- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hollywood has been bringing popular video games to the big screen for decades with less than exemplary results. For every mild success (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) audiences have endured a string of unabashed duds (“House of the Dead,” “Doom,” “Super Mario Bros.”).

But the two media realms are being brought together once more for a new partnership between the Tribeca Film Institute and the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative.

The Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund will help support film projects that cross new media platforms, from video games to mobile apps and social media sites. The goal, in part, is to spread social issues explored in feature films across more than just a movie screen.

Beth Janson, executive director of the Tribeca Film Institute, says that until recently the movies and video game connection has been more about marketing than creative possibilities.

The New Media Fund hopes to change that.

“It’s a look at how can we really create change once we’ve engaged with the audience,” Ms. Janson says. “We’re looking at the best of filmmaking and gaming to find the place where those two things can come together … the potential is amazing.”

The program’s first year will give nonfiction projects between $50,000 and $100,000 to projects that maximize cross-platform storytelling. Grantees must document their creative process online in order to share what they’re learning and receive feedback along the way.

“It’s a space a lot of people want to be in,” she says of the transparency requirements.

While each medium has its individual strengths, video games offer a personalized impact that a traditional visual platform can’t match.

“Look at what’s happening anywhere in the world. You can make broad judgments based on the media, even if citizen journalists are reporting it,” she says. “But you don’t know all the factors preventing people from helping themselves out of a situation.”

That’s where the gaming model comes into play, especially because most offer ways to let users directly control the action.

“That first-person experience is very important,” she says.

Bouncing from one platform to the next won’t be as simple as it sounds, says Ben Aslinger, assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University.

Filmmakers and game designers come to the table with different visions, Mr. Aslinger says. The former tell stories or immerse themselves in a particular scenario, while the latter try to create open-ended experiences. The auteur theory in film says the director calls the shots, but in video game creation, the ultimate authority rests with the player.

“Filmmakers who want to do interesting things with video games have to rethink who their audience is. Game players are more active than film viewers,” he says.

That said, the video game platform offers opportunities for filmmakers eager to add interactivity to their vision, he says.

Audiences often feel detached while watching a documentary even if the material on screen is powerfully rendered. That’s rarely the case within a video game scenario.

“We can get immersed in a video game character. Our fate is their fate,” he says. He points to the online game Darfur is Dying (www.darfurisdying.com) as one example of socially conscious gaming.

Video games tied to documentary features might coax consumers into learning more about the subject even if they never step foot inside a movie house, he says.

The game-film connection may mean more ways to send a message, but smaller studios also see the combination as a way to market movies at a lower cost point.

Zac Brandenberg, CEO of Meteor Games, says his company has heard from smaller film studios curious about video game options.

“There’s the potential to gain awareness for their movie by creating some sort of entertaining game that might grow in a viral fashion,” Mr. Brandenberg says.

The cost to launch social media-based games “is much more nominal than you´d expect,” Mr. Brandenberg says. “Large-scale video game efforts take years to develop and cost millions,” he adds. “Whereas social games, those playable on Facebook and other social networks, can be produced with a lot less capital.”

Rob Weiner, Associate Humanities Librarian Texas Tech University and pop culture guru, says programs like the New Media Fund are simply a sign of the times.

“All of these medias are converging — and have been for a longtime now,” Mr. Weiner says. “It is oftentimes hard to distinguish where one begins and one ends.”

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