Feirstein is not the only Hollywood type who has seen the light. If anything, he's a little late. Video games overtook movies in the annual revenue race in 1999. But that was an apples-to-oranges contest. The average game costs up to five times as much as a movie ticket. And back then a console title was a movie afterthought, a more expensive Burger King toy. Now, with original blockbuster fare like Everything or Nothing, released in February, the titans of the $21 billion games business have shown their Hollywood cousins (a puny $9.2 billion biz) they can lead as well as follow.
As goes the money, so follows the talent. Musicians like Mya and Method Man are lending their skills to game sound tracks (a smart move, as the average title is played for 50 hours). And as goes talent, so follows buzz. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which won Best Game of the Year at last month's Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., got more adulation from critics and Star Wars junkies than any of the Lucas movie prequels. And games are getting even more ambitious: Half Life 2, with a record-breaking $40 million budget, has been six years in development, with no end in sight.
The games world is going Hollywood in the wrong ways too falling back on formulas and pandering to 18-to-35-year-old males, for example. But just as in the movies, many of the major players are entertainment innovators. Here are five of them:
Mogul of the Matrix
Bruno Bonnell, CEO of Atari = Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney
Bruno Bonnell wants to be the next Michael Eisner literally. "No company has ever impressed me more than Disney, and I hear they may be looking for a new boss," says the head of games giant Atari in his heavily accented French. "Maybe I should apply?" It's just a light-hearted thought for now. But if there's one thing you learn from looking at Bonnell's career, it's never to underestimate his ability to leapfrog. Leaping frogs, in fact, is where he started. In 1983 Bonnell co-wrote Autoroute, the French version of Frogger. He then founded one games company, Infogrames, and proceeded to snap up 25 others including the onetime arcade giant Atari, which last year became the name of the whole conglomerate.
At 45, Bonnell has the swagger of a movie mogul. He bristles at the word games, preferring to call his product interactive entertainment. For the past few years, he has been aggressively racking up licenses to movie franchises, like Mission: Impossible, so that Atari can create games based on them. He seemed to have struck gold when he inked a deal terms undisclosed but by all accounts incredibly generous with the Wachowski brothers for Enter the Matrix, a game whose plot dovetails with that of Matrix Reloaded, going so far as to buy the company, Shiny Entertainment, that already held the Matrix license.
Enter the Matrix looked great, but the final product was slammed by fans as too buggy (it sold 5 million copies). What happened? Bonnell had insisted it be released the same day as the movie an unusual move in an industry notorious for constantly pushing back its deadlines. But like the embattled Eisner, Bonnell has no regrets. Enter the Matrix was worth it, he says, for the phone calls he's getting from actors and their agents (like Ving Rhames and Mickey Rourke, whose voices will be heard in the latest game in Atari's Driver series). "Ten years ago, most studio bosses didn't know what a PlayStation was," he says. "Now, who knows? Maybe my successor will buy a studio."
The Gangster Player
Terry Donovan, Rockstar co-founder = Quentin Tarantino, Star director
Imagine Quentin Tarantino parlaying Pulp Fiction into an endless string of movies, each set in the mean streets of a different city. You're getting close to picturing Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series from British gamemaker Terry Donovan. The most recent installment, 2002's GTA Vice City, is a kind of homage to Miami Vice, in which you play an underworld figure in 1980s Florida. You are what Donovan calls an "aspirational gangster."
Like all the GTA series and Tarantino's movies the game is packed with moral ambiguity. For example, your character can make his name in drug deals or drive-by shootings. He can kill a prostitute who has just serviced him and get his money back. He can even make an honest living delivering pizza.