On Sunday, “The Last of Us” enjoyed HBO’s second-biggest series premiere since 2010, with 4.7 million viewers. Just one day later, that number had more than doubled, HBO Max announced. Oh yeah, and the adaptation of the 2013 PlayStation game is also currently sitting at 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. (Steve Greene of IndieWire gave the first episode an “A” grade.)
What we’re saying is “The Last of Us” sure ain’t your mom and dad’s video-game adaptation. And HBO can thank Asad Qizilbash for that. In 2019, Qizilbash formed PlayStation Productions inside the walls of Sony. The goal was to never let an excellent PlayStation game end up as a bad movie or TV show.
The 19-year veteran of PlayStation, who previously led the gaming company’s marketing team, had a simple plan. Rather than continue licensing out their biggest games to film executives who haven’t played a video game since “Ms. Pac Man,” PlayStation could bring all that entertainment development in-house, expand the company’s core brands, and most importantly, lean on the Sony Pictures and TV resources that were already available to them. Synergy! So far, it’s resulted in 2022’s “Uncharted,” which grossed more than $400 million at the global box office, and “The Last of Us.”
Turns out having people who actually know the games calling the shots can lead to very strong adaptations. In turn, a strong movie or TV show can inform a subsequent installment of the game franchise. Round and round we go; up and up profits grow, hopefully.
“Being able to control the destiny of what the story is going to be and how these characters are represented was so important to us,” Qizilbash told IndieWire. “We were starting to take these games and just develop them into global franchises…We intimately know where that is and what’s important. So the decisions we make in any adaptation, be it a film or a TV show, is going to impact the overall story of the franchise.”
Courtesy of PlayStation Studios
PlayStation Productions is not the only gaming company to take back the joystick on small- and big-screen adaptations. Riot Games has its own in-house development entity that’s behind hit “League of Legends” adaptation, “Arcane,” on Netflix. Nintendo is closely aligned with Illumination on its upcoming “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (which will hopefully be much better than the 1993 disaster), as is Gearbox with its “Borderlands” movie at Lionsgate. Revenue for the gaming industry dwarfs the worlds of film and TV combined; the potential for its IP to have an extra life in another medium is huge.
But it’s not easy, nor is it cheap. PlayStation Productions’ edge comes from the preexistence of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The two are so integrated that while development decisions are all made within PlayStation, they’re often fine-tuned on Sony’s Culver City lot, where the PlayStation group has an office. There’s one other advantage that’s even harder to replicate: PlayStation already has a library of 100+ games dating back decades; many of their rivals do not.
With all due respect to Paramount’s slogan, that is a mountain of IP, one that Qizilbash and his physical production partner Carter Swan are figuring out how best to leverage. The two have Marvel-esque ambitions for the PlayStation brand if they do it right.
“In the past, the idea of development was, you took a piece of IP, you said we know what we’re doing, we’ll develop it in this space, and the creators were shut off at that point. What we’ve found, this generation of filmmakers and writers, they really want to work with our studios and get all the knowledge that we have,” Swan told IndieWire. “We wanted to make sure that the fans knew directly from the game studios, this story is coming from us. We’ve signed off on it. We’re a part of it. We’ve helped develop this, and we’re really excited about it.”
As of this year, PlayStation Productions currently has 10 different film and TV projects in various stages of development, some of which haven’t yet been announced. Some are built around what Qizilbash and Swan decided early on were some of the company’s “active franchises” and core brands: “God of War,” “Uncharted,” “The Last of Us,” “Gran Turismo,” “Horizon,” and “Ghost of Tsushima.”
“God of War” and “Horizon” have series adaptations set at Amazon and Netflix, respectively. A “Gran Turismo” movie as released by Sony and directed by Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) hits theaters August 11; Sony also has a “Ghost of Tsushima” movie in the works. An “Uncharted” sequel seems all but inevitable.
There’s more on Qizilbash and Swan’s (somewhat) secret list, including deeper cuts based on external pitches from enthusiastic creators/gamers. The “Twisted Metal” series at Peacock starring Anthony Mackie is based on a ‘90s franchise of games in which decked-out ice-cream trucks and other hot rods battle to the death. Also reported to be in the works are films based on the post-apocalyptic “Days Gone” and the art-house adventure game “Gravity Rush,” a more obscure title originally released only on the handheld device PS Vita.
While the current crop of properties are all Sony Pictures or Sony Television projects, the guys are exploring ways to develop projects that could live at Sony’s genre arm Screen Gems or with Sony Animation. “There’s so much in there, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to do all of it,” Swan said. “We’ve got so many things in place just within a short period of time, and you look at the catalog that we have. I always say, we’re just getting started.”
The good news is that the attitude toward gaming adaptations has shifted dramatically. More recent shows like “The Witcher” or “Halo” and box office hits like “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Pokemon: Detective Pikachu” have set the bar higher. Swan said the difference is “night and day” between what he’s working with now compared to when he was involved in a “Gran Turismo” adaptation that didn’t work and never got off the starting line.
“Even back then, it was a lot trickier, and you had to prove yourself just a lot more in terms of the IP itself, because again, there was sort of a stigma back then against the video-game adaptation,” he said.
“That stigma has just gone,” Qizilbash added. “This generation understands the 60-80 hour console experience and the characters and story and the depth that these creators and these games are able to achieve. It just transfers over now in a much better way.”
Gordon Timpen/Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
While “The Last of Us” has been praised for its faithfulness to the original story of the game, Blomkamp’s upcoming “Gran Turismo” film represents a good example of Sony stretching what a video-game adaptation can be. The film is based on the real life story of Jann Mardenborough, who in 2011 competed in the driving simulator game’s GT Academy and was rewarded with the chance to drive professionally for Nissan.
Blomkamp told IndieWire he initially couldn’t imagine how to make a film out of a driving simulator, but he described PlayStation as great allies in achieving his storytelling vision. And yes, there will be specific camera angles and perspectives that aim to emulate the experience of playing the game.
“It blew my mind because it felt like the first thing I’d ever read that was connected to a video game in a massive way, where the game is hugely integral to the movie, but did it in a completely organic and and real-world way. I’d never really come across something like that before,” Blomkamp said. “There’s a lot of Easter egg nods to the experience of playing the game that I want to inject into the film as long as it complements the story and the emotional components that have to come first.”
That marriage of appealing to both hardcore fans and newcomers is core to Qizilbash and Swan’s mission. It’s the reason the “Uncharted” film brought Nathan Drake back to his 20s, a choice to give core audiences a new story but provide an introduction for those who haven’t played the Naughty Dog games. Also, Tom Holland, also Sony’s latest Spider-Man, was 25.
“If no new audiences come and it’s just appealing to our gamers, I think we’ve failed, because our job is not only to engage and passionately make something for our gamers but introduce it to a whole new audience,” Qizilbash said.
“That’s the fun of my job. There’s this balance,” Swan said. “We try to never assume people will know these characters or this story coming in. They’re coming in and they have no idea of this universe. But also honoring the pillars that we know the fans will love and expect out of something like this. And also balancing that fine line of giving the fans something new. It’s not just copying the game, it’s giving them an experience where they get something new out of this and they learn something about these universes that they didn’t have coming in.”
“The Last of Us” airs Sundays on HBO and streams on HBO Max.
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