To start our new Commodore Format At The Movies series, here’s a deeper dive into one of Commodore Format’s best ever moments: issue 4’s special about games based on blockbuster films. […]
To start our new Commodore Format At The Movies series, here’s a deeper dive into one of Commodore Format’s best ever moments: issue 4’s special about games based on blockbuster films. This is the story of the little-known but hugely influential Californian man who brought together movie makers and software producers in the ’80s and early ’90s.
It feels like there’s an untold story around every corner of Silicon Valley. For every Apple or Netflix, there’s a Dick Lehrberg. The rarely interviewed Palo Alto resident died in 2015, tragically taking some of the most important video games stories of the industry’s formative years to his grave.
Dick rose through the ranks at US department store Sears to become the chief video game buyer during the industry’s pivotal years of 1980-1982, when the home version of Pac-Man was released. In 1982 itself he joined Activision, where he was credited as an executive producer on Ghostbusters. It was here that he began to understand that power of attaching a license like a movie to a computer game. By 1989 he’d formed Lehrberg Associates, an international software licensing company which hooked up films and TV shows to games publishers around the world. He was a middle man, in essence, connecting the drab offices of Thatcher’s England to the sunshine, glamour and money of Hollywood.
In January 1991 Commodore Format hung out with a bunch of readers to find out what they thought about games based on films. They illustrated Dick’s hunch perfectly: “when you see a great film it makes you want to be there”, said 13-year-old Steve Burke. “And with a C64, you can be.” Michael Jones, an ancient 25-years-old in 1991, noticed that younger teenagers and children like to imitate their heroes. “With C64 games they can actually become these characters”.
So how did Dick go about convincing movie makers to put their latest action flick on stuff like the Commodore? Was it a case of knocking about in Beverly Hills asking every cigar smoker if they had any films they’d like to sell?
“Not quite”, Dick said in 1990. “I get sent a lot of scripts. I get to see them when the films are in development. It’s actually fascinating to see them change as time goes on. It can be very hard to predict how a film is going to be just from looking at the script.”
So how do you make a game resembling the film if the story and characters are always changing?
“Well, once you’ve signed a contract studios are typically very, very open with you. They allow us to visit sets, and the game publisher will get still photos, video clips, everything like that. 20th Century Fox, Universal, everyone – they all realise it’s win-win. You’re helping to popularise their movie and make money.”
Ah yes. Money. How much do you cough up in 1990 to make a computer game about a big film?
“It’s usually anywhere from £50,000 to £200,000”, Dick said. “But for Mirrorsoft’s Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles it was well over that, and that was just for the European rights.” (worth it, though – the game was 1991’s biggest seller for C64 by far – Ed)
So far, so profit-y. But making old computer games about films wasn’t all plain sailing. Dick remembers, for example, that the Back To The Future II guys weren’t happy that the 8-bit games couldn’t produce the exact colours they wanted for Marty McFly’s sprite. Sometimes, in the more legally complex past, you needed separate permission from the actors to make your sprite resemble them (Michael J. Fox is, apparently, an “expensive little actor”).
Dick worked in the games industry well into the noughties, becoming something of a mentor and respected elder statesman. He helped to make the Star Trek series happen in the early 2000s. Known for his infectious sense of humour and inquisitive mind, this new series celebrating C64 movie games is dedicated to an under celebrated and brilliant man without whom the industry would’ve been a less fun place to be. He wasn’t entirely responsible for the phenomenon of Hollywood licensing, but his genius business made it a lot easier for stacks of games to happen. CF