This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo is a burial ground for big-budget video game adaptations that never quite saw the light of day.
Like many people with an appreciation for video games and a scarcity of leisure time, I spent my hours during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) announcements like I do every other year: making a list of all the amazing titles I know I’ll never play. From exciting new games (Death Stranding) to long-anticipated big swings from my favorite franchises (Fallout 76), E3 shows us the video games that will dominate the cultural landscape for the next 18 months. But in looking over the titles that have already been announced, I cannot help but feel like this year’s E3 shines a light on the sheer volume of abandoned Hollywood adaptations of major video game titles. Video game movies operate on their own unique timeline, one that cares little for the development curve of superheroes and young adults.
Let’s start with some math. Earlier this year, academic Stephen Follows released a study of Hollywood production timelines from announcement to theatrical release. In his study, Follows looked at 782 live-action studio films and pulled together the various pre-production, production, and release dates for each. Follows found that it takes the average Hollywood movie approximately 871 days to go from its inception – that first announcement in trades like Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – to the opening weekend at the local multiplex. Drilling down a little deeper, Follows found that it took films an average of 455 days to begin production after the project was announced. Follows also found that adventure films – a category that seems perfect for video game adaptations – took the longest amount of time to go from trade to screen, with 1,103 days passing on average.
Now, let’s compare these to some of the biggest video game sequels and adaptations announced at this year’s E3. Perhaps the granddaddy of troubled video game productions is the Halo franchise. While fans of the series were no-doubt excited to see Microsoft tease the sixth game in the franchise, the movie adaptation has languished in production hell for more than a decade. The initial announcement of the film first came in August 2005, with Universal and 20th Century Fox agreeing to co-produce the Microsoft film; despite a script treatment by science fiction darling Alex Garland – and a list of rumored directors that included Guillermo del Toro and Neill Blomkamp – the trigger was never pulled on a Halo film. At last count, fans were still hoping that a Steven Spielberg-produced Halo television series would begin production this fall, but considering we’re at 4,673 days and counting, I’m not exactly going to hold my breath.
In second place among the all-time troubled film productions is Gears of War, the popular shooter that is set to add a fifth entry sometime in 2019. Given the simplistic narrative and the incredible action sequences in the games, a Gears of War adaptation seems like something of a no-brainer; that’s probably what New Line had in mind when it snapped up the rights to the film adaptation in March 2007. In May 2017, the film adaptation picked up steam again when it was announced that James Cameron’s writer of preference, Shane Salerno, had been picked by Universal to write the screenplay for the live-action adaptation. A year and change later and the only thing that’s changed is a celebrity endorsement: it seems that Dave Bautista has his eye on the lead role for a Gears of War film, giving fans something to chew over for the next few weeks. Development days? 4,101.
And then there’s the adaptation of The Last of Us. Quite possibly one of the finest narratives ever committed to a video game, The Last of Us featured a story of post-apocalyptic isolation and the fear of infection at a time when studios were snapping up anything with the word ‘zombie’ in the plot synopsis. The announcement of a sequel is a highlight for gamers everywhere; even so, a movie adaptation of the original remains something of a pipe dream. In March of 2014, Variety announced that Screen Gems would distribute the film with the help of Sam Raimi’s production company and that Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog’s creative director, would write his first Hollywood screenplay. Ready for a shock? Jump forward a few years and there’s Sam Raimi telling IGN that the project is at a ‘standstill.’ 1,559 days and counting.
These production rumors aren’t limited to just the most infamous titles, of course. Take Just Cause, the open world video game series notorious for its dubious grasp of physics. Back in March of 2017, it was announced that Jason Momoa would be starring in a film adaptation of the popular video games, with San Andreas and Rampage director Brad Peyton set to helm the film. Despite this, the film has yet to begin production at 462 days and counting. Or how about that six-film reboot of the Resident Evil franchise, the one with James Wan producing? The studio is still ‘working on it creatively,’ and who knows, maybe it’ll end up being a television show instead? 387 days. Hell, even Assassin’s Creed and Rampage, two of the few video games to actually receive a big-screen adaptation, took 1,882 and 2,339 days respectively to get from that first Variety announcement to the big screen. And even if we ignore all that time that David O. Russell or Joe Carnahan spent working on Uncharted and focus on the Tom Holland edition of the film, we’re still on Day 386 with no script in sight.
So by all means, enjoy the plethora of incredible trailers being released as part of this year’s E3 marketing blitz, just don’t expect to see a lot of these video games find their way to your local movie theater anytime soon. While it’s important to remember that any movie released is in and of itself a minor miracle, the trends show that video game adaptations lag considerably behind their counterparts when it comes to the production process. Maybe there are too many cooks in the kitchen; maybe studios tend to announce their projects a little too early; or maybe, just maybe, video games remain the one piece of intellectual property that producers cannot crack. And until things change, video game adaptations will remain where they’ve always been: at the very, very top of the Hollywood rumor mill.