Interview: Jim Veevaert and Jay Cohen

Interview: Jim Veevaert and Jay Cohen

As a producer, Jerry Bruckheimer (pictured on the right above) makes the kind of movies that critics tend to compare to videogames. Now that he’s opening his own development studio in partnership with MTV Games, the man who told audiences everywhere to put the bunny back in the box is coming full circle.

The first round of hirings certainly suggests a serious intent, with Jim Veevaert (pictured on the left above), who previously managed the Halo, Viva Pinata and Gears of War franchises for Microsoft coming onboard as the president of production, and Jay Cohen (middle above) who looked after Ubisoft’s North American subsidiary joining as president of development. We caught up with them both to discuss cross-platform game design, thin publishing models, and the lessons learned from Hudson Horstachio.

What tempted you to take a risk on a new studio?
Jay Cohen For me it was three opportunities: working with Bruckheimer, working with Jim, and working with MTV Games. I really believe we’re starting to see a transformation in traditional publishing that allows for a thin publishing model to be highly successful. We aim to create rich intellectual properties, and in order to do that you need heavy experience, heavy resources, and focus. This combines all of that – MTV is talking to the widest audience across its platforms, Bruckheimer and his teams bring an extraordinary talent in storytelling, and, with our experience, we felt we were more than comfortable with our track record in knowing how to deliver hits.

How does a thin publishing model work?
Jim Veevaert We’re a team of creative executives. We’ll be co-developing IPs with external development teams, and we’re not planning on bringing on an internal production team per se. We’re going to work internally with the creative people in the film group and the television team – it makes sense for us to work together collectively – but we’ll then be working with external development teams to make the games.

With the economy shrinking and the games sector suffering, is this the right time to launch a new studio?
JV This is the opportunity right now to focus on the future. Whenever times get challenging like this, now’s the time when you make the investment, now’s the time when you work to find the right teams, the right projects, and the right infrastructure so that we’re ready. If we wait two or three years before getting things started, it will be too late.

Will you be focusing on licenses or new IP?
JC We’re very focused on creating original IP and creating franchise developments from that. That’s the unique point about our studio structure. Our aim is to be heavy in talent and lighter in step. We’re not looking to create a 5,100-person team. We want to be as reactive and effective and efficient as possible instead. We’re not going to burden ourselves with a heavy footprint; when you’re making a creative venture and trying to do new ideas, you need experience and talent instead, and that’s what’s got to rise to the forefront. This model enables us to do that.

In terms of new IP, are we seeing a trend with products like Dead Space where the game creates the franchise and films and comics then follow?
JV The best part about working with Jerry Bruckheimer is that the focus is on telling great stories. We can take a look at any intellectual property that we develop and make a decision – here is the part that makes sense to make a game; here’s the part that makes sense to possibly become a film or a television show. We can make that decision holistically across the whole team, and then work with MTV Games to decide how to distribute it. Do we want to digitally distribute it? Do we want to work with MTV networks across the board? So it’s a full-scale partnership and that’s why we think we can do this differently. We’re not trying to say we’re going to do it better. We’re trying to say that we’re going to take a different approach, and look at it from a big picture point of view. Between Jay and myself we have over twenty-five years of experience. We’ve worked on the biggest franchises, and we’ve worked in all aspects, including production, including development, sales, marketing, publishing. We’re thinking about how to work creatively within Bruckheimer’s organisation, how to bring Jerry’s impact into the games space.

Do you think anyone else has done cross-media development well up to this point?
JC People are starting to realise the importance of developing synergies across medium within one IP. This approach is continuing to iterate on that. When you look at creating an original property, what’s the story? We aim to work with the best storytellers in the business. How do you tell the story? We’re looking at ways cross-medium to do that, and we have the outlets to reach our audiences at the point of inception. That’s what’s really unique about this. It’s not about, after the fact, thinking, “Oh, that would have been a great idea, let’s make a phone call and call Hollywood and get a film made of this game!” It’s totally not that. When you come to market, imagine utilising all the interactive platforms available today, and delivering story before, during, and after the release of other portions. We need to be at the intersection of creativity across the medium, and the strength of Bruckheimer’s production studios can actually deliver that.

Does coming out with a lot of products spread the risk of launching a new IP, or does it actually maximise it? If the project fails, haven’t you lost money not just on a movie, but on a whole range of different products?
JC That’s making the assumption that they all come out at the same time. That will be a decision for the creatives: how we leverage and utilise the mediums. For example, we’ve been asked before if we’re focusing on one platform or the high-fidelity systems, and we’re focusing on all the systems. It’s what’s best to optimise your connection and your reach to your target audience.

JV And with the size of the organisation, we’ll be able to make decisions quickly. We can move very fast and redirect as needed, and that’s part of the creative process.

What can we expect to see in the next few years?
JC We’re aiming at innovating in not just the product we bring to market but how we come to market in five years. We don’t need to come to market next year, and we’re not prepared to do so. We’re prepared to look three-to-five years down the road and ask, how will the entertainment landscape look, and how can we be positioned now to deliver on that?

With cross-medium releases in the past, the game has often been the poor relation. Is that still going to be a problem?
JV That’s the whole point, really. We feel that in the past it’s been a challenge for teams to recreate that filmic experience or that game experience in a film. Now we’re looking at how to look at it up front: what’s the right process, and where does it make sense for this IP to change mediums? At Microsoft I worked on Viva Piñata, and the idea of doing a television show came after the fact, or halfway through production. That was sort of the beginning for me. That and the work I did on Halo was the education of, “Okay, we really need to think this picture through at the beginning, before we get too far down the road. How can we make this make sense?” We were still very pleased with Piñata, it was a fantastic production, but now we’re starting to look at the possibilities for when you start up front: okay, let’s think about this in a way that makes sense five years down the road. I learnt a lot about how to integrate that idea early on. That’s not always right for a property, but we’re always going to be looking at those opportunities as we develop these projects.

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