Video game movies need their Iron Man moment, and Ari Arad thinks its coming.
Arad is co-producing, along with his father/Marvel Studios founder Avi Arad, a slew of film adaptations based on the Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid and Borderlands franchises.
Ari Arad recently told Polygon that while he's been a fan of video games and manga for quite some time, he had never really considered adapting them into movies until after he and his father left Marvel.
Uncharted was one of the first games that the two considered for a potential movie.
"After seeing some of the promotions for the game, we reached out to Sony Computer about it," he said. "We had gotten to know them a bit through some things, not movie related."
Arad said while some video game adaptions have managed to find success — the Resident Evil franchise has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide — those adaptations still haven't seen the sort of mainstream domination that comic book adaptations have.
Comic book movies, like Iron Man, Spider-Man and the X-Men franchise, have become the benchmark for Hollywood both because of their financial successes and the way they influence pop culture. Being able to create film adaptations of gaming franchises like Uncharted or Borderlands in the same vein as recent comic book movies is Arad’s goal.
But video games, Arad said, bring with them a different kind of conundrum.
"I don't think the gaming community shows up just to support a game," he said. "They're very demanding. If you make a bad game you need to reacquire those fans the next time."
Also unlike comics, video games don’t contain simple stories that can be retold as easily in film. While filmmakers struggled for decades to find a formula for making good comic book movies, they had the advantage of still working with a relatively familiar format.
Video games, however, are experienced through a combination of player interaction and a linear story designed by developers.
Arad points to that hybrid experience on players’ plates as the chief issue that needs to be solved. He added he’s well aware not all games can be turned into good movies.
"A lot of the games I love I don't think I could make into a movie," he said. "If too much of what I like about a game is the gameplay, then maybe it's not a good idea."
In his eyes, a good video game movie is sort of like a good sports movie.
"I don't watch sports, but I really like sports movies and sports writing," he said. “I love that because it allowed me to feel about the sport the way the person who created the movie or writing felt.
"That's the brass ring for adapting a game into a movie."
An adaptation should deepen a fan's connection to the game, according to Arad. More importantly, it should allow people who have never played that game — or any game — to walk away with that same feeling gamers get.
Arad said they're not planning on taking an abstract approach to any of their game films, but admitted he liked what director Spike Jonze did with his adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.
"It wasn't just nine sentences and then let's make a movie, it was 'What does this movie mean to me?'," Arad said. Director Spike Jonze "figured that out and then made a movie about it."
The trick is finding out how to strike a balance, according to Arad. Not only between the narrative of the game and the way the game makes you feel, either. It’s important to figure out all the different ways a game might make a person feel or all of the different methods a player might use when playing a game.
"The way you play Borderlands versus the way I play Borderlands could be super different," he said. "It's sort of case by case, depending on the game.
"I'm looking forward to making one of these so I can post-mortem it."
I asked Arad how he might use that approach for a game that’s deeply driven traditional filmmaking cues, like Metal Gear Solid. In 2012, Avi Arad confirmed he would be producing a live-action film adaptation of developer Hideo Kojima’s most iconic game. Kong: Skull Island’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts is set to direct. Vogt-Roberts confirmed in a recent Ask Me Anything session on Reddit that the film was moving forward and they were just working out final details.
"Metal Gear Solid is like a spicy dish," Ari Arad said. "It's hard. It pushes back on its player in an awesome way. It's a wild experience and when you hang in there it is satisfying."
In the case of Metal Gear Solid, everyone involved in the film is a super fan dating back to the NES original, he said.
"Metal Gear Solid is a tricky one," Arad said. "Kojima's attitude is not trying to get in the way. He, I think, has already said a lot of what he's wanted to say."
Kojima’s unwillingness to talk about the game makes Arad and his father’s interactions with the developer a little more complicated than they expected.
"My dad and I and [Metal Gear Solid director] Jordan [Vogt-Roberts] try to get him to talk about games and he shuts down on us," Arad said. "But you get into movies and he's suddenly bringing up all of these deep references.
"That's the sort of interesting thing about Metal Gear Solid: It's such a wild Japanese take on a very American thing. You're not understanding it as you play sometimes, but by the time you get through a level or a whole game you feel what Kojima wants you to feel."
There's no way they could simply take a fragment or piece of the Metal Gear Solid games and turn that into a movie, Arad said. Instead, they need to discover what's fundamental to the game and distinguishes it from others.
That's the approach they took going into Iron Man, the film that kickstarted the new age of Marvel films.
"We didn't know Iron Man wasn't super cool when we started on the movie," Arad said, adding that the movie "pulled the soul out of the comic and it was a different take.
"That's what has to happen for a game movie to be great."
Picking the games they want to adapt for film sounds just as complicated as figuring out the right approach, but the key to choosing successfully is making sure you're really in love with it, Arad said.
"You have to decide, 'Am I going to be able to wake up every morning, ready to carry the boulder up the hill for six years?'," he said.
An additional hiccup Arad faces when working with developers is how rare it is to receive approval to use their IP. That's largely because on its surface, there isn't much upside for developers to allow studios to make a movie.
"How many more games do you think they will sell because we make a movie?" Arad asked. "If it's a hit, the first billion dollar comic book movie sized hit?
"What does that mean for the game? What does it mean if the game isn't a hit?"
The issue, Arad said, is that games have been an extremely lucrative business in their own right. They don’t need a film adaptation to push copies of their titles.
But Arad believes the upside for game developers is that a proper, good adaptation of their property is a chance to expand the ways in which a person can enjoy the world a developer created.
"It's a great place for a fan to be if you can always be engaged with an IP you love regardless of format,” he said.
"What if you don't feel like playing an MMO anymore but you still love the IP? A movie is a great way to stay interested in that. That has value. The movie can deepen the relationship and I think it should."