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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

Maybe Brad Pitt isn't smiling because he knows "World War Z" is doomed to flop this upcoming weekend.

Five reasons why "World War Z" is guaranteed to flop


We're now coming up on the midway point of the summer movie season. We've seen our fair share of hits ("Iron Man 3," "Fast & Furious 6, "Man of Steel"), alongside a number of misses. "The Hangover Part III" wasn't able to win back many viewers from "Part II," the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson search engine comedy "The Internship" was left searching for an audience and I imagine family dinners at the Smith household became very uncomfortable after "After Earth" bombed.

The most predictable and likely largest flop of the year, however, comes out this weekend: "World War Z." Now, this isn't a statement about the quality of the film, as I am holding out hope that it's good. I like Brad Pitt a lot (I think he's easily the most talented half of the Brangelina duo), and the idea of a massively scaled zombie epic could be incredible.

Even if the movie is good enough to bring an captivated tear to George A. Romero's eye, the odds are very much against "World War Z." Here are the five main reasons why this upcoming zombie spectacular is almost guaranteed to be a pain in the neck for Pitt and company by the end of the weekend.

Production nightmare

If you want more detail, give Laura Holson's fascinating and thorough June cover story in Vanity Fair a read, but put simply: Almost everything that can go wrong when making a wannabe franchise starter went wrong.

There's a production company in well over its head. The relationship between director Marc Forster and star Brad Pitt reportedly became heated. The film went through several writers, rewrites and reshoots, and that's before Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard came on to rewrite pretty much the entire last act of the film.

Producers and special effects pros left the project. Hungarian counterterrorism officers even confiscated a batch of prop guns. All of this drama forced the release date to get pushed from last December to now, something that's not uncommon these days but still not a promising sign.

To be fair, most movies have rewrites, reshoots and even on-set problems. The issue with "World War Z" is how public they became. Suddenly everyone knew that the last third of the film was a mess and that Paramount execs were reportedly not very impressed by their screening of the first cut. If the people behind the project weren't happy with what they were seeing, why would film-goers be?

The budget bites

Easily the worst part of the film's production woes, however, is the massive budget. The original budget was $150 million, but the constant reshoots, rewrites and other production issues raised the budget substantially. Paramount has said the budget is now up to $170 million; other estimates put the number above $200 million.

Even if the budget stayed at its original amount, "World War Z" would be a tough bet to make its money back. Zombie movies are notoriously low budget affairs (there's a reason why they're a favorite with aspiring filmmakers). The highest grossing live-action zombie movie to date is "Zombieland," and the 2009 surprise hit still only made $75 million in America. Obviously, not many zombie movies have the scope, the summer placement and the star power of a Brad Pitt to bring in big crowds, but merely exceeding genre expectations won't be good enough for "World War Z." It will have to annihilate them.

It needs a massive opening weekend … or else

This statement could pretty much apply to every blockbuster movie that comes out, but when you're as desperate as "World War Z," it becomes imperative to strike early. If you're looking at Forster's film as a horror movie, then it must have a big opening weekend because horror movies notoriously drop off massively in their second weekend (take this month's surprise hit "The Purge," which plunged from $34 million to $8 million).

But it's not a horror movie, you say; it's a pandemic action movie with horror elements. Well, it's not much better. Competition is tough in the summer for action movies. "Man of Steel" is still around, and next weekend is "White House Down." "Monsters University" also comes out this weekend, a much more reliable-seeming film for moviegoers on the fence on what to see ("Despicable Me 2" and "The Lone Ranger" are right behind too).

Such an overcrowded field means "World War Z" could fade from viewers' minds fast, so a solid start (at worst) is needed. That's a big thing to ask of a movie that, despite its big name star and epic spectacle, still has fairly niche audience appeal.

It's rated PG-13

I've never run a movie studio, much less worked at one. I imagine if I did, however, there would be a golden rule stating, "Thou shalt not spend $200 million dollars on a R-rated movie." The normal target audience for a summer action movie is young males, and an R-rated pretty much kills that. So from a straightforward business angle, forcing a PG-13 rating on "World War Z" makes sense.

The problem is that it's a zombie movie, and zombies aren't exactly known for their cleanliness and eating etiquette. They are rotting, dead humans who eat human entrails and brains. The only way to kill them traditionally is to behead them. These are not things that make it into PG-13 movies. It's a lose-lose situation for Paramount. If it's R, they lose a ton of desperately needed younger moviegoers. If it's PG-13, they alienate their key fan base.

When I point out the issues "World War Z" is facing, the most common response is, "Zombies are in! Look at 'The Walking Dead!'" True, but if audiences think that they can get grittier zombie action on AMC rather than at an AMC (or any other theater; I just enjoyed the wordplay), the odds are good they will stay home. After all, a toothless zombie isn't much of a zombie.

It's reportedly far different from the book

Max Brooks's "World War Z" didn't just become a hit because he timed it nicely with a zombie pop culture renaissance. The story structure – looking back and recalling a global war with a zombie horde that took over the globe – was very different and made for a new take on the genre. All signs, however, point to that structure having nothing to do with Forster's film.

Of course, changes always happen between book to film, and admittedly the flashback "oral history" that made the book so interesting would have been tough to translate to the bring screen, especially in summer action movie form (it'd almost have to be a mock Ken Burns documentary).

It just a little disappointing that it was almost entirely abandoned, and fans of the book might hold a grudge, and therefore hold back their business. And if you're Paramount, nothing is scarier than zombie fans choosing not to see "World War Z."

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