may never have found its way onto your cable lineup. BlackPix is a perfect example of this: The channel combines feature-length documentaries and films focused on Black athletes, artists and everyday Americans to a 24/7 stream that’s worth adding to your free channel diet.

Cosmonious High — Meta Quest and Steam VR. From Owlchemy Labs, the studio that brought us Job Simulator and Vacation Simulator, comes this new game that takes you inside a high school for aliens. The best way to picture Cosmonious High is to imagine a school that looks like it came out of the brains of Nickelodeon producers who got fired because their ideas were a little too out there. It’s chaotic, fun and surprisingly difficult. Kind of like real high school, I guess?

“Russian Doll” — Netflix. Remaking “Groundhog Day” was never going to be easy. Netflix nevertheless pulled it off with “Russian Doll,” thanks to a decidedly darker take on constant deja vu. Let’s just say, death seems very much inevitable in this show. Season 2 premieres next week, which means you’ll have a whole weekend to catch up on, or rewatch, a great first season.

— Janko Roettgers


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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to Enjoy your day, see you next Tuesday.

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