The Gamers Age Into Hollywood

Hollywood’s New Source of Fresh Characters and Worlds
Videogames. Studios seek the wisdom of die-hard gaming fans. ‘Every design now is vetted within an inch of its life.’

I had almost completely forgotten that there was a huge backlash to the original trailer for the Sonic the Hedgehog movie back in 2019. So big that they actually re-did the entire character before the film was released. Even more crazy: it worked. The movie was both fairly well-regarded and did very well at the box office, and now is getting a third movie, and a spin-off around the "Knuckles” character. I'm old enough to remember a time when movies based on videogames were almost all awful, but also bombed at the box office. Now they're arguably saving it.

Seven movie adaptations of videogames were released broadly in 2023, including “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and “Gran Turismo,” up from two the prior year, according to Ampere Analysis. Some 19 TV shows based on videogames made their debut last year. More videogame-inspired projects are in the works: Nintendo and Illumination earlier this month announced plans for a new film based on the Super Mario Bros. world slated for release in 2026.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie made $1.36 billion at the box office last year, second only to Barbie. (Not a sentence I ever expected to be writing.) It beat both a Guardians of the Galaxy movie (the third) and a Spider-Man movie (the second animated one). And yes, The Legend of Zelda is coming. Finally.

Videogames offer fresh characters and new worlds that can appeal to young children and their parents—like Sonic and Mario’s adventures—and to adults seeking mature story lines, such as those in the TV show 'The Last of Us'. Game developers and fans are often deeply involved in adaptations, ensuring that the end product honors the source material. A generation of gamers are now in creative positions across Hollywood.

Michael Jonathan Smith, showrunner for 'Twisted Metal', a Sony Pictures Television action-comedy series on Peacock, grew up playing the videogame of the same name and wanted to make sure the show retained its nostalgia factor and vehicular-combat thrills. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the main character shuttles resources between fortified municipalities, engaging in machine-gun, ballistic-missile and other explosion-filled conflicts along the way.

“The unbridled joy of playing is something I wanted to bring into watching it,” Smith said. The show’s creators infused it with music, such as Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 hit “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and Oasis’s “Champagne Supernova.”

It doesn't seem like a coincidence that movies based off of comic books started to take off about a couple decades ago after also being considered pretty bad in their first iterations (Superman and Batman aside). An audience that grew up reading comic books was coming into their own as were the creatives making such movies (and in that vein, it makes sense that Superman and Batman broke out before say, Marvel characters, because they debuted in 1938 and 1939, respectively). Now the same thing seems to be happening with videogames on both sides of the camera.1

But as everyone is well-aware by now, too much of a good thing can indeed be too much, as the comic movies, and Disney in particular as the key driver of the genre, are finding out the hard way:

Movies based on videogame adaptations and released broadly in theaters grossed $712.2 million at the domestic box office last year, more than double what they brought in the prior year, according to Comscore. Superhero film adaptations, meanwhile, brought in about $1 billion domestically, down 42% from the prior year.

Of course related to being over-saturated, it simply requires too much work and investment of time to be able to fully enjoy many of the recent superhero films (and the same is becoming true of in the Star Wars universe as well for Disney). And related to that, it makes a lot of the recent titles not very good. They're seemingly less about great stand-alone content, and more exist to be pieces to complete a puzzle. That was fun at first, culminating in the massive success that was The Avengers. But now it just feels like work.

Videogame movies and shows feel fun, by comparison. And they've seemingly also figured out a way to connect with hardcore fans without requiring you be a hardcore fan to work. Again, they're doing this in new-school ways:

To avoid fan disappointment, developers and film studios are visiting game communities on apps like Discord and Reddit to get feedback on ideas, in addition to conducting traditional focus groups.

One finding: Gamers like it when productions bake in cinematic versions of so-called Easter eggs, messages or objects that developers hide in games to make spotting them fun. In a movie or show, they are commonly visual cues, such as a framed photo of a character from the related game that the camera briefly pans to, as a way of showing die-hards that the creators deeply understand the original source material.

They just better not fuck up Zelda.

1 Also, shout out to Smith for forcing the WSJ to print "Ol' Dirty Bastard".