Adaptation is big business in the film industry. Movies based on comic book properties have shaped the box office over the past decade, and Disney alone since 2008 has generated more than $7 billion in global ticket sales with films in its Marvel Cinematic Universe. If that's not a convincing argument for the financial benefits of familiarity, consider that seven of the top 10 highest-grossing films in history trace their roots to storytelling mediums other than the silver screen. One of the films not to fall into that category is Titanic, with Avatar and Frozen standing as the only other entries in this upper echelon not to have a basis in another medium or historical event.
Take the proven track record of success with adaptations and the fact that video games have never been bigger or more culturally relevant, and it's no surprise that studios are hoping to bring popular gaming properties to the cinema. Previous attempts have mostly fallen short of blockbuster status, but the coming wave of game-to-film projects suggests studios are confident there will be a bigger audience this time around. What do such projects mean for platform holders such as Sony (NYSE:SNE), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Nintendo (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY)? Let's take a look.
Sony bets big on video game movies
Of the three console manufacturers, Sony looks to be banking most heavily on converting successful gaming series to blockbuster films. This isn't surprising, as it is the only one of the three to have a film business, but a new batch of game movies might also be a sign of shifting strategies within the company. Sony's recent $1.7 billion writedown, and subsequent stock collapse, developed from weakness in its mobile unit, which had previously been touted by President Kazuo Hirai as one of the company's chief avenues to success. A smartphone business that looks increasingly inept puts added pressure on the company to rely on, and grow, its media businesses. At the same time, Sony's Amazing Spider-Man 2 did not live up to studio expectations and failed to match the earnings of its predecessor, a major stumble because "Spider-Man" is the company's most important film property.
An adaptation of the popular Uncharted series from premier Sony first-party developer Naughty Dog is scheduled to hit theaters in June 2016, replacing Amazing Spider-Man 3 after the Spider-sequel was delayed to a 2018 release. A film based on Sony and Naughty Dog's The Last of Us is also in development at the company's Screen Gems studio, and a movie based on the console maker's Ratchet and Clank series should bow in 2015. Sony's ability to find cross-medium success reminiscent of what Disney has accomplished looks increasingly crucial to its future.
Do Microsoft and Nintendo aspire to be movie stars?
Compared to Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo look to be taking slower, possibly more cautious approaches to the silver screen. Microsoft's $2.5 billion acquisition of Minecraft and its developer, Mojang, now finds the company very interested in the reception of Time Warner's live-action film based on the game, but the closing of Xbox Entertainment Studios and production of a Halo digital series after years of rumors about a big-screen effort indicate the company is still trying to find the right way to maximize the value that its properties add to its businesses.
Meanwhile, Nintendo is seemingly taking hesitant steps forward in using its characters in other mediums that could portend big things for the company. Legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto is reportedly set to debut a series of short films based on the company's Pikmin game series at the Tokyo International Film Festival later this month. Miyamoto has also expressed interest in attempting to fundamentally change the movie watching experience, perhaps by incorporating viewers' 3DS consoles to make it more intereactive.. As the company's hardware business continues to look vulnerable, Nintendo aims to redefine its offerings while still retaining its core elements. Bringing its characters to new mediums is likely necessary for its long-term success.
Is it reasonable to expect gaming properties to deliver superhero-like performances?
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo aren't the only gaming industry players interested in big-screen performance, as publishers Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft are also involved in delivering movie versions of some of their biggest properties. The number of game-based films in development suggests an optimism that deserves some cautious evaluation. Big-budget attempts to transition hit properties to new mediums aren't without risk, and the desired synergistic benefits must be considered alongside the possibility that new ventures will damage the core property.
There are also strong reasons to doubt whether video games are a good basis for blockbuster films. Having compelling characters is a big part of success at the box office, and what makes characters and experiences engaging is not wholly congruous across narrative and game-centric mediums. This is part of the reason Nintendo has historically been cautious about bringing its characters to the movies. It also helps to explain why Disney's Wreck-It Ralph is the top-grossing "video game" movie to date. Wreck-It Ralph is set in the video game world and includes cameos from notable real-world gaming characters, but its star is an original character written and designed for the silver screen.
Keith Noonan owns shares of Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool recommends Activision Blizzard and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Activision Blizzard, Microsoft, and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.