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Still Missing the Link

The less-than-roaring success of the `King Kong' video game is yet another example of the difficulty of cashing in on movie tie-ins. Some game makers are trying a different angle: tapping Hollywood for original stories.

March 26, 2006|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

Since the days of "Donkey Kong," video games have evolved with apes.

So when Ubisoft Entertainment partnered with "King Kong" director Peter Jackson to develop a game based on last year's film, it was widely touted as the missing link between video games and movies.

In the end, though, retail sales didn't live up to the hype and "Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie" demonstrated yet again that, despite their similarities, video games and movies are very different animals.

"It was a successful game but fell far short of expectations," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles. "It's shocking to me they expected a gorilla game to do well."

Movie producers and game designers have tried for decades to cash in on each other's appeal with movies based on games and with games based on movies. Flops have far outnumbered hits. And even as technical differences erode -- games are more cinematic, movies rely heavily on computer effects -- the gap between the two remains difficult to bridge.

Only one game with a movie tie-in, "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith," ranked among the top 10 bestselling U.S. titles of 2005, according to NPD Group video game analyst Anita Frazier. In contrast, Frazier said, "King Kong" came in 72nd.

Ubisoft lowered its revenue forecast in January, in part because reorders of "Kong" were lagging behind expectations. The French publisher shipped 4.5 million copies of "Kong" to retailers worldwide, and it estimated recently that just more than 3 million actually sold.

Even so, Ubisoft executives described the game as a financial success that helped raise the company's profile in the entertainment industry. The company's future endeavors include a deal with Sony Pictures Consumer Products to develop and publish games based on the upcoming animated feature films "Open Season" and "Surf's Up."

"Not only did we make money on ['Kong'] but it's going to bring us a lot more business," said Tony Kee, vice president of marketing for Ubisoft.

Jackson's manager, Ken Kamins, said in an e-mail that the director and Universal Pictures also were pleased "both creatively and economically" with the game.

"By any reasonable definition, 1 million units would represent a successful video game," Kamins said.

Though the allure of Hollywood partnerships remains strong, some game publishers have begun straying from the movies-to-games trend, choosing instead to tap Hollywood talent to develop original stories rather than recycling the ones found in films.

Part of the reason is a recognition of the fundamental difference between movies and games: Games are interactive, movies are passive. Movie-based games that succeed often use the film as a starting point for new sto- ries that cater to the strengths of interactive entertainment.

Games based on the "Star Wars" movies, for instance, use the well-known galaxy of planets and characters to launch players into new adventures that might require them to pilot starships or ferret out Imperial spies.

"Kids want to do something exhilarating and different," Pachter said. "They want to blow things up. That's why 'Star Wars' games do good."

In the case of Kong, Pachter said, "the game was faithful to the movie. The art direction was great. The problem is, who wants to be a gorilla?"

Cooperation between studios and game publishers is fueled by the growing legitimacy that games enjoy in Hollywood. Annual game revenues rival box- office receipts. Top games can make more than some hit movies. Many directors and producers grew up playing video games.

"As the technology surrounding games becomes better, I think you'll get more Hollywood persons involved in creating games," said Edward Williams, an analyst with investment bank Harris Nesbitt. "What those directors will be able to do is to look at a game and allow the users to engage in a story that can go on for a longer period of time than a movie."

Electronic Arts Inc., the world's largest independent video game publisher, has teamed up with director Steven Spielberg, a video game fan, on three fresh creations. The Redwood City company, which has published titles based on the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films, has resolved to reduce the number of games it churns out that are based on licenses, particularly those attached to movies.

Steep fees paid by publishers to creative talent and actors for voice-overs are fundamentally altering the economics of the movie-based game business, according to Frank Gibeau, general manager of North American publishing for EA.

At the same time, the company no longer believes it's essential to use movie licenses to help expand the popularity of video games, given the mainstream appeal that games enjoy.

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