The stunning success of the “Super Mario Bros. Movie” shows that video game intellectual properties are ripe for film and television adaptation. If the last 10 years were the decade of superhero films and comic book adaptations, the next decade might very well become Hollywood’s video game era.
“Super Mario” — which was produced for roughly $100 million by Nintendo, Illumination and Universal Pictures and earned over $200 million in its five-day demostic debut — is just the tip of the iceberg. HBO’s “The Last of Us” series took the entertainment world by storm in January, and streaming platforms from Netflix to Paramount+ have begun to snap up other popular gaming IPs such as “Fallout” and “Mass Effect.”
Hollywood’s flirtation with video game adaptations is still in its relatively early stages, but it’s shaping up to be a romance for the ages. Digiday spoke to the experts to figure out why gaming IPs have become the next big money maker for the film and TV industry.
Here are five reasons:
1. Gaming has finally become a multi-generational activity
By now, popular gaming franchises such as “Mario” have been around for decades — which means multiple generations have grown up hopping on Goombas and defeating Bowser. When the live action “Super Mario Bros.” film came out in 1993, kids may have been excited, but their parents likely rolled their eyes at the concept of a video-game-based movie.
Last weekend’s box office numbers show that parents and children alike showed up in force to watch the “Super Mario Bros. Movie” — and the film was chock-full of references to Mario games young and old, ensuring there was something for every generation of fans.
“There were all of these references that folks like me, who are in their forties, recognized from the game I played 15 years ago, even if it was only a passing moment in the movie,” said Jonathan Stringfield, vp of global business research and marketing at Activision Blizzard Media. “It had all these nice hooks within it, keeping even someone who is ostensibly not within the target demographic well-engaged with the film through nostalgia and familiarity with the IP.”
2. Video game movies are actually good now
Critics might disagree, but the 96 percent Rotten Tomatoes audience score for the “Super Mario Bros. Movie” does not lie. As the storytelling of video games themselves improve, film and television studios are investing more resources into their game adaptations, creating a perfect storm for the development of genuinely high-quality adaptations such as “The Last of Us.” Audiences are rewarding this increase in quality by showing up at the box office.
“These projects are given more resources, and the creative teams behind them are given more freedom,” said Margaret Boykin, vp of Ubisoft Film and Television. “Where adaptations of games have suffered in the past is in their inability to deviate from the source material and make important distinctions between the right storytelling for games vs. films and television series. There is a misconception at networks and studios that gamers will reject anything that isn’t game canon. Now, adaptations are being applauded for their additions to the game lore.”
3. Gaming IP has ample potential for the creation of cinematic universes
The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has put film and television studios on alert for the next properties that might be adapted into a cohesive cinematic universe — but there are few forms of media whose long-term storytelling and cross-pollination of characters are as deep as comic books. But one form of media that could rival comics in its potential for the development of a cinematic universe is gaming; after all, the world of “Mario” is populated by dozens of memorable characters, only a fraction of whom showed up in the “Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
The next big cinematic universe may very well be the NCU — the Nintendo Cinematic Universe. “Not a lot of studios have that depth of IP to tap into, whereas video games are a huge body of IP that has been relatively unexploited,” Stringfield said.
In addition to the wealth of characters and settings in the world of “Mario,” Nintendo owns a multitude of other popular franchises such as “Metroid” and “The Legend of Zelda.”
4. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted the popularity of gaming IP
This is no surprise, but it’s worth mentioning: The COVID-19-fueled bump in gaming activity has finally come to Hollywood. At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, consumers’ engagement with gaming content ballooned, (< have any stats to support this?) creating a new crop of gaming fans familiar with IPs such as “Mario” and “The Last of Us.” In 2021, 227 million Americans told the Entertainment Software Association that they played video games, an increase from 214 million the previous year. The livestreaming platform Twitch saw a 67 percent increase in viewership during the same period.
Through adaptations such as the “Mario” movie, the film industry is simply reacting to this uptick in interest.
5. Gaming IPs come pre-loaded with vibrant and passionate fan communities
Video game adaptations are a cheat code for Hollywood film studios because, like comic books, their fandom doesn’t need to be built from the ground up. For millions of “Mario” fans, it was practically fait accompli that they would put their butts in movie theater seats for the release of the “Super Mario Bros. Movie,” regardless of the quality of the film.
And in the long term, gaming IP may have more legs than comic book IP. Sales of print comics have been declining for years, but interest in gaming is only growing.
“With the budget of Hollywood projects ballooning, everyone is looking for bankable cultural properties to mitigate risk. Comics provided this, and now it’s video games,” said Jason Chung, director of esports and gaming at New York University. “The ‘Mario’ movie’s success won’t be a definitive jumping off point or end to video game IPs as movies. The only difference is that studios seem to finally be understanding that they need to give appropriate budgets and support to these films.”