Remember all the doomsaying way back when (up until about three days ago) that Brad Pitt's zombie epic "World War Z" was doomed to be a flop?
There was all the negative buzz about the troubled production (which cost a reported $190 million and included extensive last-minute reshoots of a new ending), the six-month delay from its initial release date (also never a good sign), and the fanboy complaints about how much the movie, especially with its new ending, differed from the Max Brooks book that was its source. Besides, Pitt has never been a summer blockbuster kind of star, and his effort to make himself one at all costs a quarter-century into his career reeked of hubris (he produced the film, too) and was probably doomed to failure. Opening against a Pixar movie, there was no way "World War Z" was going to make more than $50 million out of the gate.
And yet, the doomsayers were all wrong. The movie opened very strongly, with an estimated $66. million in North America, along with another $45.8 million overseas, for a three-day total of $111.8 million worldwide. That $66 million domestic debut is Pitt's biggest ever, outdistancing the $50 million premiere of 2005's action thriller "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." Opening just $16 million behind chart-topper "Monsters University" (rather than the predicted deficit of $32 million or more), "World War Z" gave Pixar a run for its money after all. The sequel that was on the drawing board before the movie opened now seems an inevitability. And Pitt suddenly looks like the savviest of actor/producers, one who can laugh all the way to the bank.
How did "World War Z" manage to overcome all the bad buzz to become a career milestone for Pitt? Here are some of the ways.
Bad Buzz Doesn't Always Matter. What matters is the finished product. Industry observers and film critics may take note of a movie's troubled production history, but most moviegoers probably weren't even aware of it. All they care about is whether the result of that history is a movie that delivers the goods.
Saturation Marketing Can Overcome Bad Buzz. Two months ago, the movie wasn't tracking to open at $50 million, but rather, as low as $35 million. Paramount's ubiquitous marketing, which made clear that the movie had its share of big, scary action set-pieces, pushed all the right buttons and made it clear that, however extravagant the budget had been, it was all going to show up there on the screen. (Of course, the saturation marketing may have cost well more than the difference between the movie's projected $35 million take and its actual $66 million debut, but it looks better to be able to boast the big opening and deduct the marketing costs later than to save the money but open weak.)
Solid Word-of-Mouth Can Overcome Bad Buzz. And this movie had it, as measured by its B+ grade from CinemaScore. Clearly, moviegoers were recommending the film to friends, judging by how little the movie declined from Friday to Saturday and from Saturday to Sunday. (It earned an estimated $25.2 million on Friday, followed by $22.6 million on Saturday and $18.2 million on Sunday.) Otherwise, "World War Z" would have seen steeper drop-offs as the weekend progressed.
A Movie Is Not a Book. Brooks' novel was in the form of an oral history of fragmentary narratives that recounted the zombie war from a variety of perspectives. In the film, the perspective is that of Pitt's globe-hopping character, who is at the center of the action throughout. Maybe it would have been possible to make a movie that imitated the form of Brooks' novel. But for "World War Z" to be a summer popcorn movie instead of a contemplative thriller, it was probably necessary to build it around a strong, heroic central character and a number of big action sequences. That's not necessarily bad, just an acknowledgement that what works on the page doesn't necessarily work on screen.
Sometimes, Retinkering Is Necessary. The rewritten, reshot final act, which makes up a significant chunk of the movie, may be the main culprit for the film's ballooning budget and delayed release, but it seems to have served its purpose. Critics seem to think the new ending works better, in an emotionally satisfying way, than the climactic battle scene that was the original finale.
Zombies Are Hot. "The Walking Dead," "Zombieland," "Warm Bodies" -- it seems we can't get enough of the undead flesh-eaters. There's no oversaturating the marketplace.
Never Underestimate Brad Pitt. He's still a huge international star, and not just because people all over the world are fascinated with Brangelina and their brood. He sells tickets, especially abroad, where his movies make most of their money. He's made ten films that have grossed at least $200 million worldwide and another 14 that have grossed at least $100 million. Not everything he touches turns to gold (not even his overseas fanbase could make a hit out of "Killing Them Softly"), but in the right role, with the right combination of heroism, pensiveness, and craftiness, the fans will come.