Last weekend, despite poor reviews, Resident Evil: Extinction dominated the U.S. box office, opening with an impressive $24 million take. That makes it the third hit entry in the Resident Evil franchise, and something even rarer: one of few successful video game-to-theatrical movie adaptations.
There’s been about 20 or so of those in the last 10 years, but by my count, only five* have done well in theaters: The three featuring Milla Jovovich battling zombies, the first Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie, and just squeaking in, the survival-horror pic Silent Hill.
According to movie tracker Box Office Mojo, all of them have grossed at least twice their production budget, roughly the point when movies start to break even. That gives us enough data points to establish several rules of thumb for producers who want to develop future game adaptations:
1 – Develop a property with themes/elements similar to a currently successful movie genre
This attracts an existing audience otherwise unfamiliar with the underlying game. The first Tomb Raider offered fantastic globe-trotting action-adventure, comparable to the James Bond and The Mummy movies, among other recent hits. The Resident Evil trilogy and Silent Hill have strong horror elements, a genre that’s come back into vogue recently with hits like The Ring, Saw, Land of the Dead etc. Like the popular Underworld movies, the Evil movies are also strong on stylized goth-futuristic action.
2 – Feature a hot babe protagonist
A double treat for the teen-to-early-20s demographic, which makes up most of the audience during a Hollywood movie’s opening weekend: The guys are eager to go for the babe ogling, while their otherwise reluctant female dates are slightly more willing than usual to come along because at least there’s a tough chick kicking butt on-screen.
3 – Keep the budget low
Most of these hits were made for $50 million or less, highly economical by Hollywood standards. Tomb Raider’s budget was $115 million, but that’s still on the low side for an action movie. (And thanks to Paramount’s creative financing, the studio only put up $7 million of its own money to make it.)
Like everything in Hollywood, of course, these rules don’t guarantee profitability (the second Tomb Raider sputtered.) More importantly, none of these movies were anywhere close to becoming blockbusters, defined as grossing over $200 million domestically. (By far the most successful of the five with a $130 million U.S.
take, the first Tomb Raider, hardly counts.) This showcases the painful reality that video games simply don’t have the wide appeal to compete in the truly mass market with Hollywood tent poles like Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean. At best, game movies only work as niche operations.
Which brings us to Halo. Unless its underlying IP is drastically changed, a Halo movie would have none of these three qualities. I can’t think of a sci-fi military action movie doing well since 1986’s Aliens, and whose hero was Sigourney Weaver, not a faceless dude in bulky armor. (More worrying, the comparable Doom adaptation with The Rock recently bombed.) Despite this, the announcement that Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson is producing a Halo adaptation (with an estimated $135 million-plus budget) has sent squeals of excitement throughout the hardcore gamer community, easily making it the most anticipated adaptation yet. Microsoft (MSFT) seems to be consciously stoking this excitement with live-action commercials and footage promoting Halo 3. And while I’m a Halo fan myself, this seems like a disaster in the making. The Halo games haven’t even made Xbox the leading console. What makes Microsoft think a Halo movie will do any better?
*Not counting the successful Pokemon movies, which are based on a multi-platform franchise (TV, collectible cards, etc.) and aimed at kids; or direct-to-DVD movies, which operate on a different revenue model; or adaptations directed by the irksome Uwe Boll, whose movies bomb in theaters, but do well for their German investors, since they take advantage of
the country’s questionable tax write-off policies.