Can you make a great movie out of a video game? Producer Stacey Sher says ‘yes’ in Aspen talk

Activision Blizzard Studios co-president Stacey Sher on stage at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen on July 17.
Courtesy photo/Fortune Brainstorm Tech

To put it mildly, video games have not made for good movie adaptations.

From the bonkers Jean-Claude Van Damme “Street Fighter” in 1994 to the dumpster fire of “Assasin’s Creed” two years ago, these movies have generally been crimes against art.

But Stacey Sher is aiming to change that. The seasoned Hollywood producer — whose credits include the game-changing “Pulp Fiction” from Quentin Tarantino and works by cinematic lions like Oliver Stone and Stephen Soderbergh — has taken the helm of Activision Blizzard Studios. The production company is an offshoot of the gaming giant Activision, tasked with making movies and television shows out of Activision properties like “Call of Duty,” “Diablo” and “Destiny.”

If anyone is going to create a “Dark Knight” moment for video games, and usher a game adaptation onto the big screen that approaches greatness, it’s probably Stacey Sher.

“The company’s mandate is quality and integrity,” she said recently at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen.

Sher explained that she took the gig to bring her well-established auteur-friendly but commercially viable creative approach to these new adaptations.

“The most important thing was maintaining the same level of quality when we adapted franchises,” Sher said during a July 17 panel with Viacom president and CEO Bob Bakish and Fortune magazine’s Andrew Nusca. “We’re all about moving (forward) very focused and with the best talent.”

“Call of Duty” is the crown jewel of Activision. The extraordinarily popular war game, she said, has 40 million monthly users and is played in 196 countries. There’s a built-in global audience for a film or television series based on the game.

Sher said she wants to make an adaptation that will please existing “Call of Duty” partisans and viewers who’ve never played it. She’s proceeding with caution to get it right.

“To both introduce new people to the franchise and also engage and create new ways for our existing users to interact, we’re pretty precious about it,” Sher said of “Call of Duty.”

Since taking her post in 2016, she said, she’s put together teams of writers and directors to develop Activision games and aimed to find the right creative minds for each.

“It’s all about taking care to respect the franchises,” she said.

She blanched at a suggestion that she might use new machine-learning technology to create storylines and characters or to test how audiences might respond to them.

“What you look for in story and character is how it resonates with you emotionally,” Sher said, later adding. “There’s a magic that happens with — to be pretentious and call it art — that is about singular talent. You have to work hard to attract the best talent.”

People may currently dismiss the idea of video game adaptations as art. But, she reminded the Fortune crowd of tech and entertainment industry insiders, that’s what people thought of superhero movies 20 years ago. Now those titles dominate film and TV and, on a handful of occasions like “The Dark Knight” and “Black Panther,” make for great cinema.

“Soon we’ll get to a point where it’s not as improbable as when ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Iron Man’ were first made, when people didn’t think you could make a good comic book movie,” Sher said. “And now it’s where we live. I think that day is going to come soon for our franchises.”