Last Friday, STX Entertainment purchased the rights to Hardcore, the first-person action film that has critics calling it everything from one of the most inventive action films in many years to vulgar, boring, and embarrassing. This deal came as a big surprise for many people, considering that STX Entertainment had previously been focused on growing its own stable of self-produced films and that the final cost of the deal – over $10 million and the guarantee of a wide release – was more than expected given the film’s controversial first-person cinematography.
It seems like every few years a filmmaker gets it into his or her head to shoot a film entirely in the first-person perspective. Last November, as the crowdfunding campaign for Hardcore was blowing up, our own Christopher Campbell explored some of the history of the first-person film and weighed in on its appeal (or lack thereof). But while we may tend to bring up the same film touchpoints while discussing the first-person movie – The Lady in the Lake and Doom are often some of the first examples to be mentioned – the first-person approach doesn’t seem like the same gimmick it might have a few years ago. As the line between video games and film continues to blur – and our own expectations of how we interact with media changes – we might look back and think that STX Entertainment was ahead of the curve rather than behind a gimmick.
On first glance, a movie like Hardcore might seem like an odd marriage between the aesthetics of a first-person shooter and the lack of control that comes with any feature length film. Look a little deeper, though, and you might see that the video game industry has been inching towards a film like this for years now. In August of 2014, the management team of Twitch.tv – a video service built around live video game streams which is fully integrated into next generation platforms – was celebrating selling their company to Amazon for close to a billion dollars. Built on the popularity of individual accounts and group events (look up the beautiful anarchy of the ‘Twitch Plays’ series when you have a chance), Twitch helped move both eSports and the celebrity streamer into popular culture. When South Park devotes an entire storyline to your cause, you know that you’ve effectively made it into the mainstream.
And while South Park may have joked about the decision to watch a game be played when you could just play it on your own, there are valid reasons to think that Hardcore might be a good target for crossover success. First, there is the size and connectedness of the audience. If HBO announced plans to wrap up its run of Game of Thrones with a two-hour movie, few would worry that the television audience would follow the series from the small screen to the big. Now consider that Twitch was responsible for more peak internet traffic in 2014 than HBOGo or even Facebook. Granted, not all of these users may not all have been tuned in to watch first-person shooters, but even last month, three first-person shooters ranked among the top ten at Twitch in terms of minutes watched. If STX Entertainment can leverage some of the immediacy of a Twitch stream – find a way to capitalize on the shared experience of watching a first-person shooter through their various social media platforms – then Hardcore could see reasonable success as a facsimile of the Twitch experience.
Even ignoring the Twitch comparison, there are valid video game reasons to think that Hardcore might hit the right intersection of game and film culture for audiences. In the early 2000s, video game scholar James Newman wrote a paper discussing communal aspects of seemingly single-player games. One of his particular areas of focus was the role of people who watch the game but don’t necessarily want the hands-on experience of playing. “The secondary-player role is frequently taken by players who like the idea of games but find them too hard,” Newman wrote, “and is just one example of the ways players appropriate videogame experience in manners often not intended by producers.” These people will sit down alongside the player – or, increasingly, tune into their Twitch or YouTube account – and experience many of the same gameplay emotions (fear, frustration, excitement at completing a task) all without stepping outside of the observer role.
This opens the door for audience members to enjoy first-person narratives in much the same way. It’s easy to suggest that audiences will reject a film that looks like a video game, but it may be more accurate to say that they will engage with it, albeit in a slightly different manner. It is not an issue of complete control or complete lack of control; people who are used to watching video games – either in person or via a streaming service like Twitch – are also used to a blended viewing experience that draws upon both these gameplay and film emotions. The parts of Hardcore that draw attention to its own artifice will encourage people to connect to the control aspects and the ways that the filmmakers and actors were able to complete the tasks necessary to create the perfect shot. And the parts of Hardcore that downplay the first-person perspective in favor of story and plot will allow the audience to relate in a more traditional manner. It may be a slightly less cohesive experience than movie audiences are used to, but for both casual and heavy gamers, this juggling act is nothing new.
Until the movie is released for more than the film festival crowd, we will have no way of knowing whether Hardcore has what it takes to cross over to mainstream audiences. As a concept, though, this feels like the right time for a studio to take a risk on something that might bring in the Twitch crowd. If Hardcore manages to be even a modest crossover success for both film and video game audiences, it might be one of the surprise hits of the year. And you can be sure that when the STX Entertainment management team finally signed off on the purchase, it wasn’t because the sales rep made a convincing comparison to the 2012 Maniac starring Elijah Wood.