Dec 4, 2023

2023 showcased the growing success of video game film adaptations

Video game adaptation films have a varied history in the thirty years since they began, often finding it difficult to resonate with the fans of the media being adapted, but they have found substantial success over recent years. 2023 has been especially successful for video game adaptations, as we saw both the enormous success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie and, more recently, the surprise hit of Five Nights at Freddy’s in particular.

With new titles making a splash at the box office and video game media finding success on smaller screens too, with TV shows such as HBO’s The Last of Us and Netflix’s Arcane, many are pointing to video games as a fresh well of opportunity for the big screen.

These adaptations can cover a wide range of genres—with this year alone seeing horror, family-friendly animation, and sports drama. We wanted to uncover what similarities there were between audiences of video game adaptations. To see trends, commonalities, and potential opportunities for the future, we took a closer look at some recent examples; The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Gran Turismo, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, among others.

First, biggest, and 2023’s hero: Mario

No franchise exemplifies quite the turnaround in video game adaptations that Mario does. In 1993, Super Mario Bros. (not to be confused with the very similar 2023 title) was the first full video game to film adaptation. Unfortunately it did not make for a good start… it failed to cover its budget in the box office, and has found its name on many a ‘worst movies of all time’ list over the past thirty years.

And yet, in 2023 The Super Mario Bros. Movie became the highest-grossing film based on a video game of all time, the biggest worldwide opening ever for an animated film, gathering dozens of other accolades and grossing over $1.36 billion during its theatrical run.

With a side-by-side comparison of the films, it’s not hard to see why 2023’s was far more successful — but it also shows how much has changed in 30 years to find such success.

As an animated title, Mario saw a characteristically young audience overall, with more than a quarter of its audience (26%) aged under 12. Among the most similar titles for Mario were other animated films, notably including both Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, with the latter being the most similar audience overall.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie was a particularly massive draw for getting moviegoers into the cinema. 52% of its audience were Infrequent* moviegoers, an enormous 22% higher than the benchmark for all films. Tapping into the infrequent audience is often key to the highest performing box office hits of the year.

Compared to other video game adaptations we examined, Mario had the largest concentration of Infrequent moviegoers among its audience.

Audience frequency for video game adaptations find heavier weighting in Infrequent and Occasional audiences, with the notable exception of Gran Turismo.

Mario also saw very high repeat visitation, with 12% of the audience by week 6 having seen the film 2 or more times, which is double the benchmark of 6% for all movies. This means it not only drew new moviegoers to the cinema, but resonated with a significant subset of the audience who came back to see the movie multiple times.

The surprise from Five Nights at Freddy’s

As a relatively unknown property in the wider pop culture eye, Five Nights at Freddy’s surprised many with just how well it performed in the box office and in audience reactions. Sitting at an odd intersection of horror targeting a younger audience, Blumhouse’s video game title became a phenomenon of its own.

Now Blumhouse’s highest-grossing title, Five Nights at Freddy’s has, at the time of publishing, grossed nearly $300M. Following its surprisingly hit debut weekend, we examined the audience for Five Nights at Freddy’s in detail, finding that it successfully brought in younger audiences, with 47% of its opening weekend audience aged under 25 (a number which has only risen, now at 54% of the audience aged under 25).

Five Nights at Freddy’s also saw an even higher number of repeat visits as it became a social phenomenon among its target audience, with 23% of the film’s audience being repeat visitation by its fourth week. This speaks not only to the impact of Five Nights’s word of mouth, but to the dedicated fanbase who are excited to see the movie on repeat. This is especially notable when Five Nights was released simultaneously for streaming, but still saw such success on the big screen.

With a young and repeat audience, Five Nights at Freddy’s found split commonalities with other horror titles, seeing Saw X, The Nun II, and The Exorcist: Believer among its similar titles, and with animated titles including Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Recent video game adaptations Sonic 2, Mario, and Five Nights all saw younger audiences, with the occasional spike in the 25-44 age range from accompanying parents, but Gran Turismo is once again the exception.

An outlier in Gran Turismo

Five Nights at Freddy's isn’t the only non-animated video game adaptation that has hit the big screen in recent years, and while the intersections of animation and young target audiences are common, they aren’t the only audience interested in these titles.

Gran Turismo is an outlier in recent video game adaptations in several regards; it saw a much older audience than others, much higher frequency, fewer group purchases in favour of single and 2-ticket admissions, and a higher proportion of Premium Large Format tickets. It also, unfortunately, saw less success at the box office than other titles we’ve examined from this year, grossing $121M worldwide over its theatrical release.

Gran Turismo’s audience primarily sits between the ages of 35 and 54, with 37% of the audience in this age range, and a further 20% aged 55+, and where Mario, Five Nights, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 each saw a much more Infrequent audience, Gran Turismo over-indexed with Frequent and Very Frequent audiences at 38% and 7% respectively. It even saw differences of admissions, with more single and double ticket purchases compared to the large number of group purchases for other titles.

Gran Turismo saw the majority of its audience make single or 2-admit purchases, while other video game titles saw more group attendance.

So why did Gran Turismo see these differences?

The clearest difference on the surface is in the genre of the films. Although Five Nights at Freddy’s also sits outside the usual action/adventure genre that most video game adaptations fit into, Gran Turismo is a sports drama—a genre that typically draws older audiences.

Gran Turismo is also notably not a video game adaptation in the same manner as others of recent years. Where The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Uncharted, and others across both film and TV are direct adaptations of video games’ stories, Gran Turismo is a different intersection as a biopic of the true story of Jann Mardenborough going from a video game player to a professional racing car driver.

In many ways, Gran Turismo is much more of a film about a story involving a video game than a video game adaptation. This makes sense as the video game series is also not one known for its use of story or defined characters like Uncharted or The Last of Us might be.

How does video game IP fare differently in animation and live-action?

With Gran Turismo as a live action film and The Super Mario Bros. Movie as an animated title, the question arises between their differing measures of success of whether either format holds a stronger sway over video game adaptations.

Interestingly, some titles have found great success in a combination of the two. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, one of 2022’s top 10 grossing films in the US market, became the highest-grossing video game film of all time until Mario claimed the title this year. Both Sonic the Hedgehog films featured a combination of live action (the majority of the film) and special effects (the character of Sonic, and others), and this style has served it well.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 saw a highly similar audience to The Super Mario Bros. Movie, with 76% of Mario’s audience having seen Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The live-action and animation team-up concept was also used in 2019 with Pokémon Detective Pikachu, which also saw one of the highest recent successes of video game IP in cinema.

All of these titles, as well as the original Sonic the Hedgehog saw very young audiences comprise the majority of their moviegoers, with 31% of Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s audience being aged under 12, and small spikes among parent-aged adults showing it to be a family draw.

Making a faithful adaptation and the role of the audience

One easy-to-miss connection between many of the most successful video game adaptations of recent years has been the involvement of the video game creators in the film production process.

Rather famously, when the first Sonic the Hedgehog unveiled its early stills for the movie, there was enormous upset from the fans at how the beloved character had been depicted, with many citing an uncanny valley effect in a too-human appearance. A year later, after the film was delayed to re-design Sonic’s appearance, its new trailers were met with extreme positivity, and the film—and its sequel—went on to be incredibly successful despite that early (and extreme) negativity.

Mario too sees a similar, if much longer, story between its two films. Following the 1993 original film, Nintendo became extremely wary of licensing its properties for future film uses. But 30 years later, Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, was reportedly “front-and-centre” on the production and co-produced the film, and his involvement certainly had an impact on how faithfully the film depicted the video game characters and world.

This rings true even for TV shows that have seen success. HBO’s The Last of Us was co-created, produced, and written by Neil Druckmann—the writer and director of the 2013 video game. That series even found many shot-for-shot recreations of exact scenes from the video game as well.

Video games open a bright horizon for cinema

It certainly seems to be a new era for video game adaptations in film, with more and more titles licensing for production as titles see great success on the big screen and via streaming. Widely, younger audiences are finding the greatest love for the majority of adaptations, especially among Nintendo properties—which have for many years used nostalgia as a major draw—as the company turns from video games towards more forms of entertainment.

Video games aren’t an untapped well in film, but they certainly have a large pool of inspiring stories with massive fanbases attached. These fanbases, we know now, are highly dedicated, often returning to see their favourite adaptation films over and over again. We already have several titles to look forward to in the coming years, including Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Borderlands next year, and Minecraft slated for 2025.

Most recently, Nintendo announced that a live-action Legend of Zelda adaptation—with Miyamoto attached as he was for Mario—is in the works, which we can be sure to look forward to down the road.

The key to their success of late seems to lie in both the heart and care for the properties being adapted. Video game fanbases are passionate and avid followers, and when films do the stories they love justice, the numbers indicate they will continue coming out to see them on the big screen.

*Frequency is based on a moviegoers' six-month session count:

< 2 = Infrequent
2-5 = Occasional
6-25 = Frequent
26+ = Very Frequent

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