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Universal scales back its video game ambitions

September 9, 2009 |  9:00 am
WantedWeapons Universal Pictures' hopes of becoming a major video game publisher have been put on hold in the face of a bad economy and a major flop.

According to three people familiar with the studio's video game operations, it is no longer actively financing production of games based on its movies after its first such effort, "Wanted: Weapons of Fate," sold poorly when released in March.

Based on the 2008 movie of the same name starring Angelina Jolie, "Wanted" sold only 100,000 units in the U.S. in its first month, generating under $6 million in retail revenue. High-quality games like "Wanted" typically cost $20 million or more to produce, before marketing costs. Universal probably wants to be cautious about money-losing ancillary ventures in a year when its movies generally have performed poorly at the box office.

"Weapons of Fate" was hurt by production delays that saw it come out nine months after the movie hit theaters and three months after the movie was released on DVD. That meant it wasn't able to benefit from the studio's substantial marketing campaign for the film.

One person familiar with the studio's plans said that although Universal hasn't given up on the idea of investing in video games, the studio is being very conservative following the performance of "Wanted" and the overall slowdown in video game sales recently.

Last summer, when "Wanted" was first announced, Bill Kispert, vice president of Universal's Digital Platforms Group, said the studio was running a "hybrid model" whereby some games based on its movies would be licensed to other game publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision, while others would be produced internally. To further that effort, Universal brought on experienced video game producer Pete Wanat to oversee internal productions.

Those ambitions have clearly been scaled back, however. All of Universal's movies with video game potential are now being licensed to other publishers, though one source said the studio was considering some original projects in the early stages of development as video games. Wanat left Universal when his contract expired earlier this year.

Other studios are taking differing approaches to video games. While Fox continues to license all of its properties to other publishers, Paramount released a downloadable game based on "Star Trek" in May and has ones based on "The Warriors," "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder" in production. Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. are producing a variety of games based on movies and TV shows and, in select cases, original ideas.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: A scene from "Wanted: Weapons of Fate." Credit: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

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