For movie studios, the zombie picture has worked with a pretty reliable formula for the last decade.*
You shoot in a limited number of places and stock up on non-stars to keep costs down in the hopes of nabbing a $40 to $60 million gross. Sometimes you get lucky with a Zombieland ($75 million gross), sometimes you get a little unlucky with a 28 Weeks Later ($28 million). But if you play your cards right you’ll fall right into that meaty part of the curve inhabited by the Resident Evil pictures (five entries and counting, all of which have grossed $40 to $60 million domestically**), Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead ($59 million), and 28 Days Later ($45 million).
It’s weirdly consistent.
Brad Pitt’s World War Z (which I reviewed here) has taken the opposite tack. The budget was massive ($190 million according to Box Office Mojo, plus god knows how much in marketing) and its scale was equally huge, with shoots in the Middle East, America, and Wales. The production was famously troubled, with reshoots, script rewrites, and other issues delaying the release by a year and putting sweat on the brow of many an exec.
Will the risk pay off? It all depends on the international markets and whether the film can be turned into a franchise. (Some spoilers about the closing shots of World War Z coming up.)
In the new book Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, longtime producer Lynda Obst writes that the collapse of the DVD market and the failure of Blu-ray/streaming video to fill that void has forced studios to focus on their one growing revenue stream: overseas markets.
"The studios took the [tentpole] formula and ran with it. They were shooting the moon, and often they hit the target," Obst writes. "And when they hit, they hit big. But how and when did they figure all this out? And what, exactly, did they figure out? There seemed to be three key components: 1. You must have heard of the Title before; it must have preawareness. 2. It must sell overseas. 3. It should generate a Franchise and/or Sequel (also a factor of 1 and 2)."
World War Z fits 1, 2, and 3 nicely: It’s based on a popular, best selling book; it stars a guy who sells well overseas***; and it could definitely generate a franchise. The franchise is the key, and here’s where things get interesting: rather than a traditional sequel-based franchise where Brad Pitt stars as U.N. special envoy Gerry Lane over and over again, the studios have a chance to do something innovative with this series.
At the film’s close, we see a series of brief shots of global zombie battles: a battle rages in the streets of Moscow while rural Americans stock up on shotguns and dudes with flamethrowers defend an apartment complex. In a voiceover, Gerry exhorts the surviving humans (of which there appear to be plenty) to fight back and reclaim their homes.
So here’s my idea: In addition to the inevitable Brad Pitt-starring sequel set in America, why not spin off a number of local production deals in foreign countries? World War Z: The Russian Frontier, World War Z: The Great Wall of China, and World War Z: The Defense of Kashmir. Maturing markets each, these flicks could replicate the traditional zombie movie model mentioned above: make them for cheap and watch the money roll in. The American studios wouldn’t even have to make these films: You could sell the rights to homegrown film production companies for a flat fee ($5M?) and a cut of the gross (10% off the top?). Strikes me as a remarkably lucrative, remarkably risk-free stream of revenue.
Maybe I’m overthinking things. But if The New Abnormal is really all about franchises, why not actually run a film series like an actual franchise, a la McDonalds or Burger King?
*You could argue that I Am Legend was a big budget, star-centric zombie movie. But were those really "zombies"? It wasn’t exactly marketed as such, right?
**It's worth noting that the budgets of the Resident Evil films have grown as its foreign grosses have skyrocketed: the latest entry in the series made $60M in the U.S. and $236M overseas.
***For instance: Troy, widely considered a misfire in the States, ended up grossing almost half-a-billion dollars once overseas totals were taken into account.