A Start-Up’s Risky Niche: Movie-Based Videogames

A Start-Up's Risky Niche: Movie-Based Videogames

From The Wall Street Journal Online


For decades, videogame companies have drawn inspiration from Hollywood, borrowing movie characters, settings and story lines for game titles. But the results have been decidedly mixed, leading to a checkered reputation for the quality of movie-based games and a wariness between game makers and Hollywood.

A new games start-up, Brash Entertainment LLC, now plans to better merge the creative talents from both industries, in large part by focusing entirely on producing games based on movies, television shows and other entertainment properties instead of developing its own content. Recently formed in Los Angeles by veterans from both industries, Brash announced today that it has raised $400 million from investors including Abry Partners LLC, New York Life Capital Partners and PPM America.

That is a whopping sum in the games business, where attempts to create major companies are rare because of tough competition from an array of well-entrenched publishers and developers like Electronic Arts Inc., Activision Inc. and others. Brash says it has cut deals with five major Hollywood studios, licensed 40 film properties, including Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.'s "Saw" horror series, and is actively developing 12 games.

Brash is producing videogames based on movies, including the 'Saw' horror series.

Brash's bet comes as at least one big company — EA, the world's largest games publisher — is increasing its development of original games and lessening its dependence on Hollywood properties, which can come with high licensing fees and other restrictions.

But Brash believes the growth of the games market has created room for a new player, particularly one with a special emphasis on translating movies into high-quality interactive entertainment. To make a mark, Brash will have to demonstrate it can consistently make top-notch games, rather than the hastily pumped-out titles that have tarnished the image of movie-based games in the eyes of consumers and Hollywood executives.

"Across the board, they [movie-based games] haven't met industry expectations," says Mitch Davis, chairman and chief executive officer of Brash.

Examples of the game industry's misfires with Hollywood properties stretch back to the days when joysticks first became fixtures in homes. Atari made an infamously bad game in the early 1980s for its Atari 2600 console based on the hit Steven Spielberg movie "E.T. the Extraterrestrial," with millions of unsold copies ending up in a dump in New Mexico. More recently, EA released a game based on "Superman Returns" to negative reviews; the game also came out months after the movie's theatrical release.

There are some notable exceptions. Activision's "Spider-Man 2"-based game and EA's titles based on the "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" movie franchises were all enormous commercial successes.

Game and movie industry executives trace the problems of movie-based games, in part, to the difficulty of translating a linear medium like movies into a compelling interactive game experience. Because one of the big attractions of doing a movie game is that game makers can piggyback on marketing campaigns for the film, game makers are often forced to rush their titles to market, compromising quality.

"By the time we greenlight a film and license that to publishers, the amount of time we're often giving them and access to resources — it's so challenging," says Kevin Tsujihara, president of Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Group, which has a deal to distribute Brash games to retail stores.

Brash believes it can do better. One of the company's founders is Thomas Tull, an investor who, as chairman of Legendary Pictures, helped finance movies like "Superman Returns," "Batman Begins" and the Spartan-warrior epic "300." Mr. Tull, an avid gamer himself, says he saw an opportunity to help create a games company because of the industry's growth and helped arrange the financing of Brash through private-equity investors.

"It's hard to find sectors this big growing this fast," Mr. Tull said in an interview at Brash's headquarters in Hollywood.

Other members of the team include CEO Mr. Davis and Brash President Nicholas Longano, both of whom last year sold a videogame advertising company, Massive Inc., to Microsoft Corp. for more than $200 million. Larry Shapiro, a former agent with the Creative Artists Agency, is Brash's chief creative officer.

Brash will hire other independent game makers in the U.S. and abroad to do technical development work on games, though their efforts will be overseen by in-house producers. Brash says it will get involved with conceptualizing games with movie makers, in some cases even before the films are greenlighted by studios. Brash executives say this is partly the result of rising interest from directors and other Hollywood talent in game making.

Yet Brash's much larger competitors aren't all backing away from Hollywood. While EA is boosting its original-game development, the company is still actively seeking to license major entertainment properties for development in games, says Patrick O'Brien, the EA vice president of business affairs.

"A number of us are all making movie games and will continue to do so," says Mr. O'Brien. "We don't think there's a void to be filled." The Redwood Shores, Calif., company is working on a game due out this fall based on "The Simpsons" TV series.

Leave a Reply