A Risk for Films That Move at a Zombie’s Pace
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
Published: March 18, 2013
LOS ANGELES — It was the middle of 2006, and hardly anyone was particularly worried about the zombie apocalypse.
But Paramount Pictures saw it coming.
In June of that year, Paramount joined Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment in acquiring film rights to the book “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.” Its author, Max Brooks, building on his own successful “Zombie Survival Guide” from three years earlier, had taken a novel approach, using fictitious interviews to create the story of a world overrun by zombies.
Since then, it seems as if zombies actually had taken over — in smaller films like “Zombieland,” books like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and, most notably, a television series, “The Walking Dead,” that has drawn extraordinary ratings over three seasons.
So when “World War Z” hits the big screen on June 21, it will be chasing a wave it anticipated almost a decade ago.
But Paramount’s is not the only studio picture that could miss out on a cultural moment.
Hollywood’s biggest movies are slowed by a filmmaking process that takes longer as financial stakes escalate and as the complexities of global production and elaborate visual effects stretch the span between creative impulse and red-carpet premiere.
In much of the rest of the entertainment industry, the metabolism has sped up as digital technology and the opportunities of the Internet have led to new paths of content creation. Web-based television, YouTube, seed money from groups like Kickstarter — all have contributed to a more egalitarian process that favors a faster pace. Even Hollywood can occasionally move quickly when it needs to stay current with the world around it, as the producers of “Zero Dark Thirty” did after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
But this year the release schedules feature at least eight high-budget films that were conceived 5 to 14 years ago. At Warner Brothers, “Man of Steel,” a Superman makeover to be released on June 14, has been working its way through the system for at least seven years. That was time enough for five “Twilight” movies, and for Kristen Stewart’s relationship with Robert Pattinson to cycle in and out of the public eye. “Ender’s Game,” produced by OddLot Entertainment and others for release on Nov. 1, took root at Warner a decade ago. It is based on a science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card that was first published in 1985.
On the whole, it may not much matter if such popcorn pictures, which are generally geared to a diverse world audience, become detached from the cultural moment in which they were conceived.
“I don’t think there’s tremendous risk that a genre film, whether it be zombie, vampire, alien or superhero, is doomed to failure just because of the long turnaround time,” said James Thompson, who teaches a course on American cultural industries for Duke University’s Duke in Los Angeles program.
“It can just start a new cycle,” he said.
“World War Z” might find the next swell.
“When you’re creating a film of this scale and you catch the wave,” said Brad Grey, Paramount’s chief executive, “the excitement surrounding it can spread exponentially.”
But for the biggest movies, staying current is no small trick. Graphic novels were all the rage in 1999, for instance, when the producer Lawrence Gordon bought rights to “R.I.P.D.,” an illustrated series about the “Rest in Peace Department” of dead law enforcement officers.
The film was almost made in 2004, with the director David Dobkin. But he instead went to work on “Fred Claus,” which opened in 2007. Eventually, Robert Schwentke signed on to direct, and “R.I.P.D.,” starring Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds, will be released by Universal Pictures on July 19.
Other films begun five or more years ago include “The Croods,” at DreamWorks Animation; “Epic,” at 20th Century Fox; “The Lone Ranger,” at Walt Disney; “The Great Gatsby,” at Warner; and “47 Ronin,” at Universal.
Typically, animation is slow-footed because of the painstaking attention that goes into the design of characters and immensely complicated scenes. It can take years of research and development just to get a heroine’s curly hair right, as in “Brave,” which was four years in the works at Disney’s Pixar unit.
“The Croods,” about a prehistoric road trip, got under way around 2003 with an initial script by Kirk De Micco, and took more than nine years to make — about twice the average at DreamWorks — partly because Chris Sanders, who directed the film with Mr. De Micco, first slipped away to make “How to Train Your Dragon.”
The scheduling delay was compounded by years of work on the precise traits of a cave family and its world. “It takes a really long time to make something look effortless,” said Bill Damaschke, DreamWorks’s chief creative officer.
Among live-action films, the first movie in an intended series tends to move far more slowly than sequels. That is because executives and filmmakers often struggle for years with decisions that will permanently define the inhabitants, the look and the governing rules of a newly created universe — a world that may prove as lucrative as that of “Avatar,” which was 15 years in the making, or as barren as that of “John Carter,” a Disney box office disaster made in half that time.
“When you get it right, the upside can be enormous,” Mr. Grey said. “When you get it wrong, to state the obvious, the downside can be enormous.”
“World War Z” has undergone no shortage of scrutiny and revision at Paramount in the seven years since it took root.
First came a year of head-scratching over the peculiar structure of Mr. Brooks’s novel, which is set up as an “after action” report to the United Nations on the zombie wars. Then J. Michael Straczynski began to write what he now says were about 10 drafts of the first script.
All were built around a United Nations investigator who uncovered a conspiracy that intentionally evoked the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But “nothing of any of my drafts remains, other than the names of the characters,” Mr. Straczynski said in a recent e-mail.
Instead, Mr. Straczynski said, he was dropped in favor of a new writer, Matthew Michael Carnahan, who came aboard when Marc Forster agreed to direct the film in 2009.
The action was punched up. Hurricane Katrina was tamped down. Mr. Pitt, who was already involved as a producer, signed on to star in 2011.
The film was shot for almost five months in Britain and Hungary, and principal photography was finished on Nov. 4, 2011. Postproduction work stretched into 2012. But then another writer, Damon Lindelof, went to work on new scenes.
“World War Z” went back into production for 20 days last fall, and a planned release last December was scrapped in favor of the new date in June. Its cost by then was reported to be about $170 million.
Elsewhere, the zombies kept piling up.
Before 2006, the phrase “zombie apocalypse” had appeared just twice in The New York Times, the first time in a 2003 article about the director Danny Boyle and his horror film “28 Days Later.” But last year it logged 20 appearances — in political columns, in television coverage and in an article about peanut butter-and-pickle sandwiches.
The zombie-filled “Resident Evil” film series from Sony’s Screen Gems unit stretched to five films by 2012.
At the annual Comic-Con International fan convention in San Diego, Mr. Brooks and his zombie books, conceived just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, were a sensation. But they were eventually overshadowed by the rival inventions of the comic-book writer Robert Kirkman and his colleagues. Their Walking Dead comic, first published in 2003, made it to the small screen as an AMC series in 2010, and is now among the most popular shows on television, regularly outperforming network series in the ratings.
“Brooks was all the rage at Comic-Con until ‘The Walking Dead’ started its first season,” Mr. Thompson said. “Now, zombie fans have read his stuff, but Kirkman is the voice of the craze.”