Will World War Z lead to more big budget horror movies?

Costing a reported $200m, World War Z is an unusually expensive horror film. Will it encourage Hollywood to do the same again, Mark asks...

Brad Pitt had been trying to put the film adaptation of World War Z together for some time. In the run-up to release, rumours of a troubled production abounded, with friction between Pitt and director Marc Forster, a complete re-jig of the third act, and a budget that expanded to north of $200 million before production was complete.

Happily, the film hasn’t bombed at the box office. Although it shares little with the source material outside of its title, we generally found it to be a thrilling if sometimes silly action movie that overcomes many of its speculated difficulties. Back in April, we wondered if the film could turn around the negative buzz, and it seems like word-of-mouth is relatively positive thus far.

Granted, the film still has a long way to go before it reaches profitability. Vanity Fair‘s article about the production estimates the final budget at $225 million, and that would be before whatever the studio spent on marketing and distribution.

The accepted wisdom is that a film must make back two and a half times as much as the total cost of production and marketing before it even breaks even. That means World War Z would have to make almost $600 million worldwide in its big-screen lifespan, with lots of tentpole movie competition arriving in the next month or so.

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Either way, Paramount got moving on a second World War Z movie pretty quickly after its opening weekend, so they must be happy with the film’s performance thus far. For audiences, it’s pretty intriguing to see what a $225 million zombie movie looks like, and perhaps some of us are wondering: will this lead to more big budget horror movies being greenlit in the future? 

While we wouldn’t rule anything out, there’s a reason why the current system works for studios. Most horror franchises are fairly cheap to make in comparison to the box office revenue they generate. Famously, Paranormal Activity cost $50,000 to make, and was turned into a high-grossing hit by Paramount’s marketing bods. Its producers went on to make Insidious, a $1m that went on to make its money back a hundred-fold at the worldwide box office.

The Paranormal Activity sequels have continued to gross highly for small investments, and Insidious Chapter 2 will arrive in cinemas this summer. This kind of franchise must be quite appealing to studios. They’re low-budget, and they have some brand recognition attached. It even sets trends in non-franchise films; having seen Sinister, you have to imagine that the only reason for the title was to match the one word, scary-sounding title of the same producers’ previous hit.

This model, coupled with the general audience interest in the horror genre, is a nice little earner for studios who are between tentpole movies, in an age where the mid-budgeted film is becoming less common. If World War Z leads to similarly big investments in horror, you can bet that it will come with a caveat or two. 

Firstly, World War Z is essentially the least gory zombie movie since ParaNorman. The bloodless approach came in order to secure a PG-13 rating in the United States. That the film received a 15 certificate in the UK speaks to how well the filmmakers managed with making horror out of the things you don’t see, but it also shows how a studio won’t spend $200m on a movie that teenagers can’t see without having their parents take them along to the cinema.

Of course, this has been a notable obstacle to one of the fan-favourite unproduced horror movies of recent years. When we even think of the possibility of a big budget horror movie, most of us will immediately think of Guillermo del Toro’s pet project, an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness, which has come tantalisingly close to a greenlight in the past couple of years.

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Universal announced the project in May 2010. It was to be shot in 3D, with James Cameron producing and Tom Cruise in a lead role. It was March 2011 before they put the brakes on, over del Toro’s insistence on an R-rating rather than a PG-13. The director has since said that he will try “one more time” to get the film greenlit, and we suspect that will depend on the box office performance of his upcoming Kaiju homage, Pacific Rim.

More importantly, World War Z was marketed as an action movie- the trailers were surprisingly coy about the undead presence in the film. Conversely, a lot of the word-of-mouth I’ve heard has been enthusiastic about the combination of Brad Pitt and zombies. The film itself is a mix of action and horror, and this crossing of genres is not uncommon in big tentpole movies.

Once again, studios won’t spend $200m on a movie that they don’t believe will appeal to the largest possible audience. The two slightly higher-budgeted horror franchises, Underworld and Resident Evil, both have the cross-genre action aspect to play up in their trailers. The most recent instalments came in with budgets of $70m and $65m respectively, but neither series has been marketed to horror buffs for some time now.

To go back to the example of At The Mountains Of Madness, the material would seem to lend itself to a pure horror film, but if the script crosses into any other genre, (especially action) then perhaps it has a better shot of being made at the budget that the material demands.

It may be wishful thinking to speculate that World War Z will change studio attitudes towards horror. Even if it goes on to be mega-successful, it would still be one expensive exception, pitted against a tried-and-tested production model. And in fairness, despite Paramount’s eagerness to get moving on a sequel to World War Z, you can bet your bottom dollar that they intend to spend a lot less than they did on the troubled first instalment.

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