That time Rockstar turned down a Grand Theft Auto movie starring Eminem

Eminem circa 2001.
(Image credit: Bob Carey / La Times via Getty.)
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Hi! My name is… anonymous 3D protagonist? In the early 2000s, Grand Theft Auto was transitioning from being a minor 2D hit (and tabloid cause celebre) into a cultural phenomenon. A new BBC podcast featuring Kirk Ewing, who worked on games including State of Emergency and Earthworm Jim 3D, touches on this period and what was going on: and the startling idea that a GTA movie starring Eminem was once on the table.

State of Emergency was published by Rockstar, and Ewing was a friend of Dan and Sam Houser, the pair who (along with Leslie Benzies) drove GTA's rise to prominence. Ewing says that, after GTA3 had released and was a massive success, the offers began to fly in from Hollywood: and one in particular lingers in the memory.

"I think at that point it was still in Sam's mind that [a GTA movie] might be something that he wanted to do," said Ewing, before going on to recall a time he and Houser stayed up late discussing the prospect. Ewing says he was called at 4am by a Hollywood producer with an offer.

"He said, 'Kirk we've got Eminem to star, and it's a Tony Scott film [director of Top Gun and True Romance]. $5 million on the nose. Are you interested?' And I phoned up Sam and I said, 'Listen to this. They want Eminem in the Grand Theft Auto movie and Tony Scott to direct'.

"And he said: 'Not interested'."

This is more plausible than it may seem from a 2022 perspective. Grand Theft Auto 3 was released in late 2001, with Vice City following a year later. Eminem's career was in its absolute pomp around this era, with the Marshall Mathers LP (2000) and The Eminem Show (2002) global smash hits, and the rapper would prove his acting chops with 8 Mile (2002) which was a critical and commercial hit (as well as winning an Oscar for the song Lose Yourself). The star was as hot as you get and, frankly, his image aligned with the popular perception of GTA at the time. 

The Housers were beginning to realise, however, that GTA was not just a smash hit game, but something that could become a part of the culture. It was potentially bigger than Hollywood.

"They realised that the media franchise that they had was bigger than any movie that was going on at the time," said Ewing. As it grew GTA would simply incorporate Hollywood talent, though amusingly enough this came with a few spats along the way.

Infamously the late Ray Liotta starred in GTA: Vice City and, post-launch, bemoaned he'd taken a low fee for such a successful product. Sam Houser's reaction was simple. Liotta's character, Tommy Vercetti, never appeared in a Rockstar game again (he is mentioned briefly in the final mission of San Andreas).

Eminem has recently appeared in GTA thanks to his musical talents, on the Dr Dre track Gospel that was included in a GTA Online expansion (opens in new tab). Recently the rapper has also been suckered into the whole NFT thing, to the extent he and Snoop Dogg did a performance as ape avatars: which went as well as you'd expect (opens in new tab).

Grand Theft Auto's doing rather well without a Hollywood tie-in, it has to be said, and indeed the prospect now seems faintly laughable. The Housers were right, is the thing. GTA is bigger than any movie ever could be, not in terms of money (though that's true: it's the highest-grossing entertainment product of all time) but in cultural impact. A movie starring Eminem is fun to think about but, let's be honest here, it probably wouldn't have done the star or the game any favours.

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."