I guess we could have seen this coming — if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?
Yes, with gaming revenues far outpacing Hollywood box office receipts, big studios are trying to figure out how they can secure a teet on the social gaming cash cow. And if there’s one thing Hollywood execs love, it’s a hot, new trend — and besides, they’re running out of comic book superheroes to turn into franchises! “Oh, that Farmville thing is pretty hot right now…how can we make money off of that?” God bless ‘em.
Social games played on Facebook are the new frontier for film and television tie-ins. This summer, two movies—Disney’s (DIS) Cars 2 and Fox’s (NWS) Mr. Popper’s Penguins—and a popular Showtime (CBS) series will attempt to build buzz and some extra revenue by featuring their characters in Facebook games.
For help, studios are turning to developers with experience in social games, an overnight industry that’s amassed an audience of more than 300 million people who will spend $4.9 billion this year on virtual goods—tractors on Zynga’s FarmVille, and so forth—estimates research firm ThinkEquity. “We’ve been asked by every major media property in the world to do something in the last 12 months,” says Peter Relan, executive chairman of CrowdStar, a game maker in Burlingame, Calif.
And it’s already started! Showtime’s Weeds recently got its own Farmville thingie, which is shown above. It was developed by Mark Ecko’s new social-game unit (Wait, what?!?!), Ecko Code.
The most startling example of this incipient industry: Weeds Social Club, a game launching this month in conjunction with the June 27 season premiere of Showtime’s hit show Weeds. Users buy and plant different strains of marijuana—from downmarket “Schwag Weed” to the pricier and more (virtually) potent “Jamaican Ganja”—and then harvest the crop before it withers. Players then set prices above or below street value, determine how much customer risk they’re willing to take, and wait for a hooded-sweatshirt-wearing dealer—really—to swing by and pick up the goods. Along the way, users barter with friends, outfit their pad with flat-screen TVs, bongs, and other digital accessories, and spend real money on “favors”—game points that let them buy nicer goods. Players get pot-growing tips from Andy Botwin, a character voiced by actor Justin Kirk from the show, and perform tasks that correlate with the storyline from the latest TV episode. Eventually the game may be used to test out new characters or plot twists, says Curt Marvis, president of digital media at Lionsgate (LGF), the show’s producer and distributor. “In the social realm, it’s a living, breathing experience,” he says, “one where you get a fan base of engaged users.” The game has been approved by Facebook, and its creators say it does not break any laws.
The logical evolution from all of this, I think, is that Hollywood will eventually try to figure out how to turn the social games themselves into movies, because that’s what Hollywood does. So are you ready for “Farmville, the Movie” or “Words With Friends, the Movie”? Personally, I’d rather see this Boston terrier get a movie deal, but maybe that’s just me.