Brad Pitt’s Zombie Apocalypse Escapes Box-Office Doom in Rewrite
Brad Pitt’s zombie apocalypse movie “World War Z” is coming back to life.
After soaring costs and script challenges threatened to doom the film, Paramount Pictures re-shot the finale and is now heading into the opening weekend bolstered by positive reviews. The studio also embarked on a marketing blitz that included personal appearances by Pitt to hype the film’s fast-moving zombie hordes that scale walls and invade an airplane in flight.
The reversal could turn “World War Z” into a profitable film and stave off a loss for Viacom Inc. (VIAB)’s film unit. The movie, which cost about $190 million to make, is forecast to open with $45 million in the U.S. this weekend and collect $105 million in total domestically, Boxoffice.com said. Given Pitt’s global popularity, foreign sales could more than double the U.S. take. Studios generally split the revenue with cinemas.
“After the first pass at the movie we found the final 20 minutes were not consistent with the rest,” said Rob Moore, Los Angeles-based Paramount’s vice chairman. “And by putting together a great group of people, they were able to craft something that lived up to the rest of the movie.”
“World War Z” has a 70 percent “fresh” rating on Rottentomatoes.com, a website that aggregates reviews. Of more than 1,000 ticket buyers surveyed by Fandango.com, 87 percent said they weren’t influenced by stories about cost overruns, the online ticket seller said in an e-mailed statement.
“It probably won’t be one of the top 10 films of the summer, but it also won’t be ‘John Carter,’ said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations Co., referring to the 2012 Walt Disney Co. (DIS) flop that lost $200 million. ‘‘They spent more than they should have on a horror film, but if it does well worldwide, they could recoup that.”
Based on the previous Pitt action film “Inglourious Basterds” and zombie movies including “I Am Legend,” “World War Z” probably will make a profit, according to SNL Kagan. The researcher’s forecast is based on cost estimates and projected revenue from theaters, DVDs and the first round of pay-TV and broadcast. Kagan’s formula roughly replicates studio methods for projecting profitability.
“Brad Pitt is a very bankable international star,” Wade Holden, a Kagan analyst, said in an interview. “On average, his films gross more internationally than they do domestically, and with the budget for this film it’s definitely going to have to do well.”
News articles began appearing last year that the production, adapted from Max Brooks’s book, was a plague of its own. The U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper last month put the budget at $400 million, saying the film could become “the most expensive disaster of all time.”
Paramount originally set the production budget at $150 million and ended up at $190 million, a sum that includes state subsidies defraying some costs, according to people familiar with the project. The figure doesn’t include marketing outlays, which can add 50 percent or more to the total expense.
Moore acknowledged in an interview that costs rose as the studio and Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment company struggled with the story. In the book, Pitt’s character is an interviewer who travels the world collecting the oral histories of people who survived a pandemic triggered by a zombie virus.
Each chapter is a different story, told in the voice of the survivor. Pitt and director Marc Forster turned the character into a researcher called on to save humanity by discovering how the zombie virus can be stopped.
After viewing the original version of the film, Pitt and Paramount executives threw out the ending, a massive battle scene set in Russia, and called in a new writer to reshape the movie. They shot 20 minutes of new footage.
Costs also rose because of a decision, before shooting, to expand the scope of a key action sequence showing Jerusalem under siege by zombie hordes. Paramount declined to say how much each change added to the budget.
“The challenge we have is putting something that is compelling and unique on the screen,” Moore said. “And our movie has accomplished that.”
Foreign sales will be crucial to covering the film’s costs, Moore said.
Pitt’s action-adventure “Troy,” released in 2004, opened with weekend sales of $46.9 million in the U.S. and took in $133.4 million in its domestic theatrical run, according to Box Office Mojo. The movie, made for $175 million, collected $364 million in ticket sales outside the U.S. and Canada.
The $70 million action film “Inglourious Basterds” generated a $38.1 million weekend opening and took in $120.5 million in the U.S. The movie, directed by Quentin Tarantino, had total global ticket sales of $321.5 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
The opening weekend gross of “World War Z” will be less important than consumer word-of-mouth, said Bill Mechanic, chief executive officer of Pandemonium Films.
As chairman of Twentieth Century Fox in the late 1990s, Mechanic faced similar press about budget overruns and set problems in the making of James Cameron’s “Titanic.” The film, which cost $200 million, collected a modest $28.6 million in its opening weekend, good enough for first place.
“Titanic” went on to become the top-grossing film in history, with $2.19 billion in sales worldwide, and held that distinction until Cameron broke his own record with the 2009 release “Avatar,” according to Box Office Mojo.
“If ‘Titanic’ proved anything in terms of publicity, it was that if you have the goods, then it is true that there is no such thing as bad publicity,” Mechanic said in an interview. “All Paramount has to do is get it in front of people, because only the press cares about costs.”
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