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Interview: Jerry Bruckheimer on Game Development, Prince of Persia, Why Movie Games Fail

Famed movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer talks to Gamasutra on the Prince of Persia film, his game studio, and game adaptations of movies -- "to really make a good game, it really takes a long time."

April 13, 2010

11 Min Read

Author: by Brandon Sheffield, Chris Remo

Famed film and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Beverly Hills Cop, Pirates of the Caribbean, CSI) is also producing the new Prince of Persia film, based on the game series by the same name. His movies are decidedly in the blockbuster vein, and some might argue his name overshadows the directors of his film at times, as they all ascribe to his particular slick style. Bruckheimer owns a game studio as well, with executives Jim Veevaert (ex Microsoft) and Jay Cohen (ex Ubisoft North America) heading up the LA-based unit, which is working with MTV Games and has two projects in the works. At the recent WonderCon event, Gamasutra had the chance to talk with Bruckheimer about his involvement in the film, his game studio, and what he thinks of game adaptations of movies: "to really make a good game, it really takes a long time." There's generally a bit of a stigma against video game movies. Why do you think that game adaptations have traditionally been less critically successful than, say, book adaptations? Jerry Bruckheimer: It's hard to say. It depends on who's involved with it and the approach they took. I had a journalist come in before you and ask the same question. He thought for a second and said, "Well, I don't think it's any harder than taking a theme park ride and turning that into a movie." He meant Pirates of the Caribbean. It's a very successful trilogy, and now we're starting a fourth one. We used the same skill, as far as storytellers, that we used on Pirates of the Caribbean on Prince of Persia. Jordan Mechner came to us with John August, the screenwriter, and they pitched this idea. I'd never played the game until he came to me and pitched the story. It was a very intriguing story. He wrote the initial screenplay, and from that point on, it took us six years, and here I'm sitting in a room with you guys and we've finished the movie. Whatever did happen to the game studio that you were starting? JB: It's going. We even got a deal with MTV. We're in process of getting two games off the ground. We've started developing them. We've got two really talented executives working on them. Do you think there's something you can relate to the idea of trying to adapt tone versus actual story? A lot of video games, even though they might be very successful in terms of tone... With the Prince of Persia games, there's not necessarily a very strong core story there. Do you think that might be the pitfall? JB: Yeah. It always depends on story and character. With that, if you can create that, then you've got it. That's what it's about. We're storytellers. That's all we do. The more interesting the story and the characters, and the better the themes, chances are you're going to have a better movie, if you surround yourself with talented people. With Prince of Persia, we had Mike Newell -- with Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco, he's got the fun. With Harry Potter, he can do fantasy. Jake Gyllenhaal is a very attractive and talented actor. He's done some wonderful movies. He reminds me, in a different way, of what we did with Nick Cage before The Rock. He'd done Leaving Las Vegas and all these quirky movies like Raising Arizona, but we took him, worked his ass off, and built him up physically. Jake did the same thing. Both got in fantastic shape and turned into big adventure stars. The way your movies come out almost reminds me of video game production, where in your production style there are a lot of people touching and refining it and making it better. That's exactly what happens in game development. It's not what always happens in movies, where an area can show the mark of a specific person. JB: I can't talk about how other people make movies, because I don't know how they make them. If they do, I assume it's very similar to what we do. But we put it in front of an audience. We have an audience talk to us about what they're feeling with Prince of Persia. We ran it in front of an audience two or three times before we locked the picture. We see what they like and what they don't like, and we alter the movie a little bit. It's the same thing with games. You go through all these phases where you beta test it and you get scores and you keep getting better. With me, the film's usually not done until two weeks before it's in the theaters. This is different, because we had a long post-production time. Movie Games I've noted that games based on movie properties tend to be the most successful when they are divorced from a specific movie release. Similarly, this movie is somewhat similar to one of the games, but it's not the exact same, not one-to-one. JB: You take the game as a jumping-off point, and in our case, it's kind of a Shakespearean story we tell about these three brothers. One grew up on the streets and gets adopted by the king because in those days, when you had sons, they were inclined to assassinate the father to become king. By having this kid who could never be king in the palace, he was always protected. If the father died, they'd throw him out. That's the kind of Shakespearean part of our story. It seems like when you've got to put them both together day-and-date, that's when you end up having one or the other having to compromise. It seems good to divorce the timeline like that. JB: That's right, because the timeline between a movie and game varies. Games take three years to build, movies take six years to make. This one took six years. It seems people are more confident about it than other video game-based films. Do you think that there's any advantage in working with Jordan Mechner on a project like Prince of Persia that has been reinvented so many times? There isn't really a canon to Prince of Persia. Even Jordan's games are radically different. JB: Yeah, I think having him as a guide on the first screenplay was an enormous help. He avoided all those pitfalls -- what story to follow and what to do. Also, we brought in this guy named David Bell, who is the foremost parkour instructor. He was really instrumental in creating some of those moves and action sequences. This is a rather generic question, but what, to you, makes a really good property for a film that you're going to want to produce? JB: I don't know what you guys like. I know what I like. It's no different, whether you go online to see what movie you're going to see, or if you open a newspaper. You make a choice, and how do you make that choice? Because it interests you. That's why you go see it. That's why you're doing what you're doing, because stuff interests you. It's the same thing with me. It seems like a reason why this movie could potentially be more successful is that it seems like some movies have been made out of games just because someone wanted to make a movie out of a game, and capitalize on the popularity of that. But in this case, it was someone coming to you with a script and an idea, rather than, "I see that game and I want to make a movie about it." JB: Yeah. You come up with just a basic idea and then develop a screenplay based on it. I think you're right. You've got to get the story right. If you don't have the story right, I don't care how successful your game is. You're going to fail. Bruckheimer's Process Out of curiosity, why has this movie taken six years? It's not unheard of, but it does seem like a fairly long amount of time. JB: Not for us. Some take ten years. There's a gestation period. I think Sorcerer's Apprentice was at least four years to get made. It's so hard, you have no idea. When they're really good, it looks easy, but they're so difficult to do. There's no more than 15 really super-talented screenwriters in Hollywood. There are a lot of people who write, but you go through phases...not on this picture, but phases where we had five, six, or seven writers, because you bring one in and he writes a terrific plot. You've got to bring somebody else in to do the characters in, and somebody else in to write the dialog, and somebody else to add in humor, and somebody else to rewrite the female character. You have all these people working on these projects, and they don't all line up and say, "I'm ready to write." You've got to find them, and then take months to make their deal. You negotiate for months to get things done. And we're not even talking about when they're available. Miro and Bernard -- two of the screenwriters who worked on it after Jordan -- we had to wait for them to be available. You could wait six months for a writer if your feeling's right, and it's going to take him four or five months to write it. That's once we give him the greenlight. So we'll spend three months meeting with him doing outlines and treatment. Then we'll send him off to do the screenplay. So you've lost a year just with one writer. So a lot of that was in the preproduction phase, I guess? JB: Yeah, it's in the development phase, we call it. Once you have a good script, your actual preproduction goes very fast. Why not, then, start with a committee, rather than going one-by-one with the rewrites? JB: Because there's no such thing. Everybody has an ego, and they think they can do it all, whether they can or not. Although there is in television. JB: That's true, but in television, they're hired to do 22 episodes. It's much different with a movie. I guess it's different with something episodic, because everybody can get their time to get their thing in, whereas when you've got a movie, you've got one shot, and everybody wants to make their mark on it. JB: But we have done that, the way they do television. I did a movie called Bad Boys, and I never liked the opening of the movie, so we didn't shoot it. I said, "Let's finish the movie, and then we'll figure out what to do with the opening." So I brought in six writers, we showed them the movie, and they pitched us ideas for the opening. And the best idea won, and we filmed it. So that happens sometimes too. The interesting thing with the way video games are made is that it is people who are effectively employees in a room for two or three years or however long it takes. That seems very at-odds with the idea of what you're describing, in terms of getting that one writer in there who knows how to do this specific thing. JB: What you're talking about is basically the old studio system. The old studio system had everybody in a contract, so they passed a script around to these people. Hollywood doesn't work that way anymore, because of the overhead problem. Do you have any predictions as to whether video games will change in that way? JB: Absolutely. Video games will definitely become...I mean, if we're involved, we're going to tell stories. It's going to be much different when we do the work on it. Well James Cameron came out and said, "This Avatar game is going to be amazing. We're doing it in conjunction with us and the developers. It's going to be perfect." And then it wasn't quite. JB: Here's the problem. The problem is, to really make a good game, it really takes a long time. So by the time you greenlight a movie, it's a year to a year-and-a-half until it's out. That's too short a period for a video game to be made. It's a three-year process to get a really good game made, and that's where they fail. What the studios do is that they have this business model where they know they'll sell X amount of games on that opening couple of weeks, and a lot of them do that, rather than take their time and create a wonderful game. So what if it comes out later on DVD or something like that? As long as it's a good game, people will play it.

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