Law of the Land
by brandon sheffield

Not some few time increments ago (September 20th 2003, if you must know), I had the unexpected ‘privilege’ of attending the Beverly Hills Bar Association 2003 institute on Entertainment Law and Business. Note that they are using the legal definition of institute, making this something like a panel-style lecture.

I must make it clear: I am not a lawyer, and I’ve no aspirations to be one. I am blue-collar slime just like the rest of the taxable denizens of americatown. I was here to usher the event, and do my best to hide the disgust I felt for the event’s pompous organizer. I was not here to learn. I didn’t do it in school, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to start now.

So naturally, I assumed that this would be another boring lecture full of dryitudes and useless soundbytes. And indeed, the first of three panels was rather general. It covered movie stars, music rights, and things like this with the most cursory of detail.

After a brief recess, I heard the next panel being announced. I had moved upstairs in the three-story auditorium by this time, in order to avoid socializing with my fellow blue-collar slime-de-byonn. But then I heard “George Rose, Senior Vice President of Activision” over the PA. Frantically I abandoned my post, ran downstairs and grabbed one of the notecards we were supposed to be handing out to the layers-in-attendance. The intention was for them to write questions on these, which would be handed up to the panel at the end of each round. Nobody did this, so there wasn’t much of a loss.

I’ll be damned if it wasn’t an interesting event from that moment on. Here was the cast of characters for the second panel:

Keith Beesky - founder of the videogame department of International Creative Management, inc.

George Rose - Senior Vice President of Activision
Patrick Obrien - Vice President of Business Affairs at Electronic Arts
Riley R. Russell - General Counsel - Vice President of Business Affairs at SCEA

The conversation was guided towards the adaptation of existing intellectual properties (IPs; ie movies, stars thereof) to games, straight off the bat. A curious discussion followed.

George stated that a movie absolutely must be conducive to games for Activision to even consider undertaking a project of that nature.

Patrick fed off the momentum of that statement with an anecdote; EA was approached by a “certain company” to make a game based on a “movie that stars sharks”. They had to pass on it, asking questions like “Could the sharks maybe hold guns with their fins?” The panel had a good laugh, for the time being.

According to Patrick, EA pays close attention to the ‘verbs’ of the property before they decide to move forward. Interestingly, this is very similar to the actor-director relationship in the establishing of character in any given scene in any given movie or play. What is the objective? How do you achieve this without playing the result, rather than the process? The principles of building are very similar here.

Back to Patrick, who says that in the opposite scenario (movies becoming games) there’s a greater potential of damage to the game franchise, than to the movies themselves. This is because players see certain things in the movies, and then expect this to be reflected in the subsequent games. Thus the game begins to mirror the movie, effectively squelching all future creative license in the series. It has indeed been shown time and time again that the best game-to-movie transitions occur when the mere concept is borrowed, not the direct story or characters.

Of course…sometimes companies blame the movies just to take the heat off of their lackluster games.

Turns out George at Activision actually took that very shark license game, made the sharks fins hold guns and all of that. And yes, for those of you reading carefully, this does go against his earlier statement that the movie must be conducive to games in order for a port to work. This contradiction is a good measure for the rhetoric used in the entire discussion.

George also mentioned that film companies are constantly trying to go after the merchandising rights of the subsequent products related to the game IPs, making the film/game interaction all the muddier in terms of legal rights. They don’t always get the rights, but this is the degree to which the two media are intertwining.

Riley, of SCEA mentioned that Sony is actually scared of licensed games, because of the notorious history of bombs. Indeed it was this fear that prompted them to develop their own IPs (impressively he named ICO as an example). But at the same time, they do want movies to popularize/promote the games, as was done with the first Tomb Raider film.

The games/movie duality is further complicated for Sony by the fact that they own major production studios in both arenas. Curious then, that Columbia pictures does not release more game related movies. It seems as though the fear of game/movie bombs goes both ways, at least for the more cautious companies.

Keith then turned the discussion toward development. Who makes the games, he asked? Given that the companies he’s talking to are incredibly large, the question is: are the games developed in house? Outsourced? Appropriated?

Patrick says that EA does most of their work in-house these days. This increases consistency, but he admits that this method can put something of a damper on creativity. So they’ve got what they call EAPs (Electronic Arts Properties), wherein they work with/invest in games made by other companies, and then distribute them as their own.

George says that developers prefer to be left to their own devices, counter-culture individuals that they are. So Activision prefers to purchase them entirely, allowing them to exist undisturbed. He says that in this way, they can develop the games they want to develop, and not have to deal with any of the bureaucracy. Quite a utopian vision, no?

Keith then asked how the panelists see independent game development, and how their respective companies relate to them, if at all.

Riley mentioned that a good way to get a game published by Sony is to send in a near-complete game with a solid concept at a time when other games are slipping. Of course, without proper funding to begin with, this is an incredibly difficult task. But as a word of boastful encouragement, he says that the PS2 can take any game you can make.

George says that indy developers should just pitch their product design docs/proto demo like everyone else. He mentioned that the successful game developers are extremely successful, so it’s still a good business to get into.

But at the same time, one can’t always catch the good ideas as they come. He relates that Activision actually passed on making a Matrix game before the first movie had even been announced. They figured it’d just be too difficult to realize…or in his own words “we thought it’d be kinda hard to do.”

Keith then wonders just what Hollywood talent these guys are hiring these days.

Riley says that by and large directors just want to lend their name to a project, never contribute directly. And major actors don’t want to motion capture, so the interaction isn’t quite what it could be. In his opinion, the film production studios are the ones who should negotiate for this sort of work, or else nothing will really change. Actors don’t take orders from game studios. Just look at David Spade on the SpikeTV videogame awards.

That scenario is exactly what Patrick wants to avoid. EA hires actors and advisors, but no directors just yet, and for the very same reason Riley mentioned. EA wants for them to actually contribute – they must be gamers, in essence.

George thinks that a lot of directors are avid gamers, and Activision wants to work with them. But like the others stated, this just isn’t happening right now.

Keith was then forced by the sudden springing-to-life of the powerpoint presentation behind them to move awkwardly into the sphere of ratings for games. He’s had some experience with the ESRB, so added his own two cents here, for the benefit of the lawyerly folk.

He says that all retailers will carry all ratings (is this true of Wal*Mart?), but do not actively enforce them. Every game company wants greater enforcement on the retail side, as parental enforcement seems to be rather limited.

George agrees, saying that Activision thinks quite a lot about ratings, even to the point of making an M game into a T, by removing some content.

It's curious that this method wasn't employed in the cases of many other games that wound up simply being scrapped because of their high ‘maturity’ level. Thrill Kill comes to mind.

Returning to my senses, I found them beginning a discussion about the PS3. Keith wonders if publishers will actually be able to make money with the reportedly overpowered system. He also slips in that the PS2 has an installed user-base of 60 million.

Riley lets him think that, with a guarded “uh…yeah.” The real number is closer to 40 million.

The PS3, says Riley, will be an estimated 10,000 times more powerful than the PS2. It will certainly take a lot more development time, and the budget will have to go up for any given game, but Sony will be releasing a lot more tools than they did with the PS2.

George is concerned that with this increase in game budgets will inspire companies to take fewer risks, making more branded, mass-market games. With new systems there’s more cost pressure, not only on the game makers’ side, but on the console makers’ as well.

On that note, where is the market going in the next few years? Keith wants to know.

George says that this really depends on the power of the PS3 – the industry’s technical standards will rise to meet it. Cinematics, graphics, AI and storytelling will all improve. He thinks that the industry in general is trying to get closer to interactive film (bringing back Sega CD era memories). The online element will also gain increasing importance.

Patrick is of a similar mind – online will be huge, he says. Development costs will probably double in the coming years, with the next generation of consoles. Games will be more for the mass-market, utilizing more contemporary licensed music, and more licenses in general for these big-name titles.

Riley adds that music and animation are of increasing importance in the gaming world - and Keith interjects that indeed, animation is becoming an interesting arena. The first time the industry approached Hollywood, cross-assistance was a ridiculous joke. But now, it’s completely true. Some game effects were used in the Matrix, and the Lord of the Rings games used some of the technology from the movies. So this is an area in which talent can cross the game/movie boundary.

Back to Riley, who says that support for the older systems will not stop – the PSOne is still being supported, and the console itself still sells well enough, so the development costs may not rise that much in the short term. To support his reasoning, he made an impressive reference; the last Master System game ever made by Sega was the most popular one. So there’s good reason to keep up with your aging systems.

Thus ended the game portion of the event…or so I thought. The next panel was about modern advertising, and the changing venues for these ads (in movies, cross-promotion, et cetera).

Most interesting here was the debate between two advertising execs of some acclaim. One was Mark Stitley, the Creative Executive Director of Euro RSCG, the mastermind behind the BMW Films campaign of recent years. The other was Andrew Leary, the COO of Streetwise Concepts and Culture; he manages EA and Nokia. Specifically the N-Gage.

For those who don’t recall, BMW Films was the series of downloadable shorts, largely made by persons well-respected in the film industry. They were quite entertaining in their own right, and innovative in their (usually subtle) product placement. It was a concept borne of the accessibility of the web, and the appeal of Hollywood.

As one can imagine, Mark is very vocal about his dislike for traditional advertising. He says it flat-out doesn’t work. Nobody pays attention to ads anymore – kids don’t read print advertisements, they filter their spam and turn off television spots with Tivo. He maintains that the only way to create a successful traditional ad is to have it tell a story, usually an amusing one. But even then there’s no guarantee that the ad will be linked to the product in the mind of the viewer. He humbly states that BMW got lucky with the short film scenario, as filmmakers really wanted to work with them on the project. Luck or not, several hundred thousands more BMWs were sold that year than the previous.

Andrew is convinced that traditional media still works, though, as long as you “create something that users are interested in.” He says that Tivo will have a minimal effect on television advertisements, and that advertising crossovers are still the way to go. Further, he says that users expect to see product placement and tie-ins, whether it be at concerts, in movies, or even games.

For the N-Gage, they were going for peer-to-peer marketing. Create a buzz (by paying people to wear N-Gage merchandise, etc) which will pass via word of mouth. The N-Gage’s marketing is edgy, he says. His example was a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “have you ever had a 3-some in the back of a cab?”

And we all know how this story ends.

The institute too was at it’s end, and the lawyers quickly hightailed it on out of the auditorium. Evidently this was some sort of mandatory-attendance type of situation, given the rapid speed with which they the place.

The speakers exchanged their thank yous and goodbyes…I overheard an exchange between two panelists that I could not identify; “we should really sit down for a talk sometime, without all of the bullshitting.”

But I was struck with just how little bullshitting was actually done here. These leaders of faceless gaming conglomerates – by and large they actually knew what they were talking about, and had legitimate insight into the industry and it’s workings. I was satisfied. And I’d been paid to work the event as well.

The panelists left the auditorium to little fanfare. The last of them left in a group…except for Andrew Leary. He, with his brown leather sport jacket hooked on his finger and flung over one shoulder, sauntered off alone towards the greenery outside…dreaming his edgy dreams, in befuddled search of the parking lot.

brandon sheffield is no longer employed by americatown, nor it's parent company; worldville.

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