For movie producers, “development hell” — Hollywood speak for a seemingly endless period of script rewrites and director hirings before getting the studio’s green light for production — is typically a bad sign.
That’s where Charles Roven and Alex Gartner found themselves while trying to make a film based on the Sony PlayStation video game series “Uncharted.”
The team first approached Matt Tolmach, then co-president of Sony-owned Columbia Pictures, in 2008 about bringing the swashbuckling series to the big screen. They were quickly paired with “Spider-Man” producer Avi Arad to bring the idea to life.
But the project struggled to get its sea legs. Video game adaptations were iffy propositions for the movie industry, with few examples of hits from which to draw. Early attempts to adapt “Uncharted” for the big screen took a faithful approach. An early script was stolen and leaked after the cyberattack on Sony Pictures’ computer systems. Directors including David O. Russell cycled in and out.
“Uncharted” risked becoming yet another botched Hollywood translation of a video game franchise, joining “Doom,” “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “Assassin’s Creed” in the pile of failures.
Finally in 2017, after a conversation with “Spider-Man: Homecoming” star Tom Holland, who was a fan of the game, Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman brought a new idea to the producers: Tell the origin story of main character Nathan Drake — normally in his 30s or 40s in the gaming universe — but make him a 20-something, with Holland playing the lead.
“It was sort of like a giant forehead slap for us,” Gartner said. “We were like, ‘Oh yeah, Tom Holland. Let’s go!’ And that kicked us off with a fresh start.”
The resulting movie, released Presidents Day weekend and co-starring Mark Wahlberg, is the latest success for Sony and Atlas Entertainment, Roven and Gartner’s production company.
The film grossed $51 million in its four-day holiday opening domestically, topping analyst expectations and defying the so-called video game movie curse. Worldwide, the $120-million production has grossed $226 million in ticket sales, including $83.4 million in the U.S. and Canada.
The film’s success is the latest sign of hope for the return of a robust theatrical market as Warner Bros. prepares to release “The Batman” this weekend, which is expected to become the first film since “Spider-Man: No Way Home” to open with more than $100 million domestically.
Roven, 72, is a seasoned producer whose credits include “12 Monkeys,” “The Dark Knight” and “Wonder Woman.” He and Gartner, 62, also made “Triple Frontier” with Netflix. Among Atlas’ highest-profile upcoming projects is “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s biopic about the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, which is expected to be released by Universal Pictures in 2023.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
“Uncharted” was in development for years and even survived the Sony hack and a major studio leadership change from Amy Pascal to Tom Rothman. How did this film get to the finish line?
Alex Gartner: There was, initially, a fairly faithful approach to the adaptation. We developed some good material on it, but there wasn’t quite a ‘what is this’ clarity about it. We knew, as the IP became more and more successful, the importance of it increased to Sony. And we realized we really had to get it right.
The moment that we turned the page and realized we had to tell a fresh story — we had to take advantage of a gap in the IP narrative, which was Nathan Drake in his 20s, so that we could tell a story that was new to those familiar with the game and super entertaining for those who knew nothing about the game.
Charles Roven: We always wanted to do something that was fresh. But being able to have that window of time, to tell a story that hadn’t been told, really gave us a lot of elbow room.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect production?
Gartner: We shut down. And then by July, right after the July 4 holiday, we were back. We flew back to Berlin, and we got started again. So yes, it was a sizable break. But compared to a lot of other projects, we were fast.
How much did costs increase because of COVID-19 delays and protocols?
Roven: Relative to the overall budget, our shutdown costs were maybe 2% of the budget. And another 2 to 3% were the protocols we instituted for the run of the show, and then ultimately we postproduced the movie with COVID protocols, including doing many, many things virtually.
They didn’t have rapid tests back then, so we had to temperature-check. And depending on the volume of crew that we had, and extras, not all the tests could be processed by the same lab. We did have quite a few people with COVID, we just figured out how to manage it. We didn’t shut down.
Gartner: We were in Germany for a lot of it, and we were in Spain as well. Germany really had their act together in terms of how they responded to COVID initially and how quickly they recovered. But they were also very stringent. When they said, “We’re doing contact tracing,” they meant it. They made phone calls; they interviewed everybody.
Has Hollywood finally cracked the code on video game adaptations?
Roven: When you’re taking something from one medium and converting it into another, it’s always risky. They are always going to have detractors because they say, “We didn’t need it to move to this other medium.” But the fact of the matter is, of course you can make it work. Don’t forget, they made a movie about “Clue.”
Gartner: Games have improved dramatically in terms of their storytelling and their character development, so that helps. There’s a whole thing about the video game curse and the stigma of that. It’s almost become a label that has its own momentum, but it’s not really based on anything real.
Why are you so firmly in favor of theatrical box office, even for nonsuperhero and nonhorror films?
Roven: I never thought that there wasn’t going to be a theatrical business. Watching something at home, whether it’s on a network, a cable channel or a streamer, is one kind of viewing experience and a very valuable viewing experience. And quite frankly, as a content creator, I think Alex and I and all of us would agree it’s great to have all these options.
But I also love the theatrical experience, which is very different from watching a movie at home. So I believe that people are going to want to have it. “Spider-Man” really showed it. And I think that “Uncharted” has shown it as well.
Gartner: The charge right now has been led by the younger moviegoers. Certainly “Spider-Man” showed that, and I think “Uncharted” benefited from that. But I think what’s going to happen is that the age will increase and the wave will increase. And I think there’s a significant amount of pent-up demand for getting out of the house for having that communal experience again.
Can movies work theatrically if they’re not based on well-known IP?
Roven: I believe you know that Atlas is a producer and I’m a producer on a movie called “Oppenheimer” with Emma Thomas and Chris Nolan. And obviously, all three of us love the theatrical experience and we’re making that movie to debut theatrical, so obviously we believe that there’s a market out there.
Gartner: It is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book [American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer].
Roven: But it’s not like a comic book or video game. And there’s a lot of ways that you can make a theatrical feature an event. I don’t think it’s limited to a comic book or a video game or a horror film. I think those are really good plays. But I think action-adventure will always be there. And I think thrillers will always be there. And I think these kinds of historical events that you can turn into very successful theatrical features will also be there.
You mentioned “Oppenheimer.” What made you think that could be a theatrical event and right for Nolan?
Roven: I had been given the book by a friend of mine. I realized that it was going to take a very special filmmaker to do it. But, you know, it did win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a great piece of literature. And it’s about a seminal event in the 20th century, and one that resonates today.
I’ve known Chris and Emma for almost 20 years now. We were enjoying a weekend together, and I just brought up this idea. And in talking with them about it, Chris said, “Well, let me read the book.” And he came back and said, “I’m interested in doing it.”
It’s just a brilliant script, and we got this wonderful cast together, who also felt the same as we all felt, that it was very compelling. In its own way, almost a thriller. I gotta say, I think a lot of people are going to say, “Oh, Chris Nolan’s doing that? I want to see that.”
Gartner: He’s also got precedent. “Dunkirk” is a great precedent in a way.
Charles, you produced “Wonder Woman 1984″ and “The Suicide Squad,” which both went simultaneously to HBO Max and theaters. How do you feel now about that decision by Warner Bros.?
Roven: Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot and myself were asked if we would support a day-and-date release on “Wonder Woman 1984″ when we were in the height of COVID, and we had already held the movie for over a year. We were really facing the option of either coming out simultaneous on HBO Max in December of 2020 or waiting until December of 2021.
We agreed to do it. But we were not told that that would be what all of 2021 was going to be like. And I have to say that I think they themselves [Warner Bros.] know that that didn’t work. There’s some pretty great movies, and I think I produced one of the best ones, which was James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad.” And its box office was minuscule compared to what it did on HBO Max. I think it was a missed opportunity.
That option seems to have gone away, and not just because the filmmakers didn’t like it, but because I think that the studios themselves realize that they were putting a cap on their revenues. No way would “Spider-Man” have been the hit that it is if it had been shared with streaming.