Last month, Variety reported that Sony will soon be signing a deal to adapt Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft's massively successful video game franchise. But Vulture has learned that this is no ordinary rights deal: With Creed one of the highest-selling modern game franchises (three installments have sold 30 million copies globally), Ubisoft was able to demand and receive an unheard of amount of control over the project. To make the deal, Sony had to grant the gaming company approval over just about everything — budget, principal cast, script, release date — and Hollywood spectators are flabbergasted. Notes one incredulous insider, “As a director, even Steven Spielberg cannot get this kind of deal.” And yet it's this very overarching power that may doom the project, as it has other gigantic video game movies. Notes one Hollywood talent agent who represents a smaller video game publisher, "The whole Ubisoft/Sony deal is a waste of ink, paper and time. The level of control Sony gave up means, effectively, that Assassin’s Creed will never — and I mean never — get made.”
As a director, Spielberg may not get this kind of creative control, and as a studio chief he would never give it: DreamWorks was among the first to pass on the Creed project. Universal and Warner Bros. both proceeded down the road with Ubisoft for a time, and insiders say they too were ultimately put off by the game-makers' demands. Explains one incredulous studio chief who ultimately dropped out of the bidding, “They want to be able to pull the plug on the whole movie’s development if they decide to. It’s ridiculous.”
From most execs' perspective, the idea that a video game company would tell a studio how to make a movie seems ludicrous. “It's [Ubisoft’s] billion-dollar brand, so I get that they're protective,” says another head of a different studio that hung in longer than DreamWorks, but ultimately passed. The exec adds, “But they're not moviemakers, and the only way to make sure it's a bad movie is to undervalue what movie studios do — and this is a deal that totally undervalues what movie studios do.”
Sony, for its part, sees it differently. The studio declined to comment, but one source with knowledge of the proposed deal explained that the reason Ubisoft secured some additional creative control was because the game publisher is spending a great deal of their own money to develop the project, an adventure about a modern-day hero who’s able to experience and inhabit the memories of his assassin ancestors. With Ubisoft kicking in so much of its own capital, says the source, Sony is investing "only a fraction of what a studio typically would spend to option or develop a script” — and on a title enjoying massive, built-in appeal.
Ubisoft believes that its deal with Sony solves the game-maker’s Prince of Persia problem. PoP is an Ubisoft title, and one person familiar with its gaming execs' thinking tells us that they believe that last summer's Disney blockbuster adaptation bombed partly because Ubisoft didn’t have enough control. (Predictably, Disney insiders say the problem was that Ubisoft had too much influence, and that though the franchise was well-known among gamers, it didn’t have the phenomenon status or broad appeal of Creed.)
For years, Hollywood has tried and failed to get video game publishers to let them license their most popular titles (like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto), but top publishers like Activision and Rockstar Games have begged off, believing their franchises to be worth far more than the potential downside of any movie incarnation. After all, in its first weekend in release, GTA IV posted more than $500 million in sales — and that was back in 2008.
Even when game companies do attempt to turn their biggest sellers into films, they often do it with such worry and micromanagement that the projects are doomed to never work out. Half a dozen years ago, Microsoft deliberately began working outside the studio system, paying screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) a million dollars to fashion an original script based on its megaselling Halo before even a single Hollywood studio had signed on to finance or distribute the movie. Most studios passed when Microsoft demanded the richest intellectual property deal in the history of Hollywood: $10 million against 15 percent of the gross of the film. Fox and Universal finally agreed to pay $5 million to jointly option Halo and pay Microsoft 10 percent of its eventual theatrical gross, but when such heavyweights as producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) came aboard, each also demanding a slice of the gross, the project collapsed under its own weight of influence.
Meanwhile, Sony has also been working on an adaptation of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, which, as a Sony Computer Entertainment game, is part of the corporate family. But that kinship has made the geek side of the Sony family no easier to please: David O. Russell was signed on to direct and write a script, and agency sources say that he turned in a strong draft, but SCE felt it departed too much from the video game's canon. (A Sony studio spokesman also declined to comment on the status of that project.)
To be fair, game publishers have little evidence to believe that Hollywood can be trusted with doing their product proud. A list of video game movies has very little in common with a list of good movies: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Max Payne, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark only when you hit the Tomb Raider films do you get to anything resembling a success. But wanting to protect a video game brand seems like it's more a matter of pride for these companies than an actual legitimate fiscal concern. After all, the first major film to be adapted from a video game, 1993’s Super Mario Bros., was an abject failure, but it did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for Mario and Luigi, who went on to sell tens of millions of copies as the best-selling franchise of the next twenty years.
Like Mario Bros. when its dog of a movie came out, Assassin's Creed is still huge. A fourth installment, Revelations (due out November 15), will likely sell millions of copies, and Ubisoft is feeling protective, even if a bad movie won't logically scar this monster. “It begs the question,” says one studio chief, “If they’re so afraid of what will happen to their franchises, why make a movie at all?”