A Tale of Two Game Movies

I’m pretty surprised that Sam Raimi has agreed to make a film based on World of Warcraft. I still enjoy World of Warcraft as well as find it intellectually interesting but the idea that its mashed-up, derivative, internally contradictory, heavily baroque game fiction could serve as a platform for an interesting film strikes me as unlikely. On the other hand, I like a lot of Raimi’s films, and he’s got a good sense of how to compress baroque pop culture properties into punchy narratives. So maybe he sees something I don’t in the treatment he’s looking at: maybe some Xena-like fantasy cheese or maybe some metatextual thing that plays with the idea of Warcraft-as-game. I can’t imagine a straight-up mock-epic treatment like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films would be anything but a Uwe Bollesque stinkfest.

On the other hand, a World of Warcraft-based film makes a ton more sense than a film based on the game Asteroids. The announcement of that signing deal, which apparently followed on a four-studio bidding war, raised a lot of eyebrows among pop culture observers.

As it should: this is one of those stories where the surface p.r. explanations just don’t cut it. Let’s say you’re a mid-level studio executive at Universal and you say to yourself, “I bet we could make a totally cool movie about a lone spaceship doing some asteroid mining”. Only the most feral, predatory intellectual property lawyer is going to tell you to pay off the people holding the rights to the video game Asteroids if you want to make that movie.

You could even say to yourself, “I bet we could make a totally cool movie about how kids playing videogames here on Earth are actually controlling spaceships that are doing asteroid mining and other jobs.” You might want to lawyer up about infringing on The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game, I suppose, but not Asteroids.

So what’s going on here? I think again this is something less about business and profit and more about organizational sociology of contemporary cultural, economic and civic institutions. Most of them tend to have a big, amorphous layer of middle managers who make all the serious concrete decisions about resource allocation. All of those actors have strong incentives to claim sole credit for successful resource allocations and to obscure their involvement in unsuccessful ones. All of those actors need to provide a constantly renewed account of their own accelerating productivity: it’s never enough to be maintaining or supervising existing activities. And in a lot of these institutions, middling figures frequently arrange (implicitly or explicitly) to collaborate with a counterpart at another institution to mutually enhance their prospects along these lines, to manage their institutional capital and engage in quid-pro-quo dealings that make the dealers appear productive.

Hence in many cases an interest in paying out money for intellectual properties that are completely non-necessary to making a new cultural work. If you buy my mothballed intellectual property out of the attic of my megacorporation today, I’ll buy yours tomorrow, old chap. If you pay off the lawyer-troll under the bridge today in order to clip-clop across, then we’ll pay off yours too. Licensed properties are also a great alibi for failures (the source property is the problem! the adaptation is the problem!) and a great way for a studio executive to claim a successful adaptation (it’s not the film itself, it’s that I recognized the value of the property itself!)

In a lot of institutions, those middle-rank incentives drive some actions that people accountable for the total institution find frustrating or perverse, and end up constraining the generative actions of people who actually have to enact what the middle layer decides upon. Not to mention that the hidden incentives that drive institutional action sometimes produce results that outsiders find completely laughable or baffling, like a film based on the game Asteroids.

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7 Responses to A Tale of Two Game Movies

  1. G. Weaire says:

    “If we can get this percentage of WoW players, and this percentage of the people who went to see LotR…”

    “Transformers was big. What else is out there in the way of ’80s nostalgia?”

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Transformers probably is driving some of this. But look at the release calendar for 2011: they must know they’re going to need more than just “people who play Warcraft” to succeed.

  3. evangoer says:

    Well the metatextual thing was already covered by South Park, so that leaves us with B) Fantasy Cheese or C) a total stinkfest.

    Like you, I’m just not seeing how even someone as smart as Raimi is going to be able to pull out anything interesting at all out of WoW’s very shallow mythology. Maybe if the main character is an orc.

  4. Phil Palmer says:

    I thought the point of a World of Warcraft movie would be for the audience to talk amongst themselves and swap things. Will it be possible to fish?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    See, I was thinking that it’ll be interesting to see a film where the main characters get nerfed halfway through the movie.

  6. abstractart says:

    A lot of people have tried to advance complex cultural explanations for why there’s so many adaptations and remakes coming out of Hollywood — this age being an “age of nostalgia”, a fear of “running out of innovations”, a desire to “return to childhood”, etc. — but I think your institutional explanation is probably the best one. It really is just that adaptations and remakes are the best way for the host of middlemen who make up the studio system to claim maximum credit with minimal risk.

  7. ModernSophist says:

    “it???? not the film itself, it???? that I recognized the value of the property itself!”

    I find this to be true of so many things from my youth right now. Evidently, cool comes in 20-25 year cycles. I’ve estimated this becaues a few years ago, my favorite bars couldn’t get enough of the cure, girls starting loving bangs, and everyone had a story about the original (insert favorite saturday morning cartoon). It’s a kind of mass nostaliga, I suppose (a rather frustrating one for anyone who doesn’t have a taste for 80’s music).

    And as it pertains to remaking old video-games, I wonder, like you, what the catch is? It can’t be the story, right? Because I can’t think of anyone who knows the story to Asteroids, let alone World of Warcraft. I’ve even played the bloody thing and I couldn’t tell you much except that the one group is figting the other group, ala any other fantasy piece.

    Here’s what I want to see. Take some 80’s content that’s already been done, and done arguably well. Take someone’s favorite. How about Dark Crystal. People always bring up the movie Dark Crystal, it’s there favorite. The puppetry, characters, imagination, whatever…point is, ‘they don’t make em’ like they used to,’ and all that. I’d like to see someone have the guts to take an obviously good, well known story, and try to make it better. Not just bigger budget, but better.

    At least then we know they’re not just going for the “it’s cool because it is.” There would be too many people ready to swat it down if it were.

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