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Grand Theft Auto could be Hollywood's biggest summer competition

Nick Lewis ,  Canwest News Service

Published: Monday, April 28, 2008

Tuesday's release of Grand Theft Auto IV is expected to be so big, there's a real concern in Hollywood that the video game could dampen the box office for the May 2nd release of Iron Man.

With projected sales of $400 million in its first week alone, Rockstar Games' long-awaited sequel could set a precedent - one where Hollywood begins browsing video game release dates to check for conflicts.

"This will be the first major release in what is considered Hollywood's summer movie period, and if there's any title that could put a dent in box office for a major movie, it's Grand Theft Auto," says Victor Lucas, host and producer of TV's Electric Playground.

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"This is one of the biggest franchises in the history of the industry, so it's going to be one of the biggest weeks we've ever seen," adds Jason Anderson of Xbox Canada. "If those guys (in Hollywood) are smart, they'll be keeping an eye on us."

The last big launch in the gaming industry, Halo 3, made more than $300 million in its first week of release in September 2007, and relegated that week's big movie, Ben Stiller's $60 million comedy The Heartbreak Kid, to just a $14 million opening. 

While Halo 3 was only available on the Xbox 360, GTA IV will also be released on the PlayStation 3, allowing for a much wider fanbase. It's predecessor, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, is the best-selling video game in the U.S. with 8.6 million copies, 21.5 million worldwide.

And so it's little wonder gaming giant Electronic Arts - the biggest video game company in the world - has repeatedly tried to buy out Rockstar parent group Take Two Interactive Software Inc.. To get an idea of how big GTA IV may be, Take-Two has repeatedly declined EA's offer of $2 billion, saying the figure is too low.

The first trailer for GTA IV went online in March 2007, and the hype has been building for over a year. And though the game has yet to be released, the backlash has already begun.  Two dozen people were shot last weekend in Chicago, and a Fox News affiliate in the city ran a story blaming the violence specifically on GTA IV ads on the side of city buses.  But Rockstar Games is used to playing the scapegoat and has anticipated a media backlash surrounding the release of GTA IV.

"I expect it because we've had so much of it in the past," Rockstar founder Dan Houser said at a recent game demonstration in North America. "I wish people would treat video games the same as other media. They seem to not want to do that for reasons that I don't understand. It's a convenient enemy for people."

The Grand Theft Auto franchise has been blamed for a number of highly publicized violent acts across the U.S., including the Red Lake High School Massacre in 2005 that saw 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise shoot and kill seven people on his Minnesota school's campus. Florida attorney and anti-gaming activist Jack Thompson claimed on Fox News that Weise "rehearsed for the massacre by playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in order to get his heart-rate down and be able to kill."

He also told MSNBC.com, "This is not rocket science. When a kid who has never killed anyone in his life goes on a rampage and looks like the Terminator, he's a video gamer."

A U.S. Secret Service study from May 2002 found that only 12 per cent of those involved in school shootings were attracted to violent video games, while 24 per cent read violent books and 27 per cent were attracted to violent films. An Australian study from March 2007 found that only children already predisposed to violence were affected by violent games.

"The GTA franchise pushes the limits, part of the appeal is that it shocks you, takes you by surprise, and gamers would be disappointed if it didn't," says Geoff Keighley, host of GameTrailers TV. "But that makes it a lightning rod for criticism, and because it's so popular, mainstream media keeps circling it, looking for a way to tear it apart.

"I know when the game comes out, there'll be one item - drunk driving or a controversial cutscene - that'll get blown out of proportion. What's interesting is that if Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez were to have some of the same action in their movies, they'll be heralded, but if Grand Theft Auto does it, it's somehow corrupting the youth of America."

Grand Theft Auto IV, like its predecessors, carries a strict "Mature" rating, and will sell well because the average gamer is 33 years old, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. Still, there is a fear that the game could reach the hands of those under 18 through online torrent sites, where pirated copies of the Xbox 360 version are already available.

"The more popular the game, the more likely it is that it will be pirated, the same way it is for a major album release," says Keighley. "The difference between a game and music file, is that it's very easy to download an album, but as far as I know, you need a (modified) Xbox 360 to play (a pirated copy of GTA IV), you have to jump through hoops to do it.

"Piracy may bite into sales, but the vast majority of gamers are going to go out and buy it on Tuesday."

There are also other ways for underage gamers to get the title. Gaming site What They Play conducted an informal poll with teenagers planning on getting the title, and their responses ranged from "I am mature... (my parents will) buy it for me," to "the doorman in our building will buy a stack of them, and then we'll buy it from him."

The Grand Theft Auto franchise has traditionally fared well in the face of criticism, selling 70 million units so far, and Keighley says any backlash could help drive sales of the title.

"The backlash may help sales, but don't forget, this is a phenomenal game," he says. "I've covered many controversial titles over the years that get mainstream attention, but if they aren't good, they won't sell."

As for the quality of GTA IV, the few that have played it say it is worth the hype. The first person to finish GTA IV is Xbox World 360 editor Rob Taylor, who played the game at Rockstar offices in March for three straight days.

"Obviously, you can't make everyone happy all of the time," he told Games Radar magazine, "but if any GTA fans aren't happy with IV, they need to take a good long look at themselves."


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