HBO TV series The Last of Us, inspired by the Naughty Dog series of the same name, has done…something to a lot of the game industry executives I’ve spoken with in 2023. Interest in adapting video game properties has been growing for a few years, with niche titles like Disco Elysium being scooped up and imminent projects like a Fallout TV show about to land, but the Pedro Pascal/Bella Ramsey-helmed series seems to be sparking a shift at the executive level.
And deservedly so! The show’s pretty good, the third episode was a wonderful reimagining of a key level from the original game and I will celebrate any show that puts actor Anna Torv back on the map.
But if you’re a game developer hoping to sign a sweet film or TV adaptation deal—you might want to start thinking a few steps ahead. Just like in the world of triple-A video games, budgets for high-profile TV and film projects are spiraling higher and higher—and the risks of failure are increasing with them.
The world of entertainment is a risky business no matter what field you’re in, but 100 years of Hollywood history has given us plenty of examples of how companies can build sustainable production models. And if you’re looking for a model that will get your game a huge fanbase, you don’t need to look back that far—just to the Young Adult novel adaptation boom of the 2010s.
The YA adaptation craze had a relatively efficient business model
A friend back in the entertainment business was the one who tipped me off to the difference between video game adaptations and YA adaptations. Video games adaptations, she pointed out, lend themselves to big-budget spectacles with high VFX budgets. The ballooning costs of bringing a series like Halo to life demand increased spending on high-profile actors and expensive marketing campaigns to draw in big audiences that can secure a return on investment.
YA adaptations (even high profile ones like The Hunger Games) did not carry the same budgetary demands. Many studios brought beloved books to the screen by following a model that roughly went like this: take an up-and-coming actor who will command a lower salary. Pair them with an older actor who can provide some audience draw. Combine that with a modest production budget in a region with robust tax credits, and even a film of moderate quality stood a good chance of turning a profit.
Don’t just take my word for it. The numbers speak for themselves. Here are the budgets and worldwide gross revenue for some high-profile science fiction adaptations that video games might be targeting. I’m also listing actors who were part of the above formula
The Hunger Games: (Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson): $78m budget, $695m grossDivergent (Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet): $85m budget, $289m grossThe Maze Runner (Dylan O’Brien and—no one except other just-emerging stars. This one went big without a high-profile actor!): $34m budget, $384m gross
But those are just the science fiction adaptations. The YA business boom of the 2010s also featured a number of successful low-cost dramas:The Perks of Being a Wallflower: $13m budget, $33.3m grossThe Fault in Our Stars: $12m budget, $302 million grossPaper Towns: $12m budget, $85.5 million gross.
(For those not familiar with Hollywood biz analysis, you should assume that a film needs to make 2x of its budget in order to break even, since marketing campaigns run up to the same value.)
Each of those series took wildly different directions after their debuts. The Hunger Games propelled Jennifer Lawrence to a household name and spurred three successful sequels. Divergent made Shailene Woodley a more high-profile actor but saw diminishing returns and burned out before adapting the final book. Maze Runner is positively bonkers. Despite being far more low-profile book, it made back 11 times its budget. The Hunger Games only made back eight times its budget!
Let’s compare those numbers to some high-profile video game projects in the last few years.
Sonic the Hedgehog (James Marsden, Ben Schwartz): $90m budget, $319.7m gross
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, other high-profile actors): $100m budget, $1.6b gross
Pokémon Detective Pikachu(Justice Smith, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Nighy): $150m budget, $450m gross
Assassin’s Creed (Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard): $125m budget, $240.7 gross
The TV show financials for HBO’s The Last of Us and Paramout Plus’ Halo series are harder to compare. Variety reported that Halo’s budget was $10 million per episode. An IATSE 22 spokesperson estimated that The Last of Us’ budget was around the same cost. Both shows’ financial success would be tied to subscriptions to each service, which are unknown. I’m also unable to estimate the costs of successful animated adaptations like Netflix’s Castlevania series, so all I can say about that is: that show rules.
No matter how you slice it, video game adaptations have all been really expensive up to this point. And for every Sonic The Hedgehog, there’s an Assassin’s Creed waiting right around the corner to burn a lot of cash and then fall flat on its face.
What game adaptations are spending money efficiently?
So here’s the rub: In the last 10 years of video game adaptations, the most budget-conscious ones all landed at a very nasty point in the COVID-19 pandemic. Mortal Kombat, Monster Hunter, and Werewolves Within all debuted between 2020 and 2021, and each faced COVID-related challenges that dinged their box office chances.
Werewolves Within: $6.5m budget, $1m gross (Released in 2021 as movie theaters recovered from pandemic in limited release. Went to digital 1 month later)
Mortal Kombat (2021): $55m budget, $84.4m gross, simultaneous digital/theatrical release due to COVID-19 impacted gross.
Monster Hunter: $60m budget, $44.5m gross, released in theaters during COVID-19 pandemic. This one also drew harsh criticism for racist jokes that led to it being pulled from China, a key target market for the franchise
If it weren’t for the COVID-19 (and an ill-advised racist joke: come on Paul W.S. Anderson, you fumbled the bag here) each of these films had a real shot at being solid business plays. Mortal Kombat is a widely beloved series and turning in a perfectly respectable martial arts flick with Scorpion yelling “GET OVER HERE” was probably enough to score a decent return on investment in an ordinary year.
Anderson’s spent years perfecting the low-budget, high-grossing, Milla Jovovich-starring model with the Resident Evil films, and Werewolves Within had a great cast with then-burgeoning names like Sam Richardson, Harvey Guillén and Cheyenne Jackson. Longtime AT&T pitchwoman Milana Vayntrub was also a huge delight in this movie and if there was any justice it would have been her big boost into more regular genre film appearances. (Seriously go watch Werewolves Within!!! It’s criminal this was so overlooked.)
All three films are the closest you get to the conventional YA adaptation model. It’s a shame the COVID-19 pandemic makes them all look like failures.
It is worth noting that according to data from our sibling organization Omdia, audiences are reacting more positively to series-length adaptations of video game franchises than they are film adaptations. Seeking similar budget models in that world (anyone up for a monster-of-the-week adaptation of Dredge?)
Shouldn’t we just be making original films?
Yes, absolutely! The film and TV industries are speeding toward a repeat of the 1950s/60s crash by relying so much on big-budget boom-or-bust model. Enough “busts” and Warner Bros. will be spun off from Discovery and sold to Universal or something.
But here’s the thing. I want to go to the movies to see original films like Nope, Midnight Special, and The Green Knight. I also loved the heck out of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. I want a Halo show or film that’s known for great science fiction setpieces and not Master Chief having sex while Cortana watches. I’d love an Assassin’s Creed film that gets the charm and stealth tension of the series. 10 Cloverfield Lane director already made a good Portal fan film a decade ago, his take on one today would probably be even better!
Adaptations in Hollywood are a practice as old as movies themselves and when done right, they’re an excellent vehicle for artists and businesspeople to each get something out of working with an established story. Interpreting work from other mediums to the world of film and TV can be a great artistic exercise (again, I point to The Last of Us’ third episode). Using adapted properties as safer bets to fund more experimental risks does make plenty of sense.
Video game studios stand to gain a lot of cash (and additional marketing) by wheeling and dealing with Hollywood heavyweights. But right now too many investors and executives may be missing what’s right in front of them: our medium isn’t just about big franchise IP or whatever, it has the DNA for sustainable stories that can put artists first, and licenses and massive marketing campaigns second.
Oh and while we’re at it—everyone, from the developers who make video games to the writers and actors who fought for better wages and quality-of-life conditions in 2023—deserves a bigger slice of the profits that come with these projects.
If Hollywood figures out that far-more-efficient adaptation model, it damn well needs to pay the people who actually make it happen.
Game Developer and Omdia are sibling organizations under Informa Tech