In the new zombie epic "World War Z," Brad Pitt jets around the world seeking an elusive solution to an intractable problem.
He's been doing a lot of that in real life too.
Six months ago, Pitt's new movie appeared doomed — by a release-date postponement, an ending that had to be scrapped and re-shot, a budget that exceeded $200 million and a raft of negative coverage. Pundits were comparing the Paramount release to the recent big-budget flops "John Carter" and "Battleship."
But the actor — who hasn't anchored a big-budget Hollywood production since "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" five years ago — has gone to the mat for the movie, traveling to events from Brazil to Moscow and making numerous media appearances at home.
Meanwhile, Paramount, in need of a franchise and prioritizing a key relationship with Pitt's production company, has embarked on a furious marketing campaign that has included a Super Bowl spot, an unusual high-end ticket package and pop-up screenings.
When "World War Z" hits theaters Friday, it will either write a sad final chapter to a long-gestating disaster involving one of its biggest stars or turn into something of a comeback story. Although the movie seems unlikely to make enough to recoup its pricey production budget and a global marketing expenditure believed to be well over $100 million, it may yet turn into a respectable effort and a potential franchise for the studio.
"The insider crowd may talk a lot about how the production is going," said Paramount director of marketing Megan Colligan, echoing the studio's hope that the early bad buzz is a non-factor. "But the population at large really only cares about the final product. And we think the final product is great."
"World War Z" tells the story of former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Pitt), a husband and father who, like much of the world's population, goes on the run after a zombie outbreak causes mass panic and a global health crisis. Lane is then called upon to travel the world seeking the disease's origins.
Based on a complex novel by Max Brooks, the project attracted top talent when it began being developed seven years ago. The director Marc Forster ("Quantum of Solace," "Finding Neverland") came aboard along with Pitt, who also was set to produce. The emerging vogue for zombies — fueled by TV shows such as "The Walking Dead" — stoked further interest in the 3-D film.
But things ran aground when studio executives saw Forster's cut, particularly a final act set in Russia that they found messy and unfulfilling. Damon Lindelof, the J.J. Abrams protege and "Lost" veteran, came in to pen a new ending. The movie's release date was postponed from December 2012 to June 2013, in part to accommodate several weeks of extra filming. The budget kept ticking upward.
For months, Paramount and its financing partners, GK Films and Skydance Prods, sat by as the movie became a target of industry criticism and jokes. About six months ago, the studio started trying to turn the story around. It released a mystery-filled trailer online, then followed it up with a teaser during the Super Bowl selling the movie as an emotional family story. Although "World War Z" features no shortage of the undead, the campaign is looking to avoid any genre tag.
"We think a lot of zombie fans are going to come anyway, so we didn't think about marketing it that way," Colligan said. "What we wanted to say to audiences is that this is a story about a man trying to protect his wife and children."
In addition to these mass-media broadsides, Paramount showed the movie to groups of "tastemakers" in Los Angeles and New York — a move usually reserved for Oscar candidates. (The New York screening took place at the Museum of Modern Art.)
In the last few weeks the studio also has held sneak screenings in Philadelphia and Atlanta, at which Pitt made surprise appearances. It also has created a $50 "mega" ticket that offers extras like snacks and movie swag — a bold gambit for even surefire blockbusters, let alone movies with an uncertain audience
Will it work? Paramount will face tough competition this weekend in Pixar's "Monsters University," which is expected to win the box office with as much as $80 million. Ticket sales from "Man of Steel" and "This Is The End," a similarly apocalyptic movie (albeit a comedy) with strong word of mouth, could also cut into business.
Studio executive are predicting an opening of $35 million to $45 million; forecasters say it's more likely to land with $55 million. If word of mouth keeps new audiences coming, the film could end up with a domestic total approaching $150 million. That, and a strong international total, could put Paramount and its partners at respectability, if not profitability.
Bruce Nash, a consultant with the Hollywood site The Numbers, said he didn't believe that the backstage drama would have too much of an effect.
"If the right changes are made, it's something people will forget," Nash said. "Many of the people who are following it closely are the people who would see the movie anyway."
But he noted that there is a lack of precedent for a zombie-themed blockbuster and low interest in the film among women. Audience tracking shows younger and older males are more interested than any female group, with women under 25 showing the smallest amount of interest.
The studio is counting on strong word of mouth to help. The early reviews have been solid if not overwhelming. In a flattering review, Variety wrote, "This sleekly crafted, often nail-biting tale of global zombiepocalypse clicks on both visceral and emotional levels."
But "World War Z" hasn't been able to shake the back story completely: The Hollywood Reporter called the film "a bunch of impressive set pieces stitched together rather than a good story convincingly told."