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Scrounging for Hits, Hollywood Goes Back to the Video Game Well

LOS ANGELES — For 28 years, ever since “Super Mario Bros.” arrived in cinemas with the tagline “This Ain’t No Game,” Hollywood has been trying and mostly failing — epically, famously — to turn hit video games into hit movies. For every “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001), which turned Angelina Jolie into an A-list action star, there has been a nonsensical “Max Payne” (2008), an abominable “Prince of Persia” (2010) and a wince-inducing “Warcraft” (2016).

If video games are the comic books of our time, why can’t Hollywood figure out how to mine them accordingly?

It may finally be happening, powered in part by the proliferation of streaming services and their need for intellectual property to exploit. “The need for established, globally appealing I.P. has naturally led to gaming,” Matthew Ball, a venture investor and the former head of strategy for Amazon Studios, wrote last year in an essay titled “7 Reasons Why Gaming I.P. Is Finally Taking Off in Film/TV.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment and its PlayStation-powered sibling, Sony Interactive, are finally working together to turn PlayStation games into mass-appeal movies and television shows. There are 10 game adaptations in the Sony Pictures pipeline, a big leap from practically none in 2018. They include “Uncharted,” a $120 million adventure based on a 14-year-old PlayStation property (more than 40 million copies sold). “Uncharted” stars Tom Holland, the reigning Spider-Man, as Nathan Drake, the treasure hunter at the center of the game franchise. It is scheduled for release in theaters on Feb. 18.

post-apocalyptic game of the same title. Pedro Pascal, “The Mandalorian” himself, is the star, and Craig Mazin, who created the Emmy-winning mini-series “Chernobyl,” is the showrunner. Executive producers include Carolyn Strauss, one of the forces behind “Game of Thrones,” and Neil Druckmann, who led the creation of the Last of Us game.

Sony games like Twisted Metal and Ghost of Tsushima are also getting the TV and film treatment. (Contrary to speculation, one that is not, at least not anytime soon, according to a Sony spokesman: God of War.)

In the past, Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive operated as fiefs, with creative control — it’s mine; no, it’s mine — impeding adaptation efforts. When he took over as Sony’s chief executive in 2018, Kenichiro Yoshida demanded cooperation. The ultimate goal is to make better use of Sony’s online PlayStation Network to bring Sony movies, shows and music directly to consumers. PlayStation Network, introduced in 2006, has more than 114 million monthly active users.

“I have witnessed a radical shift in the nature of cooperation between different parts of the company,” said Sanford Panitch, Sony’s movie president.

Halo,” a series based on the Xbox franchise about a war between humans and an alliance of aliens (more than 80 million copies sold), will arrive on the Paramount+ streaming service early next year; Steven Spielberg is an executive producer. Lionsgate is adapting the Borderlands games (roughly 60 million sold) into a science fiction film starring Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Buoyed by its success with “The Witcher,” a fantasy series adapted from games and novels, Netflix has shows based on the “Assassin’s Creed,” “Resident Evil,” “Splinter Cell” and “Cuphead” games on the way. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the duo behind HBO’s “Westworld,” are developing a science-fiction show for Amazon that is based on the Fallout video game franchise.

And Nintendo and Illumination Entertainment, the Universal Pictures studio responsible for the “Despicable Me” franchise, have an animated Mario movie headed to theaters next year — another new collaboration between a game publisher and a film company.

Still, Hollywood’s game adaptation track record is terrible. Why should the coming projects be any different?

For a start, the games themselves have evolved, becoming more intricate and cinematic. “Games have stories that are so much more developed and advanced than they used to be,” Mr. Panitch said.

first major game adaptation in three decades to receive a “fresh” designation on Rotten Tomatoes, the review-aggregation site. Since then, two more adaptations, “Sonic the Hedgehog” (Paramount) and “The Angry Birds Movie 2” (Sony) have been critical and commercial successes.

“Quality has definitely been improving,” said Geoff Keighley, creator of the Game Awards, an Oscars-like ceremony for the industry.

The most recent game-to-film entry, “Mortal Kombat” (Warner Bros.), received mixed reviews but has taken in $41.2 million in the United States since its release last month, a surprisingly large total considering it was released simultaneously on HBO Max and theaters were still operating with strict coronavirus safety protocols.

Mr. Panitch acknowledged that “video game movies have a checkered history.” But he added, “Failure is the mother of invention.”

Game adaptations, for instance, have often faltered by trying to rigidly replicate the action and story lines that fans know and love. That approach invites comparison, and movies (even with sophisticated visual effects) almost always fail to measure up. At the same time, such “fan service” turns off nongamers, resulting in films that don’t connect with any particular audience.

“It’s not just about adapting the story,” said Michael Jonathan Smith, who is leading Sony’s effort to turn Twisted Metal, a 1995 vehicular combat game, into a television series. “It’s about adapting how you feel when you play the game. It has to be about characters you care about. And then you can slide in the Easter eggs and story points that get fans absolutely pumped.”

“Uncharted” is a prequel that, for the first time, creates origin stories for the characters in the game. With any luck, such storytelling will satisfy fans by giving them something new — while also inviting nongamers, who may otherwise worry about not knowing what is going on, to buy tickets. (The producers of “Uncharted” include Charles Roven, who is known for the “Dark Knight” trilogy.)

“It’s a question of balance,” said Asad Qizilbash, a senior Sony Interactive executive who also runs PlayStation Productions, an entity started in 2019 and based on Sony’s movie lot in Culver City, Calif.

Unlike in the past, when Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive pledged to work together and ultimately did not, the current collaboration “has weight because there is a win for everyone,” Mr. Qizilbash added. “We have three objectives. Grow audience size for games. Bring product to Sony Pictures. Showcase collaboration.”

The stakes are high. A cinematic flop could hurt the game franchise.

“It’s risky,” Mr. Qizilbash allowed. “But I think we can do it.”

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After Media Detour, AT&T Confronts Old Problems

“It would have been an amazing merger,” said David Barden, a senior research analyst at Bank of America. “It would have kind of perpetuated the AT&T juggernaut of growth through acquisition — not through organic — but it failed.”

Mr. Stephenson then looked to the attractive profit margins found in media and entertainment. In 2014, he announced a deal for DirecTV, a transaction that he promised would “redefine the industry.”

But AT&T bought into the pay-TV industry at its peak. Not long after it acquired the satellite service, consumers left in droves.

“One thing they didn’t — they could not have anticipated, was that 2014 was the last year linear video would grow,” Mr. Barden, referring to the cable TV business. “Because who was out there in the wings? This little company called Netflix.” Customers began to cut their cords and cable subscriptions began their descent.

Then came Time Warner. Numerous analysts pointed out that owning a company that makes money by distributing shows and films as widely as possible wouldn’t give AT&T any advantage. In other words, it would still have to license HBO and CNN to rivals like Verizon’s television service, or to cable giants like Comcast. AT&T would have a hard time justifying keeping the content for itself.

The Justice Department sued AT&T to block the deal, but it lost its case in court.

Makan Delrahim, the former Justice Department antitrust chief who oversaw the suit, said in an interview that AT&T’s rampant deal making was a “classic case” of corporate misbehaving. The company “did a series of mergers and acquisitions and really were not rational for their business execution,” he said, “T-Mobile, DirecTV and Time Warner. And this is the result.”

Mr. Whitacre, the founding chief executive of the modern AT&T, offered another view.

“The deals we made while I was chairman — which was a long time — was acquiring the businesses that we were familiar with, the businesses we were in,” he said in an interview. “And when I left, that changed.”

Mr. Whitacre, who is still an AT&T shareholder, said he liked the Discovery deal, getting the company back to “where we came from, if you would.”

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Israel vs. Hamas

The latest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had its own specific sparks. But just as important as those sparks is a larger reality: Both sides in the conflict are led by people who are relatively uninterested in compromise.

Many Israeli and Palestinian leaders have given up on the idea of lasting peace, such as a two-state solution in which Israel and a sovereign Palestine would coexist. They are instead pursuing versions of total victory. For Hamas, the militant group that rivals Fatah as the dominant Palestinian political party, that means the destruction of Israel. For Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, it means a two-class society in which Palestinians are crowded into shrinking geographic areas and lack many basic rights.

The result is the worst fighting since 2014.

“It would seem as if the current round of violence emerged out of a complex series of events in Jerusalem,” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote. “But in reality, these events were merely triggers for escalations made almost inevitable by the way the major parties have chosen to approach the conflict.”

I recognize that some readers are deeply versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with strong views about it. And they may bristle at the above description as false equivalence. But I also know that most readers of this newsletter do not follow every turn in the Mideast and often find it bewildering. Today’s newsletter is mostly for them. It will lay out the basic arguments that the two sides are making. When you strip both down to their essence, they help to explain the situation.

to evict six Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem homes, where they have lived since the 1950s. The settlers have cited a 19th-century real-estate transaction to establish their ownership. Initial Israeli court rulings upheld the evictions, and the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case.

It is just one example of how Israel has imposed control over places where Palestinians have lived for decades. As The Times’s Patrick Kingsley has written, “Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim ownership of land they vacated in 1948, but denies Palestinians the right to reclaim the properties they fled from in the same war.” Netanyahu and his allies believe that they can reduce the chances of a future Palestinian state by displacing Palestinians and expanding Jewish settlements. It’s a version of imperialism.

More broadly, the East Jerusalem case is an example of how Palestinians must endure frequent humiliation. They often cannot travel without enduring checkpoints and roadblocks. They can be denied Israeli citizenship. Their economy suffers from blockades. “The Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians,” B’Tselem, a human rights group, has written.

These inequities fuel Palestinian anger, which occasionally explodes. When it does, Israel’s military strength, financed partly by the U.S., allows it to inflict disproportionate damage. Over the past eight days, more than 200 Palestinians have died in the fighting, compared with at least 10 people in Israel.

Refaat Alareer, a professor in Gaza, has lost his brother, and his wife, Nusayba, has lost her grandfather, brother, sister and sister’s three children, all in Israeli attacks over recent years, as he explained in a Times Opinion piece. This toll, Alareer writes, makes him and his wife “a perfectly average Palestinian couple.”

a growing number of American progressives — see it as using military force to perpetuate a brutally unjust society. The best hope for change, many Palestinians believe, is pressure from Israel’s most important ally, the United States.

Netanyahu said on CBS this weekend. “You know damn well what you would do.”

Israel’s answer is both defense and offense. It has built a defense system known as Iron Dome, which has intercepted many missiles. And Israel has launched bombing attacks on the buildings and underground tunnels where Hamas stores its missiles. The point of the bombings is to degrade the Hamas threat.

Israel insists that it tries to minimize Palestinian civilian deaths, going so far as announcing some bombings in advance, even though Hamas fighters can then escape. But Israel says that Hamas deliberately stores missiles near civilians, knowing that the resulting casualties help it win global sympathy.

That tactic is consistent with decades of Palestinian political dysfunction. When the United Nations proposed a two-state solution in the 1940s, Arabs rejected it, David Harris recently wrote in The Times of Israel. When Arab countries controlled Palestinian territories in the 1950s and ’60s, they could have created a nation and did not. When Israel and President Bill Clinton offered a two-state peace deal two decades ago, the Palestinians said no.

to empower competent political leaders, rather than militants like Hamas. Israel can’t make a peace deal, its supporters say, until it has a partner more interested in building a prosperous society than trying to destroy Israel.

Before this conflict started, an optimist could imagine how the next few years might bring progress. Israel and four Arab nations recently established diplomatic relations, a breakthrough that could eventually offer a framework for resolving the Palestinian question.

But the new fighting seems to be squelching most optimism. Major street violence between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens has broken out for the first time in years. It remains unclear when the missile attacks and bombings will stop or if they will instead escalate into a ground war. It also remains unclear when either the Israelis or Palestinians will have political leaders whose priority is peace.

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spinning off the Warner properties, which include HBO and CNN, into a new company that is merging with Discovery Inc., which owns reality-based cable channels like HGTV and the Food Network. Nothing will change for consumers in the short term; the deal won’t close for another year, if regulators approve it.

Still, the news highlights how “traditional entertainment companies are struggling to keep viewers as the likes of Facebook, YouTube and TikTok draw big audiences,” Edmund Lee and John Koblin write in The Times. Bringing together two of the largest media companies “appears to be the quickest way to buy more eyeballs.”

Long term, consolidation often leads to higher prices for consumers. “It hints at a future with fewer, broader streaming options,” Jason Karaian, the editor of DealBook, said. Find more on what the deal means for your favorite shows.

play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Politician’s mistake (five letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.


Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. Abraham Lincoln became the Republican nominee for president 161 years ago today. “The youngster who, with ragged trousers, used barefoot to drive his father’s oxen and spend his days in splitting rails, has risen to high eminence,” The Times wrote.

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about the U.S. economy. On “Popcast,” the rediscovery of Beverly Glenn-Copeland.

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MGM Looks to Amazon as the Hollywood Studio Tries to Find a Buyer

Streaming has become fiercely competitive, with Disney+ coming on strong and HBO Max, Apple TV+ and Paramount+ determined to make inroads. That has pushed the original streaming disrupters — Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — to lean harder on broad-appeal movies to keep growing, particularly overseas.

The 58-year-old James Bond franchise is a Hollywood crown jewel that has generated tens of billions of dollars in ticket sales, home entertainment revenue, video games and marketing partnerships. But 007 has been both an enticement and a deterrent to prospective MGM bidders.

That is because MGM owns only 50 percent of the spy franchise. The balance is held by Barbara Broccoli and her brother, Michael G. Wilson. Through their company, Eon, which stands for Everything or Nothing, the siblings also have ironclad creative control, approving every line of dialogue, casting decision, stunt sequence, TV ad, poster and billboard. Bond has enormous untapped value, with television offshoots as one potential bonanza. But Ms. Broccoli and Mr. Wilson, worried about adulterating the brand, have blocked spinoff efforts in the past: Bond belongs on big screens, not small ones.

“If we get the wrong partners, there are liable to be conflicts,” Mr. Wilson said in a 2015 interview.

“No Time to Die,” the 25th installment in the Bond series, cost about $250 million to make and is scheduled for pandemic-delayed release in theaters on Oct. 8. (The previous film, “Spectre,” took in about $900 million worldwide in 2015.) The role of James Bond is expected to be recast after “No Time to Die,” as Daniel Craig leaves the role after 15 years.

Amazon’s entertainment strategy has evolved as streaming services have proliferated. Indie films like “Manchester by the Sea” and unconventional shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Transparent” gave Amazon a foothold in Hollywood; domination will require a steady supply of mainstream hits.

The problem: Amazon Studios has limited bandwidth, most of which is tied up with television series — including a coming “Lord of the Rings” adaptation that is believed to be the most expensive show ever made, with a one-season budget of $465 million. To stock its shelves with big movies, Amazon has been turning to outside suppliers. It paid $125 million for the rights to “Coming 2 America” and $80 million for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” In July, Amazon will release “The Tomorrow War,” a science-fiction spectacle it bought for $200 million.

Nicole Sperling contributed reporting.

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An Old-School Media Titan Pushes Aside an Upstart

Mr. Kilar, 50, fashioned himself as a disrupter inclined to break with the status quo in the pursuit of innovation. He became the chief executive of WarnerMedia in April 2020. He previously had started a video streaming company called Vessel and had managed Hulu, where he gained a reputation for thwarting the desires of the entrenched media executives overseeing the company.

HBO Max made a lackluster debut just two months after his arrival at WarnerMedia. By August, Mr. Kilar dismissed Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly, two longtime television executives who were in charge of the streaming service’s programming. Mr. Kilar also laid off some 1,000 employees.

Those inside the company credit Mr. Kilar with two important decisions that have better positioned the company in the current media climate. He oriented all the divisions around HBO Max. He also hammered on the importance of making HBO Max a global streaming service, accelerating its rollout. HBO Max is set to expand into Latin America and the Caribbean next month. The European launch is scheduled for later this year.

But now the television veterans are in control.

Mr. Zaslav has run Discovery since 2007. He started his media career in 1989 at NBC, ultimately helping to create cable networks like CNBC and MSNBC and expanding USA and Bravo around the world. Known for celebrity-strewn parties at his East Hampton, N.Y., estate, Mr. Zaslav has long been one of the highest-paid chief executives in media. Last year, his compensation totaled $37.7 million. In 2018, when he signed a new contract, he received more than $100 million in Discovery stock.

Richard Gelfond, the chief executive of Imax, predicted in a CNBC interview that Mr. Zaslav would bring a “diplomatic soft touch” to WarnerMedia’s shifting movie releasing strategy. “He’s been an innovator, but he knows how to do it within the confines of the existing system,” Mr. Gelfond said.

Pulling strings in the background, per his style, will be Mr. Malone.

Nicknamed the “cable cowboy,” in part because his base of operation is in Colorado, Mr. Malone, 80, is the consummate deal maker. Mr. Zaslav in Monday’s call described him as “a teacher, and a best friend and really a father to me.” He has a reputation for putting together complex transactions that limit his tax exposure. He began amassing his fortune in 1973 when he took over Tele-Communications Inc., an almost-bankrupt cable company that he grew and then sold to AT&T in 1998 for $32 billion. A subsidiary, Liberty Media, was spun off into its own entity with Mr. Malone at the helm.

Liberty holds significant stakes in a variety of entertainment companies, including Discovery, the Atlanta Braves and SiriusXM. The company purchased Formula One racing in 2016 for $4.4 billion. And in 2017, Discovery purchased Scripps Network Interactive for $11.9 billion, which added HGTV, Travel Channel and Food Network to its media arsenal.

In 2019, after selling his shares of Lionsgate, Mr. Malone increased his ownership of Discovery, purchasing $75 million of additional shares for a total 23 percent stake.

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AT&T’s WarnerMedia Group to Merge With Discovery

It’s as if Logan Roy, the fictional patriarch of the Waystar Royco media empire on HBO’s popular series “Succession,” masterminded the deal himself: AT&T has thrown in the towel on its media business and decided to spin it off into a new company that will merge with Discovery Inc.

The transaction will combine HBO, Warner Bros. studios, CNN, TNT, TBS and several other cable networks with a host of reality-based cable channels from Discovery such as Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, HGTV, the Food Network and Animal Planet.

But it raises numerous questions about what that will mean for popular shows and streaming platforms, whether entertainment bills will go up or down, or what will happen to the people working at WarnerMedia and Discovery.

WarnerMedia is known for producing some of the industry’s biggest theatrical and television hits.

HBO last year captured more Emmys than any other network, studio or platform, and its hit shows include “Succession,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” It also has a huge library that includes “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” and “Sex and the City.”

Netflix, the industry leader, has over 200 million subscribers, and everyone else is far behind.

Both WarnerMedia and Discovery have invested heavily in streaming. WarnerMedia has spent billions building HBO Max, which together with the HBO cable network has about 44 million customers. Discovery has 15 million global streaming subscribers, most of them for its Discovery+ app.

The companies plan to invest more in both services to get those numbers much higher. David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery, who will run the new business, said on Monday that he envisioned hundreds of millions of subscribers around the world, but that will be tough as Netflix and Disney invest in new shows of their own to keep a grip on the market.

Jason Kilar, who was hired to run AT&T’s media group only last year, is most likely on his way out. He was kept in the dark about the deal until a few days ago, and he has hired a legal team to negotiate his departure, according to two people briefed on the matter.

But it could mean the elevation of other executives within WarnerMedia. On Monday, Mr. Zaslav praised Toby Emmerich, the head of the film division, Casey Bloys, who runs HBO, and Jeff Zucker, the leader of CNN. Mr. Zucker and Mr. Zaslav are also longtime golfing buddies.

When asked about his plan for the management team, Mr. Zaslav said he would not favor Discovery executives.

“Philosophically, our view is we don’t know better,” he said. “There’s a reason WarnerMedia is where it is today.”

The companies expect the deal to be finalized in the middle of next year, and they anticipate annual cost savings of $3 billion. That usually means layoffs are coming.

WarnerMedia already went through several rounds of deep staff cuts after AT&T’s purchase of the company in 2018 as Mr. Stankey, who led the unit for a time, slimmed down the operations. Executives and managers were let go as he combined HBO, Warner Bros., CNN and the other cable networks under a single management team.

When Mr. Kilar came aboard last year, he cut further. Over 2,000 employees were laid off in the process.

To realize $3 billion in cost savings will inevitably mean more layoffs — at both WarnerMedia and Discovery. Mr. Zaslav said there was “a treasure trove of talent” at WarnerMedia, and emphasized the fact that Discovery doesn’t make scripted shows.

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AT&T, in Abrupt Turn, Will Shed Media Business in Deal With Discovery

The merger is a significant about-face for AT&T, a telecommunications giant that got into the media business with its Time Warner foray. Industry experts questioned AT&T’s deal, and now the spinoff indicates a failed acquisition strategy.

John Stankey, the chief executive of AT&T, has looked at its media business as a way to keep its phone customers from switching to other companies. AT&T Wireless subscribers get discounts and free access to HBO Max. A deal with Discovery could include stipulations that customers would maintain those benefits.

Before he took over as chief executive last year, Mr. Stankey was the company’s chief mergers strategist. But his track record has been spotty. In addition to planning AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, he was behind the company’s $48 billion acquisition of the satellite operator DirecTV in 2015. The service has been bleeding customers for years; in February, AT&T sold part of the business to the private equity firm TPG for about $16 billion, a third of what it originally paid.

For Discovery, the WarnerMedia deal could finally give Mr. Zaslav the size and scale he has long sought. A swashbuckling executive who can recall ratings figures off the top of his head, Mr. Zaslav represents the last of the old guard in media, a hobnobbing mogul known for hosting lavish get-togethers at his house in the Hamptons.

The new company would create a new kind of media behemoth, one that is still living off the fat profits of old-school cable, while spending those profits (and more) on streaming.

Even with increased competition, HBO remains a standout in television, and last year, once again, captured more Emmys than any other network, studio or platform, including Netflix. It has several hit shows, including “Succession,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Barry” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” It also has a huge library that includes “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” and “Sex and the City.”

The Warner Bros. TV studio likewise has produced successful shows for both its parent company, WarnerMedia, and outside studios with series like “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+), “Riverdale” (CW), “The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max) and “The Bachelor” (ABC). The Warner Bros. movie studio recently released movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Mortal Kombat” and has big coming releases like “Dune” and “The Matrix 4.”

Brooks Barnes and Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.

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