Russell Binder has been an entertainment and gaming licensing agent in Hollywood for more than two decades.
As founding partner at Striker Entertainment, Binder’s latest success is the Five Nights at Freddy’s film, based on the games by Scott Cawthorn. Binder was executive producer on the film, which came out from Blumhouse on Peacock’s Universal Studios in October and has generated $299 million at the worldwide box office — even though the game itself first debuted back in 2014.
That kind of success with a game property adapted into a movie is an example of what Binder calls the hub-and-spoke system of entertainment licensing. And it’s also why he’s a speaker on a panel about behind-the-scenes work on IP deals at our upcoming GamesBeat at The Game Awards event at the Grammy Museum in LA Live on the morning of December 7. (Nick Tuosto of Liontree/Griffin Gaming Partners and Jordan Fragen of GamesBeat will also be on the session).
Binder’s licensing and merchandising work generates a lot of money for an entertainment intellectual property, like a game universe, which serves as the center of an IP hub. The spokes are different brand extensions of the universe in other media such as comics, toys, movies and television. It’s what used to be called “transmedia” during the hype phase in Hollywood. Only now, instead of movies, games are at the center of the hub.
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The job of being an insider agent isn’t hard if you’re blessed with having good taste, Binder said in an interview with GamesBeat.
“That’s half the battle,” he said. “Your instincts matter. I make the analogy to a patient in a doctor’s office. The patient has a rash. The doctor sees it and knows what to ask and what to prescribe. When I look at intellectual property, I put on my doctor’s stethoscope and I evaluate.”
Besides Five Nights at Freddy’s, Striker Entertainment has worked in the past with Rovio’s Angry Birds, Skybound’s The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games, Candy Crush Saga, Unidentified, Monsters of California, Day of the Dead, Trivia Quest. It’s also currently working on Creepshow.
And Binder is under option or in development with Dead by Daylight (Blumhouse/Universal) and many more games (about a dozen) and entertainment IPs.
“Russell is one-of-one within the industry. As both a producer and with robust, global licensing programs, he has mastered the art of creating 360 degree adaptation platforms around some of the world’s best intellectual property,” said Peter Levin, managing director of Griffin Gaming Partners and former head of gaming at Lionsgate. “He does so in a contemplative manner that appeals to the most hardcore fans as well as the more casual end user. With IP such as Five Nights at Freddy’s, The Walking Dead, Angry Birds, Dead by Daylight amongst many others, he has the trust of the creators of these IPs, partners for adaptation of the IP and the consumer as well.”
Levin is a friend and frequent collaborator with Binder. Of Levin, Binder said, “I’ve developed a great relationship with him over the years. His biggest rap on me is that I am genuinely humble.”
In that way, Binder isn’t that well known. He said, “I know my place in the ecosystem, and I really value my relationship with my clients. I prioritize that, and, you know, success has many parents. So you can’t take ownership of everything.”
Besides knowing clients, it’s also important to know the people on the other side of the licensing deal, Binder said.
“I think it sometimes the word agent has a bad connotation to it,” Binder said. “If you’re putting your own self interest ahead of your client’s, you’re going to have a very short lifespan. It’s making sure that a deal is a win-win for everybody and that your strategy is to enhance the brand, not your pocketbook.”
He has worked with AMC for years on the entire Twilight Saga, and with Lionsgate on the first Hunger Games movies, as well as Cawthorn for more than eight years.
And it seems like the relationships have paid off with successful game adaptations into movies and TV shows such as The Last of Us and The Super Mario Bros. Movie — the latter has been seen by 169 million people and generated more than $1.36 billion at the global box office.
“I just love the fact that when I started in this business, it was movies and TV shows to games in one direction. Games to movies — except the Riddick film — were never good. Now it has pivoted to more games to film and television and other media,” Binder said.
Binder added, “I really believe this success of these particular projects is because the filmmakers and the financiers and the studios are welcoming the creators into the conversation. They saying to them, ‘You know your fandom and your lore better than anybody. Why don’t we work together and be as faithful as we can?’”
In projects like Five Nights at Freddy’s, that respect for the IP was important.
“It’s not about an opportunity, ‘Let’s maximize it.’ It’s about here’s an opportunity, ‘Let’s honor it,’” Binder said. “I think the timing worked out beautifully. You generally want to be early in the media cycle of a franchise. But Scott [Cawthorn] took his time. He made sure that the story he wanted to tell was aligned with his vision for the what the fandom would want. And I think Jason Blum and the filmmakers were on board with that the entire time.”
Binder said this means there’s a synergy and alignment on creativity. At the start, Striker Entertainment was a partner on consumer products related to Freddy’s. As Cawthorn put out more games, that reinvigorated the fans. And only then did the movie go into production.
“We look at ourselves as an IP accelerator. And what that means, in my view, is we look for great content that has a burgeoning audience. If we’re working with a Star Wars, we run with it. But we’ve had to build a business by finding more nascent IP to make it bigger than it currently is.
The licensing will leverage consumer products, collectibles, location-based entertainment, game publishing, films, TV and comics — all in the name of marketing and expanding the horizon of the brand. Another aspect of Striker’s business is working with rights holders who are thinking about expanding a big IP and taking it into new “spokes” in the system.
Part of the issue in negotiations is always about how hard a rights holder should fight to retain as many rights as possible. On the one hand, there are giants like Disney that can do everything, then there are smaller independent shops like Striker Entertainment (which has around eight people) that work at piecing a franchise together.
Asked if more power should be in the hands of the creators, Binder said, “It’s a balance. I think that there are franchises that would be franchises without the studio resources behind them. And there is some incredible content, a lot of it coming from the gaming space from independent creators in particular, who are smaller organizations, that become huge successes,” like Squanch Games. But the studios are the ones that need to realize that no one knows the fans better than the game creators, he said.
Binder noted that when everything was a two-hour movie or a short TV episode, it was harder to take some of the big stories of 100-hour games and adapt them to the silver screen. But now that there are streaming series on Netflix and other platforms, there is a better match for shows like The Last of Us.
That helps explain some of the modern successes, like Riot Games’ Arcane on Netflix. On the other hand, the challenge with streaming is that people can binge a series all at once and it doesn’t create a long-lasting engagement with the fans in the way that online games do.
“If you have nothing more to share with the gamer or the viewer, then they’re moving on to something else,” he said. “Servicing an audience for games can be amazing. But not everything is going to break out. You still need great characters and a great story. You need the currency of power to make these things work in a media adaptation. And take what I say with a grain of salt. Because if you can take Lego brick and make a movie out of it, that’s the surprise. Still, it helps when you have creators and fans who care about the world and the characters on their journey.”
The recent strikes took their toll on some of the dealmaking between games and Hollywood, but Binder is grateful that Five Nights at Freddy’s came out when it did.
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