The contract for the Bioshock movie was written to ensure that the film actually got made – but it did not go to plan.
Whilst there’s some debate about if we’ve now had a film that manages to take what works about a videogame to the big screen – Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, Warcraft and Tomb Raider have come closest in recent times – there are some projects that have seemingly offered more potential than others.
One such game was Bioshock and its sequels, a beautifully cinematic first person shooter set primarily in the underwater world of Rapture. Visually striking, the game was a sizeable hit, and it attracted quick Hollywood attention.
The first Bioshock game landed in 2007, and first rumours of a possible movie came to light early the following year, around six months after the game was released. The touchpoint at that stage was 300, a film that Zack Snyder had steered and enjoyed huge success with, that very extensively deployed greenscreen technology to bring large numbers of its visuals to life. It was felt that similar technology could be applied to a Bioshock film too. That said, a different Snyder film would be cited when the project started to hit troubles.
But I’m getting ahead of my myself. Several months later, all of this was official: Universal Pictures had snapped up the movie rights from 2K Games for a Bioshock film, and it’d recruited Pirates Of The Caribbean director Gore Verbinski to steer the project. At that stage, John Logan had been hired to write the script, and Universal had reportedly stumped up a multi-million dollar advance for the rights, at that stage the biggest deal of its type. Well, save for the abandoned Halo movie, a story for another time.
Tellingly, the boss of Take-Two told Variety back in 2008 that the “state of the art” struck for the film was structured in a way to ensure the movie actually got made, and didn’t meet the same fate as Halo. Universal had been particularly burned by that experience and it too was keen not to waste a lot of time and energy on a(nother) movie that didn’t ultimately get made.
It looked like matters were moving forward at speed. Verbinski was having regular conversations with the game’s creative director Ken Levine, and the plan was that once Logan had delivered his screenplay, pre-production would start immediately.
The PG-13 Problem
The problem was that the Bioshock movie bubbled up at a time when Hollywood was having its PG-13 collywobbles. That any film with an R-rating was considered box office trouble, with 2009’s expensive Watchmen film a notable example.
In the case of Zack Snyder’s adaptation, it had cost around $135m to make, and grossed $185m worldwide. Only in recent times has the film likely moved into the black, but Watchmen struggled at a time when PG-13-rated productions were crossing the $1bn mark at the global box office.
Separately, Universal’s blockbuster bets weren’t paying off. In 2008, both The Incredible Hulk and belated sequel The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor had underperformed. 2009 saw further expensive underperformers such as Public Enemies and Land Of The Lost. 2010, meanwhile, saw Robin Hood (a film that had been shut down to bring its budget down before filming began), The Wolfman (a film that went through a lot behind the scenes) and Green Zone fail to reward expensive bets. Universal was enjoying some hits, but they tended to be lower cost productions. The blockbuster gambles weren’t working (save for the return of Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious).
And Bioshock needed blockbuster levels of expense to justify itself. The first signs of real trouble, then, came in 2009. A 2010 release date had been the original target, before that moved to 2011, to take advantage of the third game’s expected release window. In April 2009, though, came the news that Universal was putting the brakes on the project.
By this stage the film’s budget had ballooned to around the $160m mark – even as high as $200m according to at least one rumour – and given that the game’s material involved injecting plasmids and pretty scary Little Sisters, there was no way to easily tone it down to fit a PG-13 audience. Even today, there’s no studio that would actively spend $160m on the negative alone for an R-rated movie, and Universal very much felt that way a decade ago.
In spite of the fact that funds had been spent, pre-production was underway and that filming was some eight weeks away, the studio blinked and the film was put on hold. Some production staff were let go, and the challenge was on for Verbinski to retool the movie as a more economic project.
One option was to relocate production outside of the US to take advantage of overseas tax credits, and at this stage, Verbinski – who had turned down Pirates Of The Caribbean 4 to make the movie – was committed to making it happen. That said, Universal’s target budget was $80m. There was a lot of money that needed saving.
But by August of 2009, four months after Universal had applied the brakes, Verbinski was gone. He was making the animated movie Rango at the same time in Los Angeles, and being overseas directing a Bioshock film would have hindered that project (which he’d ultimately win an Oscar for). He agreed to stay on board as producer, as 28 Weeks Later director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo entered talks to replace him as director.
However, Ken Levine had been working closely with Gore Verbinski, and – whilst there was no malice – he hadn’t hit it off in quite the same way with Fresnadillo. That, combined with the budget concerns, and the continued pressure to push for a PG-13 rating, led to a decision. Levine was asked by Universal if he wanted to press stop on the project, and he took that option up. The Bioshock movie was dead.
Verbinski for one was mournful of this, and when promoting his subsequent films – Rango, The Lone Ranger and A Cure For Wellness – it’s something he’s constantly asked about.
In a Reddit AMA back in 2017, he opened up a little more, explaining “we were eight weeks prior shooting when the plug was pulled. It’s an R rated movie. I wanted to keep it R rated, I felt like that would be appropriate, and it’s an expensive movie. It’s a massive world we’re creating and it’s not a world we can simply go to locations to shoot”.
And with a firm tip of the hat to Watchmen, he added that “at that time also there were some R rated, expensive R rated movies that were not working. So I think things have changed and maybe there will be another chance, but it’s very difficult when you’re eight weeks away from shooting a movie you really can see in your head and you’ve almost filmed the entire thing, so emotionally you’re right at that transition from architect to becoming a contractor and that will be a difficult place to get back to”.
Fast forward to 2019, and cinemagoers are cautiously embracing the occasional R-rated movie, but even films like Deadpool and the incoming Joker have mitigated the risk by working to a far more modest budget. That, for Bioshock remains a tricky option, and also the videogame franchise itself has lost some of its contemporary success. Its popularity isn’t at the level it was enjoying a decade ago.
Still, more recently, screenwriter Greg Russo – who has penned the now-shooting Mortal Kombat – has revealed that he’s been working on a possible way to bring Bioshock to the big screen. But given the sizeable hurdles, he’s got a formidable task ahead to make it happen. Never say never, though…
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