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Does 'World War Z' Need To Make $400 Million To Break Even? Vanity Fair Looks At The Runaway Brad Pitt Zombie Movie

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by Edward Davis
April 30, 2013 3:02 PM
24 Comments
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Paramount must be annoyed. Just a few weeks after the Entertainment Weekly piece on the much-maligned Brad Pitt-starring "World War Z" zombie movie played down the signal to noise ratio on the “troubled production,” Vanity Fair has jumped into the fray, dredging up more of the dirt on this runaway-freight-train of a blockbuster. To be fair, the "World War Z" story seems complicated, a series of many small and medium size issues snowballing into a near-disaster of a production, but in comparison, EW's feature is kind of a damage-control-y "nothing to see here, please disperse" response.

That doesn't mean one is more correct than the other and in all fairness, the VF piece isn't filled with major pieces of dirt, but it does tell a bigger picture about what went wrong. But in the interest of brevity, we've tried condensing the sprawling feature into its key points. And the big takeaways from all of this are that a lack of leadership, inexperience and a confluence of mistakes caused an excessively costly tentpole that, according to the magazine, will need to gross $400 million to break even. Mild spoilers below, but keep in mind this film is intended to spawn a franchise for Pitt and Paramount.

“No one came to me and said, ‘You are fucking up here,’ ” director Marc Forster said. “So if there are any budgetary issues, they are not my issues.”
1. J. Michael Straczynski's initial script was tossed out for something more action driven.
While the geo-political elements of "World War Z" were ostensibly what brought Pitt's Plan B production company to outbid Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way for the rights ($1 million is the rumor) to Max Brooks' book in the first place -- the idea of how would world leaders react to a pandemic and what those consequences would be? -- in the end they went for something action-y and tossed out Straczynski’s script. Evidently, Marc Forster was looking to redeem himself in the action-franchise realm after the critically despised "Quantum Of Solace" so he gravitated towards bigger, louder and stronger. And so did everyone else, Pitt included.

“Marc wanted to make a big , huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge set pieces in it," Straczynski, the creator of “Babylon 5” told Vanity Fair. “If all you wanted to do was as empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?”

They hired Matthew Michael Carnahan ("State Of Play," "Lion For Lambs") and his more action-y script finally met Pitt's approval and was greenlit. Before that, Straczynski tried to write another draft that he tried to make more palatable to Forster’s aims. Evidently it still wasn’t enough in the direction they ultimately chose to go according to the writer. “They slammed the door in my face so hard it came off the hinges,” he said.

2. However, everyone chased their tail and ended up with what they started with: a more thoughtful drama with an emotional finish.
Much has been made about the Russian set ending in "World War Z" (the film has three main settings, Philadelphia, Israel and Russia). The gist of it: In Russia, humans are kept as slaves, presumably to stave off the hordes of zombies -- and the original climax of 'WWZ' has Pitt freeing these slaves and enlisting them to fight off and kill the zombie army off with "lobotomizing" sheaths that take off zombies' heads. It was evidently a huge set piece (taking up almost 15 minutes of the film) and super expensive, but there were three essential problems:

a) These sequences were gruesome and veered close to an R-Rating whereas 'WWZ' was contractually obligated to bring in a PG-13 ("The question was: how graphic can it be and get that rating?” one source questioned).
b) They showed Pitt in an unsympathetic light as a savage zombie killing leader. 
c) It didn't reunite Pitt with his family and had no payoff. The film starts out with Pitt having to abandon his family to help save the world and this version -- hoping he could find them in the next movie -- didn't reunite him with his wife and kids, but that left for a cold and bleak ending that concluded with an emotionally hollow and bloody victory with no emotional resolution.

3. Classic mistake #35 was going into production with a third act that no one was satisfied with.
“The script felt good, maybe not great,” Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman told the magazine. “You have to figure out the third act,” Pitt is quoted as telling someone. “We started shooting the thing before we locked down how it was going to end up, and it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,’” Damon Lindelof, brought in to rewrite the third act said, quoted Brad Pitt saying to him.

Maybe green lighting a $150 million dollar tentpole without an ending that no one loves is not the wisest decision on earth -- how does this still continue to happen? Paramount contends the movie cost $175 million with reshoots ballooning the budget to around -- $200 million (no one wants to commit to a final figure obviously). But sources and rival studios say the actual cost is anywhere from $210 million to $250 million. Slapping promotion and advertising on top of that (say $50 million conservatively) 3D conversion ($8-15 million), this movie is going to have to be a huge global hit to just break even (in the plus $400 million mark).

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24 Comments

  • V G | May 31, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    Let me get this straight--- they threw out Straczynski's scrypt-- they threw out the source material and they don't want to offend China by including a pivotal part of the original story....yeah.. I think I will just buy the book.

  • Dan | May 7, 2013 1:56 AMReply

    "Evidently, Marc Forster was looking to redeem himself in the action-franchise realm after the critically despised".

    Actually it didn't receive bad reviews. Reviews weren't great, but they weren't negative.

    Audiences didn't like it as much though.

  • Dr.Movie | May 6, 2013 12:33 PMReply

    Well if the budget is really $400 Million they need to make by far more to break even!
    Marketing, distribution etc etc gets added to the bill so for breaking even, it has to be by far more.
    And btw there are other movies with a "real" budget of $400 Million.

  • Jeff Mclachlan | May 2, 2013 1:53 AMReply

    I don't hold up much hope for this being any good (and I anticipate the Mark Forster will be in director jail for a LONG time after it comes out), but I think with international it might be able to crack $400 million. Just.

  • Sad Rockstar | May 1, 2013 2:53 PMReply

    This is going to be a shitty ass movie. Ill wait until it arrives on netflix.

  • Jeff Mclachlan | May 2, 2013 1:55 AM

    Why would you watch a shitty movie on netflix? There's lots of good ones on there too.

  • Malcolm | May 1, 2013 8:44 AMReply

    The real reason for the remake is that the producers did not want to offend China.

    All references to China being the source of the zombie plague had to be removed from the film. This changes the whole idea of the book.

    Hollywood made a bad decision by trying to suck up to China.

  • Malcolm | May 1, 2013 8:44 AMReply

    The real reason for the remake is that the producers did not want to offend China.

    All references to China being the source of the zombie plague had to be removed from the film. This changes the whole idea of the book.

    Hollywood made a bad decision by trying to suck up to China.

  • Malcolm | May 1, 2013 8:44 AMReply

    The real reason for the remake is that the producers did not want to offend China.

    All references to China being the source of the zombie plague had to be removed from the film. This changes the whole idea of the book.

    Hollywood made a bad decision by trying to suck up to China.

  • Donella | April 30, 2013 8:47 PMReply

    No wonder Max Brooks distanced himself. Sounds like a real cluster.

  • Sax | April 30, 2013 7:38 PMReply

    Stellar reporting!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | April 30, 2013 7:22 PMReply

    I got more of a Alan J. Pakula vibe from the book than a Michael Bay "stuff explodes and shit" vibe. Oh well. When I heard Brad Pitt was attached I thought "Contagion," but with zombies. I guess the studio was going for "John McClane, Zombie Hunter."

  • fanboyzero | April 30, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    Looks like Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

  • PHILLIPS_WAS_RIGHT | April 30, 2013 6:48 PMReply

    Let's say it actually costs 200M, then add 100M in WW marketing and you've got 300M sunk into this. Man of Steel opens the week before and White House Down opens the week after. This has disaster written all over it. Overseas grosses need to be insane to salvage this thing.

  • PHILLIPS_WAS_RIGHT | April 30, 2013 6:47 PMReply

    Let's say it actually costs 200M, then add 100M in WW marketing and you've got 300M sunk into this. Man of Steel opens the week before and White House Down opens the week after. This has disaster written all over it. Overseas grosses need to be insane to salvage this thing.

  • Denise | April 30, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    "Our movie is in trouble! Let's call the guy from Lost. I heard he rewrote Prometheus and it is great!" said a Paramount source.

    Geeeeeez. I'll be surprised it turns out to be decent.

  • Abe | May 1, 2013 10:36 AM

    If there's one thing that wasn't satisfying from Prometheus and Lost it was the endings. He's great at setting things up (the polar bear, the architects) but his resolutions are a bit disappointing.

  • dan | April 30, 2013 6:19 PMReply

    One more thing. "Paramount must be annoyed."
    If Paramount is annoyed then why did they let VF speak to Adam Goodman, President, Paramount Film Group and Marc Evans. President of Production, Paramount Film Group?
    They must have had Brad Grey's approval to talk to VF.

  • dan | April 30, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    $200M production budget plus $50-60 marketing means closer to $500M to break even

  • CARY | April 30, 2013 6:27 PM

    and... they have to spend much more than $50-60M for marketing to compete in very crowded summer.

  • Gittes | April 30, 2013 3:36 PMReply

    The J. Michael Straczynski drafts are utter crap, just a complete void. Don't believe his lies.

  • Gittes | April 30, 2013 3:35 PMReply

    The J. Michael Straczynski drafts are utter crap, just a complete void. Don't believe his lies.

  • torre | May 1, 2013 7:26 PM

    his draft wasn't perfect, but it was light years ahead of the final product.

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    Can you just imagine if an indi-producer/director like George A. Romero had to put up with this shit at the time of filming 1978's "Dawn of the Dead"? (He did in fact have to put up with a lot of bullshit on "Day of the Dead" including budget issues directly related to it's X- or "unrated" violence and a host of other issues that were mainly producer-oriented).

    "Gee, George, we'd like to see only PG-rated violence, no beheadings, no dismemberment, no chewing, no bloodshed at all if you can swing it." "Gee, George, your ending doesn't work... Too dark, nobody really gets away in a triumphant way, the zombies kinda win... how depressing is that, George? Can you reshoot it so that Fran meets up with her family at the end for the birth of her baby, and maybe Peter can meet up with that "brother" of his... whaddya say, George?"

    Needless to say, "World War Z" is a lost opportunity to film a fantastic book by Max Brooks... it could have had a 70s political-thriller flavor to it, and instead they opted to shoot Michael Bay styled crap with a Spielbergian saccharine sweet ending. I'll be avoiding this one when it's out.

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