Here's why video game movies don't work

Often when popular video games like "Assassin's Creed" and "Prince of Persia" are turned into movies, audiences are disappointed. CNNMoney's Frank Pallotta explains why.

Posted: Mar 19, 2018 8:23 PM
Updated: Mar 19, 2018 8:26 PM

Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer tried to pull off one of the riskiest feats in Hollywood this weekend: a successful video game movie adaptation.

"Tomb Raider" took in about $23.5 million at the domestic box office in its opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo.

That's a respectable haul, and the movie has performed better overseas. But it's not a smash hit: "Tomb Raider" placed second this weekend -- albeit behind Disney's "Black Panther," a worldwide sensation in its fifth week of release. (Warner Bros., like CNN, is owned by Time Warner.)

Reviews for the $94 million film, which stars Academy-Award winner Alicia Vikander as the video game archeologist Lara Croft, have been mixed.

Its first weekend of release in the United States was also only about half as lucrative as that of 2001's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," which starred Angelina Jolie as the titular hero.

It's not too surprising that "Tomb Raider" isn't on track to become a runaway hit. Video game films are notoriously difficult to get right.

"I don't think there's any studio executive in town that wants to see on the schedule that they have a video game adaptation pitch," said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "It's just been a nightmare for studios."

Success stories in the genre are few. Bock pointed to 2001's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" attempt as an example.

That movie pulled in nearly $275 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. But critics still weren't impressed. It holds a 20% rating on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.

It could have been worse. Nintendo fans might remember 1993's "Super Mario Bros.," a live-action movie about the company's plumber mascots. It made about $20 million and was panned by critics.

Related: 'Super Mario Bros.' animated movie in the works at Illumination Entertainment

More recent efforts have been mixed. "Max Payne," a 2008 action film that starred Mark Wahlberg as a vengeful police detective, was adapted from the eponymous video game. While it didn't completely tank — it made $85 million worldwide on its $35 million budget — critics derided the film as "convoluted and leaden."

"I do think it's a fool's errand to try and turn video games into movies," said the film's director, John Moore last Friday. "I don't know why Hollywood keeps doing it."

Moore, who also directed "Behind Enemy Lines" and "A Good Day to Die Hard," said "Max Payne" didn't click with audiences because it didn't add anything new to the franchise.

"The base material is inherently more cinematic. It's more dramatic. It digs deeper," he added. "What's the point of chasing a facsimile of a drama?"

There is one bright spot for the genre. If Americans don't like a movie based on a video game, there's a good chance it will find better luck overseas.

The fantasy epic "Warcraft," for example, made a paltry $47 million when it opened stateside two years ago. But its foreign total was about eight times that amount.

"Visuals can carry a film overseas," Bock said. "That's definitely been shown. Their appetite for this type of film is just much bigger."

Bock said he's still holding out hope for a bonafide mainstream hit in the United States. He suggested that studios try to emulate the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which helped turn the stigmatized superhero genre into a cultural phenomenon.

"The potential is so big for this to succeed that they have to keep trying," Bock said. "Once they crack it, it could turn into the next Marvel."

More said he was skeptical of that strategy. Comic books are still images, so the format leaves more room for interpretation. Video games don't have that limitation.

"The universe is established in the game. It's moving and it has action," he added. "It has everything you need."

Some film studios are already trying other ways to tap into the video game market that don't rely on straightforward adaptations.

For example, next month's monster film "Rampage" is inspired by the classic arcade game of the same name. But it tells a new story not taken directly from the game.

Other approaches have already shown signs of promise. The adventure comedy "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" and Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" aren't based on any specific game titles. But the protagonists of both films are transported into video game worlds.

Related: Steven Spielberg's 'Ready Player One' to have world premiere at SXSW

"Jumanji" has earned $939 million worldwide since it was released last December. "Ready Player One" doesn't come out until later this month, but it has already gotten a lot of positive buzz.

That kind of inspirational approach might be the most effective one, said Jordan Crucchiola, an associate editor who has written about video game movies for New York Magazine's Vulture.

She suggested that films should take the "core elements" that make people like video games, and then add a story that fits on the big screen.

"You can take those fundamental elements and then blow a bigger story out," she said. "But make sure you're not fully abandoning the ethos of what you're adapting."

--CNNMoney's Frank Pallotta contributed to this report.

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