Warcraft movie comes into focus
Blizzard exec Paul Sams discusses the inner workings of the deal with Legendary, outlines atypical approvals. But will Orcs play in Peoria?
LOS ANGELES--One of the biggest pieces of news to cross the wires last week in Los Angeles was the deal brokered by Blizzard Entertainment to bring a live-action feature film based on the Warcraft universe to the big screen.
In an interview with GameSpot News, Blizzard COO Paul Sams outlined the deal with Legendary Pictures, a Warner Bros. affiliate, which will produce the film.
With the Legendary team on board--a team Sams reads as really "getting it"--inking the contract with the boutique production company might be looked back on as the easy part. It's the box-office battle and possible critical lambasting that looms on the horizon--the history of game-to-film successes isn't exactly on World of Warcraft's side.
However, Sams appears intent on changing that.
We spoke with Paul Sams in a Vivendi Games meeting room just off the South Hall show floor.
GameSpot: Let's talk about the big news this week, the movie. How do you make sure the Warcraft movie--well, plain and simple--doesn't suck?
Paul Sams: We're not trying to take what we've done and...try to make a literal translation to the big screen. What we want to do is to make a great movie that happens to be set in a video game universe. That's a differentiator, and a key differentiator.
A lot of it comes down to picking the right people. A lot of the other video game movies that have come out before this haven't had the budgets, the right people, and haven't had the right mindset.
We and Legendary want to make a great film, an event picture, big-budget picture, that is a great stand-alone, fantasy-based movie that is good for you regardless of whether you're familiar with the Warcraft universe.
GS: And if you are familiar with the game universe?
PS: If you're familiar with the Warcraft universe, well, then hopefully you're going to be geeked up to go see it. But if you're not familiar with the Warcraft universe, we're hoping you're going to want to see it because the buzz around the movie is that it's a great fantasy movie and a great movie experience in general.
GS: What are the core components of the World of Warcraft universe that will transition into the movie?
PS: Well, I think with the Warcraft universe, and I think this is something where Blizzard kind of sets itself apart, is we've worked very hard historically to create immersive environments and immersive experiences. Not just with the fact that you've got to be focused when you're playing, but we've really tried to build rich storylines, rich mythology, and very deep character packages. Characters that you care about, that you either love or you hate. You wonder what's going to happen next in their journey.
With all these different conflicts going on within the universe, there's a huge tapestry from which to work--a lot of the other video game movies we've seen prior to this have not had the benefit of as much lore and mythology, and this huge visual tapestry from which to work from. I think we're bringing more to the table that movie makers will be able to draw from.
GS: What's the story going to be?
PS: We haven't brought forth what the story is going to be. We're still fleshing that out.
GS: So the current status of the story is what?
PS: It's in development. There's a handful of screenwriters we've been evaluating together with Legendary, and with Warner. There's a list of people we're all evaluating, that we look at their track record and say, OK, these are people that we should explore, should talk to, we should see what their take is.
GS: Who's on that list?
PS: I'm not at liberty to discuss it yet, so I'm not going to be able to give you names. But believe me, when we can, we'll be calling you.
GS: How many on the list?
PS: A handful. There's one in particular that's probably in the lead right now, and so we're working on a take together with them. Blizzard is very much involved, Chris Metzen, our vp of creative development, is intimately involved in that.
GS: The level of input Blizzard has is what?
PS: We have the ability to approve or disapprove a screenwriter, and so we're in a situation where we're going to be helping guide who that is and where they go, and the structure of which the deal is built. We'll have a lot of input and say as to what the screenplay ultimately ends up looking like. And we feel really good about that. We have Chris and his creative development group that is going to be there to support that. And in addition to that, we're there as a creative backstop to make sure, from a continuity perspective for all the Warcraft people, that we do right by the franchise.
GS: Will the movie's story be drawn from what gamers already know, or will you extend on what's been told?
PS: We don't necessarily feel like we need to tell a story that's already been told in the universe, you know, that's been explicitly told. It may be a side story within the universe. But we'll make sure from a continuity perspective that the timing of when it happens in the world history, the characters that are brought forth in the movie, and what have you, that it all fits and is woven into the continuity that we've built within the franchise--between all the video games, you know, the novels, pen-and-paper RPGs, all of those things that we've been doing--that they all tie together.
There's a very large desire by the Legendary folks, and by us, to make a great movie, set in this universe, not a video game movie. It's important to them, too, because they want to do it justice because those people are going to be some of the best word-of-mouth people.
GS: Can you elaborate on the word of mouth?
PS: As an example, if you're a gamer, if you play World of Warcraft, you may not be able to get your girlfriend to play WOW with you because maybe she just doesn't want to do it. But do you think that you could get her to go and invest two hours with you at the movie? Well, we want to do right by them. We want them from a word-of-mouth perspective to want to bring those people. And we hope that the movie stand-alone will be a good enough fantasy journey for them to say, wow that was great, and for them to spread the word.
It's a big part of our whole marketing push with our games, this is all about word-of mouth, we want to make a great offering and for people to talk about it and people to want to go. It's the same thing, the big movies that really do well, it's the buzz.
GS: Going back to the approvals, it's not all all the norm for the licensor to have script approval...
PS: Well, it's a balancing act. If you look back at the history of video game movies, you've seen companies that have taken an extremely active and maybe overriding and overarching involvement--and the results have been, you know...[laughter], they haven't been great.
And then there's been others where they've licensed it, they've washed their hands and they said, "Go do it," and the results haven't been great.
What I will say is, with Legendary and with Blizzard, we both have similar thought processes, we both are very focused companies. They only focus on a small number of products, or offerings, at the same time. They don't want to flood their brains with a bunch of things, it's all about focus there. Just like Blizzard. They, like us, want to have a collaboration and involvement together in the areas where we both add the most value. So they know we know this franchise better than anybody. We know our customers better than anybody. We know the history and the lore better than anybody.
GS: It sounds like you hired Legendary to make this movie!
PS: You know, I would say that we sought them out.
GS: How long have you been looking for a production partner?
PS: We've been searching for a good five years, and if we wanted to have made a movie before we could have. There's absolutely no doubt we could have done that. But we've been looking for the right opportunity, we didn't want to make a video game movie, we didn't want to go in the same formula that's been used. We wanted to find a partner to collaborate with.
GS: So who's the movie expert?
PS: We're not naive enough to think that we know how to make movies. We're not going to say, "Oh, it's all us, you guys better do what we say." Because we we're not movie makers. We're game makers and we're a franchise-building company. And that being said, we each want to bring the skills that we have to the party and for us to work in those areas where we have the greatest expertise.
We think that they know how to tell stories. We know what story we're going to be telling best, so we're going to work together on how to translate that into a motion picture experience. They know how to make the movie, we don't.
GS: Do you guys get script approval, directory approval, cast approval?
PS: We have approvals in certain areas and we have meaningful consult in other areas. Those are the highest levels of involvements you can have in these processes. Most studios don't want to give you approval on anything because they want to have complete control of the process--they're putting all the money in, and that's understandable. But I feel like they understood and they value our input enough to where they wanted us involved in certain things more than traditionally has been the case.
That's not to say that they want to tie their hands, because anybody that's going to be putting money in like that, they also don't want to get in a problem where every single thing they do has to be validated and approved--and make this gigantic nightmare.
I think the combination of approvals and meaningful consult rights that we have is going to provide the right balance where we can be involved and participating in this process enough to try to make sure that justice is being done for the franchise, that the continuity is there, that we're telling the right story, that we're dealing with the characters and locales correctly, and at the same time, give them and the director and the screenwriter enough leeway to be able to do what they do.
GS: Tell me, when you close your eyes and you imagine this World of Warcraft movie, who do you see playing the lead roles?
PS: I'll tell you, it's hard for me to answer that question because we don't know for sure yet what story we're going to tell and what races are going to be highlighted. So that's a hard question to answer.
GS: So what type of movie are you shooting for?
PS: So, Braveheart.
PS: Braveheart. Lord of the Rings. But you know, obviously Lord of the Rings is a different type of fantasy tale, so we want to make sure that there's separation out there.
I say Braveheart. I think Braveheart is an epic, big, gorgeous, wonderful tale, and it's full of conflict and intrigue and all sort of things going on and you learn to love these characters or hate others--kind of what we've tried to build with this universe already. So we joke around internally that we want to fall somewhere between Braveheart and Lord of the Rings.
GS: When did you and Legendary come to your final terms?
PS: Monday [of E3 week].
GS: Did you get much sleep on that weekend before?
PS: No, I have not gotten much sleep for the last few weeks. Aside from the duties that I have to deal with as it relates to the World of Warcraft business, this has been my primary focus for the last few weeks, getting this deal done.
Chris Metzen and I, however, for the last five years, have met with every studio and practically every production company on the planet and everybody of note, trying to find the right people. And we finally did.
GS: Five years? So for five years you knew that this was movie material. World of Warcraft has been out for how many years?
PS: It's been out since November of 2004. And the Warcraft franchise originated in 1994.
GS: Do you know what the title of the movie will be?
PS: It will have the word "Warcraft" in it, but we haven't determined what the title will be for sure. A lot of that's going to be fleshed out as a result of what the screenplay ends up looking like and what the story is. So we know the Warcraft name will be in it, but what we don't know is if it will be World of Warcraft or Warcraft and then some subtitle, or--World of Warcraft and some subtitle. We don't know. But it will absolutely have the word "Warcraft" in it.
GS: How did you know Legendary was the group for you?
PS: They really get it and, you know, I was talking to someone the other day, and I'll say it to you--these people are like extended family members. It's like I said to someone the other day, I said, "You know, we feel like the creative guys there were separated at birth from our creative guys." There's a creative love connection that we have not had with many people outside of the walls of our office. And specifically, from a relationship perspective, their top guy, a guy named Thomas Tull [Legendary's CEO], he and I just meshed like nobody's business. I mean, just really, really meshed.
And then, from a creative perspective, there's a guy there by the name of John Jashni. And John has been with us for these last many years working with us to try to find a movie opportunity. John has been a producer in Hollywood for quite some time and worked on some projects that were ones that we really enjoyed.
PS: Pre-Legendary, yes. It was as if the stars aligned. Last year at--soon after Blizzcon, John called me. John and I are actually relatively close, and he's close with Chris as well because we've been out pitching together with him. And he said, "Listen, I'm going over to Legendary." And he told us a bit about that, and he says, "You know, these are the guys that did Batman Begins, and we're doing Superman Returns." And he started sharing that stuff with us. And John is somebody we trust intimately, and the fact that he's at Legendary as their chief creative officer gives us an even higher level of confidence because we trust him. He gets it. I mean, he gets it! And so, we're geeked out of our minds because we feel like on the business side, there's an absolute love connection. On the creative side, which is the most important place, there's an absolute love connection, with somebody that we have five years of history with already.
When we were out talking in the studios and out talking to the production companies, John was the guy with me and Chris. The three of us were out [pitching]. So, our guy, our Hollywood guy, is their chief creative officer. And so, it's a really cool situation, because we feel like we got somebody that we trust here.
GS: Can you tell me about the rejection stories?
PS: Absolutely. In the early days, the studios were telling us, "you know, we don't want to do this. It's too risky." And we said, "Well, why is that?" They said, "Well, fantasy movies don't sell." And they'd bring up movies that had come before, and it was pre-Lord of the Rings. So, it's one of those things where they'd say, "You know, well, there's just not an audience for it."
So, we were like, "That's because it's never been done right." Then, Lord of the Rings came and somebody did it right, and it was like, "See?"
Then, we'd go out and we'd say, "Okay, well, you guys all said you just needed it to be proved out. So, let's go." And they said, "Well, it's too close to the Lord of the Rings. We can't do that." So, then it was a different reason.
It was frustrating because it was like at every turn there was some fear that was going on in Hollywood that was preventing it from happening. And I think a lot of it was because people didn't understand video games. If it's a novel, they get it. I mean, there have been so many adaptations from novels, it's unbelievable. But there haven't been a lot of video game movies. And those that have been made haven't done well and haven't been good. So, there's been a lot of fear.
These guys [at Legendary] are not approaching it as a video game movie. Again, as I mentioned to you before, they're approaching it as making a big epic event-type picture, big budget, that is a great film. They want a great film, just like we do; [a film] that stands by itself as a great film--that happens to be the Warcraft universe.
And, you know, when we got together with them, within minutes, Chris and I looked at each other and it was, you know, Chris and I are very, very close friends, very close, and we can read each other's looks. And he and I looked at each other, and I could see it in his eyes, and he could see it in mine. We were saying, "This is it. These are the guys."
I mean, we knew within minutes.
GS: Do you think Peter Jackson could do justice for the Warcraft Universe?
PS: Absolutely. Peter Jackson would be great. I mean, he's a busy guy, and he's a very sought-after director, but, you know, would Peter Jackson be a great solution? Absolutely.
There are other directors out there that are also very, very capable that we would love to explore this with. We've talked to a handful of these different types of people, not Peter, but some others. And, you know, while I can't give out names right now, there's some meaningful people that have expressed interest. And we have to go down the road a bit and kind of flesh this out. I mean, we're really in the development process at this point. We're a ways from production yet, so...
We're feeling our way. I mean, the more the Legendary guys immerse themselves in the material and the more and more that they get a feel for this franchise beyond what they already have, and the more and more we talk and collaborate, the more we are going to be able to zone in on who the right people are for the material.
I mean, there's people like Peter Jackson, that's an obvious. Yeah, he would kick ass at this. But, you know, whether we can get him or whether he'd be interested is, you know, who knows?
GS: What is the timeline to the Warcraft movie arriving in theaters?
PS: Well, here's the great news. Legendary and Blizzard have the same answer on when they're going to get it done, and that's when it's right.
That's another thing that we love about these guys. They do not want to put out a picture until it's right. They really have a Blizzard mentality in that regard. And so as it relates to the development process, we need to finalize who the screenwriter is. We need to build out a detailed treatment or outline of what it's going to look like. All the parties need to work within that and think about it and collaborate on it and refine it and get it to where everybody goes, "Okay, this detailed treatment really sings to us. We really think that this is the movie that we want to make." And then, we need to set the screenwriter out on building the screenplay.
PS: And during that process, our creative development team [will] have to be really dissecting this. Blizzard's fans are very, very knowledgeable of the lore. They understand this mythology better than a lot of people that work here because they just live it. They love it. So, we're going to need to go through that with a very fine-toothed comb and make sure that we've got our act together from a historical perspective-- from character history perspective, the locales, where these different battles might occur or...all these different things. We need to make sure it all meshes together. So, that process is going to take some time.
Then, you know, during that process, we're going to need to identify a director. I think that to get a director as invested as can be, having them involved in the screenplay process is going to [help] do that because, you know, you hear about directors making changes on the set and this, that, and the other. That has mixed results.
GS: Well, you don't hire Woody Allen to do a Warcraft movie.
PS: No. No, you don't.
GS: That's my only advice.
PS: Thank you. I appreciate that.
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