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“Leonardo DiCaprio” is a name I never thought would appear in this column.

When Hollywood says we’re doing a movie about a living person, it means they bought that person’s life rights. They paid money to the individual for the right to portray their life events in a movie. Included quite explicitly in the contract is the option of modifying, enhancing, abbreviating, shading (or outright making up) events to suit the story as necessary. There can always be negotiations as to how much say the real life person has in the final script or production, but you can count on the fact that ultimately the producers will have final say. Writers need room to maneuver and producers want to be able to adapt anything they want to suit popular trends and culture as they perceive it. After roughly a century of experience, Hollywood has learned how to prevent silly little things like accuracy interfere with the delivery of a high quality entertainment product.

But there it is. “Nolan Bushnell” is a name that makes total sense in this column. So, other than name dropping, what’s my point?

My point is this: Leonardo DiCaprio is about to become relevant to classic gaming by virtue of the fact that he has just signed up to play Nolan Bushnell in an upcoming movie about the Atari founder and the birth of the modern video game industry:

The relationship between movies and video games has always been an incestuous one, and of late it seems they’ve moved into a one room flat together. Having spent some quarter century as a peeping tom into their relationship this latest move raises one major question:

What kind of movie will it be?

We have seen games about movies and movies about games but this is a big budget Hollywood production about the gaming industry. For the first time, the business of game making has actually become entertainment in its own right. As the maker of the first game from a movie license (Raiders of the Lost Ark) I find this particularly interesting.

Another level on which this is interesting proceeds from my experiences creating the documentary series “Once Upon Atari,” (www.onceuponatari.com) which features Nolan Bushnell himself discussing his ideas, insights, goals and plans when founding and establishing Atari. I also got many stories and perspectives from several of the engineers who worked with Nolan and made the games during that exciting time at Atari. I also know first hand many of the legends and lore that could serve as the basis for a most dynamic and compelling film.

Which leads me to a second question: What story will they tell?

Every day in every way games and movies keep trying to get closer together. It is a relationship based upon very human emotions. Game industry leaders have always envied the legitimacy that movies maintain as an art form and as a cultural marker. Movie magnates cast avaricious gazes upon the technology engendered in even the most basic games today, and when they see opening day “box office” numbers like they did for Grand Theft Auto the greed flows freely from their pores. Yes, their relationship evinces all the usual emotions except for the one John Lennon said was necessary and sufficient. . .Love.

For the past few decades video games have been on a quest to achieve reality. They start with something totally contrived and try to make it real. Movies on the other hand have always attempted to deliver everything but reality. They generally start with a kernel of truth and enhance it beyond all recognition. So the idea of a movie trying to represent the reality of the genesis of the gaming industry is self-referentially perverse to say the least.

This perversity is further twisted by the way Hollywood pursues reality. I’ve dealt with Hollywood producers a number of times while working on potential deals for a movie based on my Once Upon Atari documentary. What I have learned from this experience is that there are conventions and standards in movie making. When Hollywood delivers a “true story” you can be sure it’s at least twenty-seven percent true. Unless they say it’s only based on “actual events,” in which case your reality index is venturing into single digits. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. The truth is the departures they make from reality typically do enhance the story. There’s an old expression about writing: “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.” In the course of telling a story writers frequently take liberties to make the recounting more coherent. Writers further need to compensate for the fact that 90-95% of life is dead flat boring. Who wants to pay good money to sit through an accurate retelling of dull events when they could just stay home and be bored for free?

In entertainment it is frequently necessary to improve story lines. The issue, however, resides with the fact that all these departures come from the writers themselves, who may well not have any connection to the original events. And what if this particular reality is coherent and genuinely fascinating to boot? What happens when writers don’t need to embellish? Well. . .they’re writers, they’re going to embellish. And one of the reasons they’ll need to embellish is that when you start off with a life like Nolan Bushnell’s and you cut out the parts that decency, legal restrictions and political correctness demand be cut you wind up with something that needs a little embellishing. You wind up with something that Leonardo will insist on embellishing. Hollywood won’t settle for the sanitized version unaltered.

What’s more, in the interest of the same decent, legal and political considerations, I’m not going to enumerate those cutout moments. For instance, I’m not going to discuss the events that pique the interest of the pharmaceuticals industry. I’m not even going to reference the moments which might draw the attention of the American Association of Sexual Educators. Want to hear me discuss moments of depravity and debauchery? I’d rather naught. All I’m saying is this subject matter is rife with the kind of material that would make any movie sizzle and, knowing what I do, I can assure you of two things. First, this movie will feature many edgy and controversial scenes. And second, those scenes will have precious little to do with the “reality” the movie’s marketing will undoubtedly purport to proffer.

 

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