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NZGDC14: Hollywood & Interactive IP

60 or so people turned out at AUT yesterday to hear US lawyer David Rosenbaum and game developer Dave Brevik talk about traversing the land between film or TV and games.

Most of those attending the session didn’t work in game development. As a large part of the organisers’ plan was to use the event to encourage conversations between game developers and other content creators, that counted as a success.

There were, naturally, a good number of the Auckland film and TV industry’s usual suspects present – especially those with an interest in transmedia. Even more would have attended had the German Film Festival not been running a session on international co-production elsewhere in AUT at the same time.

Rosenbaum and Brevik gave brief overviews of their work in the field, followed by a Q&A session. The session wasn’t intended to offer much in the way of answers, rather lay out some markers in a landscape the organisers hoped would be explored further by attendees.

The service model
Just as film and TV workers are used to working here on international productions, game developers are used to working here on projects for overseas content creators.

Introducing the speakers, the NZGDA’s Stephen Knightly noted that a number of NZ game studios have worked to create games and apps for US studios including Disney, DreamWorks, Lionsgate, and Sony. NZ game studios, he claimed, had not had the same opportunities with NZ production companies.

Without doubt, part of that lack of opportunity is down to scale, to some extent of projects but more about the markets in which those projects might be exploited.

That flagged early one of the major markers in the territory.

What was apparent from both Rosenbaum and Brevik’s experience was that they play in the big leagues. It begged the question: are such opportunities scalable?

A few hours ahead of Thursday’s session at AUT, an announcement came out about a visit to NZ next month of the godfather of transmedia, Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez. His full-day masterclass presentation promised “a specific focus on the New Zealand context” and “highly successful transmedia storyworlds – no matter the size of your budget”.

Though it sounds exciting, it’s hard not to be sceptical. Gomez was responsible for much of the transmedia exploitation of Avatar.

Even more modestly-budgeted projects are not small. The cost to multi-national FMCG producer Nabisco of contracting PikPok to create the game Twist. Lick. Dunk, to celebrate a hundred years of Oreos was very easily borne by a company operating in a primary market of over 300 million people.

Despite NZ biscuit manufacturer Griffins turning over some $300 million a year, its activities around its iconic Cookie Bear brand are necessarily on a much smaller scale in a primary market of 4.5 million.

New Opportunities
During the Screen Sector Review, the NZGDA lobbied for greater attention and opportunities for game developers. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful – but no more or less than other content creators – when government decided to leave things pretty much as they had been previously.

We all know how that turned out. On 1 April this year, the new NZ Screen Production Grant replaced SPIF and the LBSPG. In the new NZ Screen Production Grant there is the opportunity to claim back a share of qualifying expenditure used to extend film or TV productions by adding game or app elements.

Clause 16.2(b), addressing that qualifying expenditure, reads

Additional Audiovisual Content
Costs incurred in New Zealand on audiovisual content that is intended to be released with the production in some form are QNZPE where they are incurred by the applicant before Completion of the production. Examples of additional audiovisual content for release with the production are:

  1. director or cast commentary tracks;
  2. ‘making of’ documentaries;
  3. material for extended versions;
  4. any transmedia content released on a second screen where that content is developed and produced in conjunction with the production to be viewed contemporaneously with the production and shares a unified narrative with the production.

That transmedia content clearly allows games to be included in the mix – so long as they’re conceived as part of the original plan and not bolted on after the fact.

You look familiar
Rosenbaum offered up a definition of transmedia, which he claimed “used to be called licensing or brand development”. Those terms were more honest, in the sense that they defined ownership and the balance of power within a relationship – things that were very important to Hollywood studios.

As a lawyer, Rosenbaum has worked both sides of transmedia deals. He’s represented Hollywood studios wanting to exploit their properties across various media and retain as much of the rights the rights and control as possible. More recently, he’s repped game developers.

Going forward, he’d like to see more collaboration between filmmakers and game developers (regardless of who owns the IP on any particular property). Everybody does better, Rosenbaum reckoned, while acknowledging that sometimes controls are needed.

He cited the example of a game development studio contracted to provide the computer game to accompany the release of John McTiernan’s Oscar-winning 1990 adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, featuring Sean Connery.

The game developer decided it would be a really good idea if a giant sea monster ate the submarine Red October at the end of the game. Rosenbaum’s employer, Paramount, felt rather differently. In that instance, the contract clarified who got to tell whom what to do with their sea monster.

Rosenbaum’s example sparked a digression on the change in the tech available to game developers then and now, which enables a lot of asset sharing between filmmakers and game developers, particularly on CGI-heavy titles. The speed of work has also changed, allowing game and filmmakers to work simultaneously, rather than forcing game developers to lag behind.

Across the table
Brevik has come from the game development side of the tracks. His first experience was working on a fighting game based on DC Comics’ Justice League characters. Back in 1991 such games were pretty much restricted to punch or kick. One day there was a note from DC: Superman doesn’t kick.

Brevik pulled examples from DC Comics of Superman kicking and put them in front of the client. The note changed to: Superman doesn’t kick now.

Having co-founded Blizzard North, creators of billion dollar game franchise Diablo, Brevik is now President of Gazillion Games, holder of the Marvel Heroes gaming IP rights.

He suggested that Marvel is more flexible than some when it comes to developing their properties. There’s importance attached to being true to characters within the Marvel universe (“although there’s probably not much Iron man wouldn’t do”), Brevik allowed that Marvel has made some major changes to characters as they’ve travelled from the original comics to animated or live action films and TV shows.

Brevik also enjoyed that the tech nowadays allows greater flexibility and interaction. He credited Marvel for supplying Gazillion with film scripts early on in the process, and for allowing Gazillion to both incorporate and spin off from story elements in the films. In one instance, Gazillion was able to offer game players the option to re-costume Iron Man in one of a number of suits because they were able to use the assets created fro the film.

Sticking firmly with the transmedia mantra, Brevik asserted that the days of games that simply follow the story of the movie (or vice versa) were numbered if not done. Successful transmedia projects build on and expand the source material, develop and grow the story world.

What tips did the speakers have to offer?

Not all projects lend themselves to being exploited across all media.

Remember that studios love evergreen franchises – material that can expanded and rebooted on a reasonably regular basis. For material targeting pre-school audiences, that happens naturally – even if that audience is the least familiar with second screen technology. For bigger kids, even their memories aren’t that long. The Andrew Garfield-led Amazing Spider-Man trilogy hit screens only five years after the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man trilogy concluded.

There will always be some tension between games and films or TV shows in the way they best exploit ideas, Brevik suggested.

“Gaming is the opposite of storytelling,” he claimed. “In games you don’t know the end going in. The best gaming is unpredictable. You play experience it in a different way each time.”

The NZ Game Developers Conference runs Thursday 18 – Friday 19 September at AUT, Auckland.

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