Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pitching a Dungeons & Dragons Movie

Last week I started thinking about writing a book about triathlon, and after briefly surveying the field to see what other tri-related resources are out there, I said that I might come back and talk about what my book might look like this week, were I to decide to write one.  For what it’s worth, I did sit down later in the week and briefly sketch out some potential takes on a book, and who knows?  Maybe if there’s interest, I’ll post some of that someday.
In the meantime, believe it or not, it’s actually the D&D-related content that drives the most hits to this blog.  So I spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I ought to write more about D&D, but then when I sit down to write, that’s never what comes out of my keyboard.  

The problem is that I’m not in an active game right now, and so D&D just hasn’t been on my mind as much lately.  In the back of my mind, I have thoughts of sitting down and playing some more with my daughters, but it’s summer now, and frankly, D&D doesn’t seem like a good use of our time while the weather’s so nice.  Plus, it’s the height of the triathlon season, so time is a precious commodity.  I keep telling myself that there’ll be time for D&D when the house is covered with two feet of snow, and we’re stuck inside, and that may well be true, but in the meantime, I’m drifting further and further away from one of my favorite hobbies.

Fortunately, somebody dropped a pretty interesting comment on an old post about D&D just yesterday, and it got the wheels in my mind turning—finally.  Tim (if that is his real name) agreed with me when I said that Hasbro’s not making much use of D&D, but he noted that the brand itself is still worth quite a bit, and he therefore wondered if maybe the situation weren’t ripe for some kind of buyout.  I’m personally not sure what a buyout like that would look like, especially since I think some other properties at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) are probably a lot more profitable than D&D, and I doubt that Hasbro would want to either sell or spin off the entire company, but it did get me wondering—if I were trying to increase D&D’s profitability, where would I start?
The easy answer isn’t surprising.  It seems like everybody in America is trying to pitch some kind of intellectual property-based movie these days, and for better or worse, D&D has a ton of brand recognition with the general public.  In fact, just recently both Hasbro and Warner Brothers announced that they were trying to develop a Dungeons & Dragons movie, leading Hasbro to file suit in May of this year.
Still… it’s worth asking what kind of D&D movie you’d like to see.  There are essentially three choices:
  1. A movie based on an existing novel or series.
  2. A movie based on one of the classic adventure modules.
  3. A movie based on the mechanics of the game that is at heart a wholly new property.
Or, looked at another way, there are a few more ways you might try it:
  1. Big budget live-action (would-be) blockbuster (Lord of the Rings)
  2. Big budget animated (would-be) blockbuster (Mulan)
  3. Limited budget, limited release live-action (Wrath of the Dragon God)
  4. Straight-to-TV/DVD live-action (The Book of Vile Darkness)
  5. Straight-to-TV/DVD animated (Thor: Tales of Asgard)
The first thing I’ll say about all this is that there’s a right and a wrong way to do everything.  It’s hard to see how Hasbro’s interests would be served by more B-grade schlock likeDungeons & Dragons: The Wrath of the Dragon God—and indeed, that’s probably why they’re suing to prevent the release of more crap exactly like that—but there have certainly been B-Grade fantasy movies that could’ve existed within the D&D mythos without hurting the brand.  The one that springs to mind first is The Beastmaster, a beloved fantasy cult-classic if ever there was one, but there have been others.  Hell, I even liked Kevin Sorbo’s Kull.  So while I’ll admit that putting a string of live-action movies into either limited release or just straight onto Syfy probably isn’t the best outcome that this project could achieve for WotC, it’s also not necessarily the kiss of death.  A bit of clever writing, special effects on the order of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or maybe Syfy’s series Defiance, and enough word-of-mouth circulated to the right communities of viewers, and I’d think that this project could make a nice chunk of change while introducing a whole generation of nerds to the mythos behind tabletop role-playing.  That would be a substantial improvement in my opinion.

But, of course, that’s not what these guys are going to try to do.  And truth to tell, the option that scares me the most is the one that’s probably the most likely—a big-budget live action summer tent-pole built around a well-known D&D novel.  Because, bottom line, I just don’t know that I believe that Hollywood would pull that off.  I mean, you look at recent movies coming from similar properties in similar situations, like Conan the Barbarian (2011) and/or John Carter of Mars (2012), and both of those movies were disasters.  Very well known properties, plenty of buzz initially amongst the fanbase, but disastrous execution.  That’s exactly what I don’t want to see.
The thing is, when you think about the D&D movie thing, the detail that you have to remember is that Hasbro also owns a TV station.  They own the Hub.  And they use it to promote their toys and their games, exactly the way you’d expect.  They did it with G.I. Joe Renegades in the run up to G.I. Joe Retaliation, and they’ve done it for years with Transformers Prime, and if you ask me, the Hub is also the right platform for the initial forays into the attempt at making Dungeons and Dragons a more valuable character-based property, too.  D&D even has a history as a cartoon—a good cartoon that people remember with fondness.
What I’m saying here is that I don’t want to see some kind of race to the big screen with D&D.  The small screen seems like an easier, less risky place to start, and it also gives you the freedom to tinker with concepts, shoot some shit at the wall, and see what sticks.  Not everything is going to work, but if you can make another D&D animated series—and make it good—you’ll have gone a long way towards proving the viability of your concept and justifying further investment.  You’re also building the value of and exposure of your brand.
As for what to put up… I confess that I’d like to see something new.  Not an adaptation of an existing novel line but maybe something based on some of the old Gary Gygax classic dungeon crawls.  Against the Giants was always my favorite, and it has the advantage of breaking down easily into story arcs or seasons of TV, but there are plenty of others, and if they don’t necessarily include characters, they do give you everything else onto which you can project a blank slate.  That, to me, is not a bad place to start.
And you know what the best part of this plan is?  
It doesn’t require movie rights.  It’s a plan for a TV show.


  1. To be honest, I think I'd rather see a TV series. It would just have to avoid being as cheesy as Xena (which was fun but awful), aiming for more of a Game of Thrones look and feel.
    I don't know what kind of budget anyone would be willing to put in, but if they want to flesh out an existing storyline then they could do a LOT worse than Baldur's Gate.
    Just a thought.

  2. The biggest reason I argued in favor of a cartoon was basically to avoid the discussion of budget. Magic and monsters and those sorts of things only look good in live action movies if there's a substantial budget behind them. To me, that's not necessary to get this project off the ground.