Last Wednesday, Nintendo announced it is developing a live-action Legend of Zelda movie. It will be produced by Arad Avi (Uncharted, Spider-Man: No Way Home), directed by Wes Ball (Maze Runner trilogy, upcoming Planet of the Apes movie), and written by Derek Connolly (Jurassic World).
The news comes not long after the remarkable success of the Super Mario Bros. film, which was released this April and has grossed $1.4B to date. At the time of writing, it is about equal with this year's top-grossing flick to date, the Barbie movie.
Nintendo is not new to transmedia. The first animated Super Mario movie came out in the eighties in Japan, and many of you will remember the 1992 Super Mario live-action film, a critical and commercial failure. Back then, games were new to Hollywood, and Hollywood new to games – the result was lackluster films such as that Super Mario flop, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat (though the latter is loved by some…).
Perhaps as a result, Nintendo didn't get involved in live-action films again until the 2019 Detective Pikachu movie, and only through its part-ownership of The Pokémon Company.
Today, the movie industry seems to have overcome the trauma from those poorly-received video game films of the ’90s. Recent live-action adaptations include Warcraft (2016), which grossed $439M; Uncharted (2022), which made $407M; and two Sonic the Hedgehog films (2020 and 2022) that grossed a total of $726M.
It is no surprise that Hollywood is obsessed with existing intellectual property. Big-budget movies carry colossal risk, and studios will do anything to mitigate it. This year hasn't been an exception – familiar names populate the top-grossing list: Barbie, Super Mario, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Fast & Furious. Only Nolan's Oppenheimer breaks the mold; and even then, it's a biopic.
Games are no different: the top triple-A money-makers are, more often than not, sequels, reboots, or remakes, and not utilizing a popular IP to its fullest leaves money on the table.
Which is precisely why Nintendo is looking to exploit its classic properties after the rampant success of the Super Mario Bros. movie. This appears to be a relatively new outlook for Nintendo, and one not limited to movies – the Japanese giant is not quite as insular as it used to be.
However, Zelda is not Super Mario or Pokémon. It's a less well-known IP, though the two most recent Zelda games have been wildly popular. Second, Zelda is a trickier adaptation with darker undertones, serious themes, a silent protagonist, and solitary, often puzzle-based gameplay. The Zelda movie’s director Wes Ball and writer Derek Connolly will have to work hard to stay true to the series while also delivering a great story.
This is what Shigeru Miyamoto himself had to say about the Zelda movie: “Regarding the live-action film of The Legend of Zelda, I know we face an extremely high hurdle in producing a film that will not disappoint the global fan base. With this challenge in mind, I have been discussing this project with Avi Arad, Chairman of Arad Productions Inc., for about 10 years. Movies are just like games, in that you need to spend a lot of time working on them until you get to something you're satisfied with. Movies therefore need sponsors who can lend their full support until completion. For the production of our movies, Nintendo itself acts as a sponsor. To produce the movie, we were able to assemble a group of people who are willing to commit time to the production until we come up with something we feel confident about.”
“For The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Chris Meledandri, the founder and CEO of Illumination, and I had creative control for all aspects of movie production, and together we continued with production until we were satisfied. For the live-action film of The Legend of Zelda, Avi Arad and I are taking plenty of time to prepare. We hope to release something good that will meet everyone's expectations, so please look forward to it.”
One thing is for sure: Nintendo will not rush it. Its strength is in thinking long-term and acting accordingly. Nintendo has already taken its first steps in essentially becoming the Disney of games by building a flywheel of entertainment businesses with its IP: games, film, merchandise, and even theme parks. Pokémon has shown the way; Mario and Zelda will follow.
The real question is this: where does Nintendo really fall on the spectrum between ‘the next Disney’ and ‘standard brand licensing’? Disney has been very careful to keep its businesses in-house (with the obvious exception of gaming), while Nintendo is offloading its brand extensions to partners: Universal for theme parks and Sony for the Zelda movie. As a result, Nintendo controls a shrinking percentage of the full experience.
Historically, Nintendo is not a company that makes swift, opportunistic moves. One thing it will never sacrifice is its uncompromising focus on game development and continuity in its internal studios. Even so, it wouldn't be surprising if partner-led brand extensions are only the first step in Nintendo's long-term plan.
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