For Activision Blizzard Studios, it would seem the key to breaking the entertainment industry’s habit of turning good video games into bad films and TV shows is to produce them itself.
Proof is in the fact that its first show – Skylanders Academy – has already been renewed for a third season by Netflix, just months after the first debuted on the video-streaming service in 175 countries and before the second has even finished production. While Activision Blizzard Studios hasn’t had too much to go on beyond this seal of approval (Netflix are notoriously protective of their viewing figures), it is happy with the feedback as it reinforces its own “soft research” that revealed the show made kids want the associated toys more.
As obvious as the link between cartoons and toy sales is, Activison Blizzard Studios gambled on taking Skylanders to a platform filled with content from Disney and Dreamworks. Had Skylanders colorful characters failed to make the transition then the show could have been a blotch on a brand that has sold $3.5bn worth of games and associated merchandise since 2011. Skylander’s achievement is given more credence when compared to last year’s externally-produced Warcraft movie, which even with a brand firmly entrenched in popular culture, failed to become the global hit it was hyped up to be.
The difference with Skylanders compared to other unsuccessful brand extensions is down to the strong talent behind it, according Stacey Sher, co-president at Activision Blizzard Studios. From a theme song produced by Grammy Award winner Timbaland to the series’ showrunner Futurama-writing veteran Eric Rogers. “We’ve always understood that creatively what makes connected engagement in gaming is completely different to what resonates in film and television,” Sher explained.
“You are the person in a game and you have to attach to the character in film and television so really focusing on the writing and looking at storytelling that is inclusive and goes beyond just the gaming medium is key. We have to drill down deep and look at it and hold it up to the standards of the medium for which it is being created.”
Now that it has a proof of concept, albeit one that riffs on Marvel’s ‘fewer, better’ approach to releasing movies, Activision Blizzard Studios is weighing up the options for its other brands. Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and Candy Crush Saga are just some of the titles it can choose from, with the studios co-president Nick van Dyk steadfast in the belief that it could one day have a show that’s on a par with HBO’s Westworld critically-acclaimed show or Marvel’s Doctor Strange blockbuster.
“What Marvel are doing is a good model for us because they’re taking properties that have deeply committed hardcore fanbases as many of our games do but they’re making them broadly accessible to global audiences on the largest scale with high quality entertainment on both film and TV,” he continued.
Having spent nine years at Disney, where he played a key role in the media behemoth’s acquisition of lucrative brands Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, van Dyk has only made minor alterations to a strategy that saw Disney become the first film studio to take $7bn in global box office sales in a year in 2016.
“They’re [Disney] not trying to do 40 movies a year; they’re not trying to do general entertainment programming and fill a prime-time schedule. It’s about honoring the brand, celebrating fans and creating the highest quality content possible. I think Marvel is an excellent model for us [Activision Blizzard Studios]. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that my boss [Activision Blizzard chief executive Bobby Kotick] is fond of comparing the degree of engagement fans have with our properties versus comic books. We feel very good about the commitment that our audiences already have to our brands.”
One brand it is keen to see on the big screen is Call of Duty, which was the top-selling video game franchise last year based on revenue, according to the business. Despite the hype around the planned film universe, the studio isn’t ready to share details. Neither is it prepared to divulge what other brands could follow Skylanders or even whether they will appear on TV or online.
“Any traditional over-the-top distribution of film entertainment or television is a potential customer,” said van Dyk. “New platforms emerge all the time so we’re platform agnostic. We expect our business to be profitable and Skylanders is a profitable show for us but we also expect to be able to reach a large audience so we’re very mindful of the reach and distribution as well as the economics of these platforms.”