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How ‘Resident Evil’ Beat the Video-Game Movie Curse

In hindsight, launching the video-game movie subgenre with a dismal comedy about Italian American plumbers probably wasn’t a great idea. The disastrous “Super Mario Bros.,” which barely resembled its Nintendo source material, almost spelled game-over for the trend in 1993. Since then, the flops have far outweighed the hits, which makes the astonishing success of the “Resident Evil” series that much more significant.

“It started out as this huge game,” says Clint Culpepper, President of Screen Gems. “By the time we got involved with the first film, it had already sold phenomenal numbers. This was back before people realized how big gaming was going to be.”

To avoid the problems that plagued so many other video-game adaptations, Screen Gems did its homework. “Our research that told us what gamers wanted,” Culpepper says. “We studied how they wanted it to move, how they wanted it to grow. Gamers are very proprietary, and they loved the idea that someone had adapted ‘Resident Evil’ to the screen.”

Culpepper credits writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson as the secret to the films’ success. “Paul is everything to this series,” Culpepper says. “He’s the godfather of the whole franchise, along with producer Jeremy Bolt.”

Jamie Russell, author of “Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood,” agrees.

“Anderson was one of the first people in the industry to realize that games were as valid as novels or comics as intellectual property to be adapted into movies,” Russell says. “He’s one of the Atari kids, weaned on Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man the way that previous generations grew up on Superman and Dick Tracy.”

According to Russell, Anderson’s biggest achievement lies in creating video-game adaptations that cater to a wider audience than just gamers. “He doesn’t slavishly follow the game series,” Russell says. “In fact, the ‘Resident Evil’ movies have become a brand that exists independent of the games.”

Though such game adaptations as “Doom,” “Hitman” and “Max Payne” focused on male heroes with middling results, “Resident Evil” took a decidedly different tack.

“Our research showed that guys like watching women do action,” Culpepper says. “And Milla Jovovich is an action star. You can see that at ComicCon.”

Still, it took some convincing early on. “I don’t think anyone realized that Milla was as athletic, or as good at action as she was, until she started doing a few stunts,” Culpepper says. “From that point on, the series grew as big as her ability to play the character Alice.”

Gladys L. Knight, author of the book “Female Action Heroes: A Guide to Women in Comics, Video Games, Film and Television,” sees Alice as one of the series’ most important elements.

“Alice is part of a significant wave of new female action heroes that emerged during the late twentieth century,” Knight says. “She and her peers represent a major shift in women’s roles within the action film genre.”

No discussion of women in video-game adaptations is complete without mentioning “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” which was released 10 months before “Resident Evil.” Starring Angelina Jolie as the fearless adventurer, the film and its sequel set the bar high for female action heroes. But Knight believes that Jovovich’s Alice is equally important.

“Sometimes, the Lara Croft movies get a bit heavy-handed with their presentation of Lara as being stronger than her male counterparts,” Knight says. “Although Alice is strong and tough, she works as a team with her peers.”

Diversity is another area that Culpepper believes has helped the series beat the odds. Like the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, the “Resident Evil” films feature an ethnically diverse cast, including Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr and Bingbing Li.

“We attract a very mixed audience,” Culpepper says. “You walk a block downtown in any big city, and the percentage of people you pass on the street is probably very close to our opening weekend exit polls.”

Yet with six films spread out over 14 years, how has the series lasted this long?

Culpepper attributes its longevity to one word. “Zombies. There’s just some kind of fascination in our culture with zombies.” He credits AMC’s “The Walking Dead” with helping “Resident Evil” maintain fan interest between installments.

Does that mean a “Resident Evil” television series might be a possibility sometime in the future? “Our TV department is chomping at the bit for one,” Culpepper says. “They want it.”

In the meantime, Sony announced that Screen Gems would distribute a film adaptation of the award-winning video-game “The Last of Us,” a post-apocalyptic adventure pitting survivors against roving bands of flesh eating creatures.

“It’s going to be a big, big movie,” Culpepper says. “We’re looking at tons and tons of games to develop.”

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