Why ‘Resident Evil’ Became The Most Successful Video Game-Based Franchise Ever – Forbes
Resident Evil isn’t just a relatively successful B-movie franchise. The five-film series, with a sixth and allegedly final entry opening this weekend, by far the biggest video game-based franchise ever. The first five entries have earned, in North America, $244 million total, meaning it has made 17.5% of all domestic dollars earned by any video game movie. And the first five films have earned a whopping $915m thus far on a combined $248m budget, making it also the biggest horror franchise of all time, just above the cumulative totals of the Saw series, the Paranormal Activity films and the Conjuring franchise. The sixth installment has already earned $35.1m in Japan and, presuming it doesn’t belly-flop, will push the Sony series over the $1 billion mark.
So as the franchise comes to an alleged end, I wanted to take a moment to point out just why it endured for so long. Love it or hate it, the Paul W.S. Anderson franchise is an object lesson in a series that broke out because it was unlike anything else in the marketplace. Back in March of 2002, it was a $33 million-budgeted zombie movie in a time before zombies became a regular part of pop culture. This was before 28 Days Later, before the Dawn of the Dead remake and before Shaun of the Dead or The Walking Dead. It wasn’t just an adaptation of a popular video game, but it was a re-energization of a long-dormant sub-genre that operated as a hybrid (action/sci-fi/horror) that stood out from the crowd regardless of its source material.
The first (and arguably most conventional) installment operated as a somewhat standard “get through a doomed building and try not to die” horror adventure. It involved a bunch of scientists and soldiers trapped in a contaminated building fending off infected folks and trying to discover the how’s and whys of their predicament. Milla Jovovich’s protagonist evolved from a would-be “final girl” to a fully-functional action movie bad-ass. Her “woman with no memory realizes she’s a professional ass-kicker” arc predated The Bourne Identity by three months. The 2002 release ended with Alice exiting the building only to discover that the entire world had been wiped out by a zombie apocalypse. And the next four films became somewhat expanded adventures with Alice and friends kicking zombie butt while trying to defeat the diabolical Umbrella Corporation.
The first film earned $40 million domestic but $102m worldwide on said $33m budget, and two years later we got Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Paul W.S. Anderson wrote all six films, but he would not direct the first two sequels. The first sequel turned out to be Alexander Witt’s only feature credit, and it earned $51m domestic and $129m worldwide on a $45m budget in Sept. of 2004. Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow) directed Resident Evil: Extinction. The desert-set adventure turned Alice into a Mad Max-like figure, a reluctant hero offering her services to a group of desperate survivors. The Sept. 2007 release earned $50m domestic and $149m worldwide on a $50m budget. But the next installment would be where the franchise would go nuts, in more ways than one.
Anderson came back for the fourth installment, and it would be the first one shot in 3D. Resident Evil: Afterlife opened in September of 2010, less than a year after Avatar made 3D the “cool” toy for goosing domestic and especially overseas box office. The fourth film involved a deluge of Alice clones and a bunch of heavily stylized action, moving away from the somewhat “normal” plotting of the first three movies and going a bit freak-flag crazy for the sake of eye-popping visuals and action goodness. It was a trade-off to be sure, but it worked. Resident Evil: Afterlife earned $60 million domestic, a record for the franchise, but then it went and earned $236m overseas for a jaw-dropping $296m worldwide cume on a $57m budget.
Sure, you can argue that some of that from was the 3D boost, but it’s still $296 million worldwide on a $60m budget, which by the way made the fourth Resident Evil movie the second-biggest video game movie of all time, behind only Walt Disney’s Prince of Persia over the same year. That Mike Newell adventure earned $336m worldwide but on a $200m budget. We got Resident Evil: Retribution in Sept. 2012, where it made just $42m domestic but a still robust $240m worldwide on a $65m budget. It, like Afterlife, was less of a coherent feature narrative (much of the film is basically a glorified fighting game brought to live with old/dead characters returning to the franchise), but the action was impressive, and its final shot teased a truly “epic” final showdown.
And now, just over four years later, we’ve got the sixth and allegedly final chapter. It was delayed a bit past the regular “every three years” schedule due to Milla Jovovich having a baby, so we’ll see if the longer-than-usual absence hurts the film here or abroad. But if this is the final chapter, then its would-be box office isn’t terribly material. The franchise, by virtue of its longevity, its already-amassed grosses and post-theatrical earnings and its nurtured fandom, is already a triumph. In the graveyard of video game adaptations, it is the only unquestionably successful video game-based franchise. And if it is to provide a lesson for the beleaguered sub-genre, it is this: Resident Evil succeeded because the fact that it was based on a video game was its least interesting component.
The series succeeded because it stood by itself and required no knowledge of or interest in the source material. That’s not to say it didn’t practice a certain amount of fan service and source fidelity, but it was also accessible to folks like me who never played a Resident Evil video game. To general moviegoers, it was unique because it was a big-scale action horror franchise, a zombie franchise no less, that not only starred a woman but usually had at least two primary female protagonists driving the action. Be it Michelle Rodriguez in the first film, Sienna Guillory in the second, Ali Larter in the third, or some combination of “Jovovich+guests” in the last three, it was always a team effort. Resident Evil was a female-driven action franchise way before such things were a progressive talking point.
The Resident Evil franchise was a zombie movie before zombie movies were cool. It was a financially successful action/horror/sci-fi with not one but many kick-ass female heroes. It was a case of a filmmaker molding a known property to his sensibilities in no different a fashion than Chris Nolan’s Batman movies or Michael Bay’s Transformers films. It was an unapologetically R-rated action series in a PG-13 world. And, like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings or the Matrix trilogy, it is going to come to an end and (hopefully) operate as a complete cinematic story. It is the biggest horror franchise of all time, as well as the longest-running female-driven franchise ever. That it was based on a video game was the least exciting thing about it, which is why it the biggest video game franchise of all time.
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