Videogames vs. The Movies


Difference #1,437 between my job and yours: You only have to hear about the problem of declining movie theater revenues maybe once a year, if that, usually in the context of those tiresome news stories at the end of the year about which films did and didn’t make money, and people probably don’t demand that you have an opinion about it. I, meanwhile, have to hear about this constantly, and have to come up with new ways of saying “Who knows?” just to stay relatively engaged.

But it’s true – movie ticket sales are generally on a downward trajectory these days, particularly if you account for inflation. That there isn’t a concrete answer for “why” isn’t surprising, given the smoke-and-mirrors of Hollywood accounting practices, though there’s no shortage of blame to go around.

Piracy is a popular target, both because it’s a plausible target and also because the word “piracy” is still sufficiently loaded so as to remain threatening. Mention “movie piracy” and the mind still tends to conjure up images of armed thugs in a Hong Kong backwater lording over a table of dubiously-boxed new releases, as opposed to upstanding college kids running torrents in their dorm room. It’s also a good way for vestigial industries like film manufacturers and print distributors to keep Hollywood itself skittish about embracing digital distribution – which would put them out of business. As the saying goes, don’t trust a horse about a car.

Political interests like to get their licks in, as well. It’s almost an article of faith in the bizarro world of certain conservative movie bloggers that Hollywood’s liberal-leaning tendencies are ignoring potential profits by not making more films for so-called “Real Americans” (read: people who agree with conservative movie bloggers). Reality, of course, doesn’t really bear that out. For every money-making “traditional values” phenomenon like Mel Gibson’s Passion of The Christ, there’s an ocean of flops like The Nativity Story.

Message mongering, in general, is an unpredictable gamble – Matt Damon’s hotly-promoted anti-Iraq War actioner The Green Zone tanked spectacularly, but in the same year, Avatar, a grandly mounted anti-corporate, anti-war, environmentalist uber-fantasy, became the biggest hit in Hollywood history.

But lately, some industry pundits have found a new favorite enemy in the personage of a supposed “rival” industry: videogames. Somebody call Michael Buffer.

Even a decade ago, the idea of videogames as a serious challenge to the movies was considered ridiculous – even though both are, theoretically, competing for your time and money. The idea of direct conflict would’ve been seen as preposterous on the level of Hollywood being at “war” with Burger King or the water slide industry. Videogames were seen as a hobby, something that some people – mostly men under 15 years old, did at home to kill time. Movies? Movies were an event! You went out for movies, you waited in line for movies, you made plans for movies.

But that was the before time. Before Xbox Live turned first-person shooters into the angry suburbanite venting method of choice. Before World of Warcraft and Second Life were mainstream time vampires. Before the Wii brought consoles to the same family room ubiquity as Candyland and Twister.

And so, today, Hollywood sees – or, rather, would like you to see – gaming as a big-time challenger to its product. It’s become a familiar bit of public performance art: blockbuster producers wringing their hands in (supposed) worry that their opening night box office will be cut in half by the midnight release of this or that Big Game, action directors bemoaning the loss of their “key demographic” to Call of Duty. Of course, it’s impossible to quantify any of this, and that’s probably the point.

And also, naturally, there’s seldom any consideration of their own culpability in the supposed situation. Big Ticket videogames are a (theoretical) threat to Hollywood’s box office because they’re so overwhelmingly aimed at the precious 18-35 male demographic (yes, I’m aware many reading this are gamers who don’t fall into that demographic, but I think we all know the score regarding exceptions proving the rule at this point) that Hollywood relies on for the vast majority of its income. That it might be a good idea to make a movie for some other audiences once in awhile never seems to come up.

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Problematically, a lot of the unsubstantiated accusations from Hollywood tend to set off some less-than desirable reactions from the supposed rival. The games industry (or, rather, the Western/American games industry as I rarely hear such protestations coming from Japan, Korea, etc.) has a long and storied inferiority complex regarding the movie industry, and it comes bursting to the surface with tremendous force whenever the “games are killing the box office” meme hits the Hollywood trades – a chronically insecure community eager to use a would-be rival’s finger-pointing hyperbole to bolster its own sense of self.

“Well, of course games are going to start cutting into Hollywood’s margin! We offer a better experience!” We’ve heard that one, right? Heck, some of us have probably had occasion to applaud it. “We’re the storytelling medium of the new era!” Uh-huh, sure. And perhaps my personal favorite: “We’re kicking ass because we’re more original!”

Folks, I dearly love videogames, and the videogames business, but the games industry (again, in this particular case we’re mostly talking about American developers) calling out Hollywood for a lack of originality is akin to Burger King decrying McDonalds for contributing to childhood obesity.

That’s not to say that the industry that this year alone will bring us a third Transformers and a fifth Fast & The Furious is a font of new ideas these days, but let’s get real. You can count the number of genuinely original big-ticket games each year without taking off your shoes for the most part, and to say that the game industry borrows from the movies disproportionately is the mother of all understatements.

Heck, it’s actually being generous to say that gaming takes its cues from the movies, collectively, as though it were merely failing to break ground that Hollywood hadn’t yet broken. If only! Instead, we’re treated to an endless succession of games directly descending from a hefty total of five movies – and while I’ll gladly agree with any given game maker that Aliens, Scarface, Lord of The Rings, Dawn of The Dead and Blackhawk Down were all damn, damn fine films, I think I’ve about played my fill of unofficial knockoffs of them. Hell, Uncharted and Tomb Raider probably deserve some kind of medal for their mutual outside-the-box move of ripping off Indiana Jones instead.

Things are slightly better in the so-called “indie gaming” scene, but even that’s starting to fall into the same follow-the-leader pattern indie movies did amid the late-90s explosion of Tarantino-wannabes: “Oooh boy! A hot new downloadable indie game! I wonder if it’s a Super Mario Bros. reworking built around a single unique new mechanic and an offbeat art-style!?”

It occurs to me that perhaps gaming and hollywood are so mutually hostile because each sees the other as a mirror of itself, and the reflection can’t be entirely pleasing. For all the joy they bring to us, and for all the paths on which they intersect, the things they share most in common are overwhelmingly negative.

They’re both bloated and unwieldy. They’re both overly reliant on remakes and reboots. They’re both refusing to work with a digital-age audience that’s technologically ahead of them. They both treat women poorly at worst and dismissively at best. They both regard diversity as a checklist-oriented chore. Neither one wants to acknowledge that there might be other people in the world worth paying attention to, or telling stories for, than young white men with disposable income.

Come to think of it, maybe they deserve eachother.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.