Films risk missing a moment

Updated: 2013-03-31 08:21

By Michael Cieply (The New York Times)

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 Films risk missing a moment

Seven years in the making, Paramount Pictures' "World War Z" anticipated the rise of the zombie apocalypse genre. Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures


LOS ANGELES - It was the middle of 2006, and hardly anyone was 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 used fictitious interviews to create the story of a world overrun by zombies.

Since then, it seems as if zombies actually have taken over - in smaller films like "Zombieland," books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and, most notably, "The Walking Dead," a hit series broadcast on cable TV in the United States and on Fox International elsewhere.

So when "World War Z" arrives in theaters worldwide beginning in June, 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 premiere.

In much of the rest of the entertainment industry, the metabolism has sped up as digital technology has 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 in June, has been working its way through the system for at least seven years. "Ender's Game," produced by OddLot Entertainment and others for release on November 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.

Still, it may not much matter if pictures generally geared to a diverse world audience become detached from the cultural moment in which they were conceived.

"It can just start a new cycle," said James Thompson, who teaches a course on American cultural industries for North Carolina's Duke University.

"World War Z" might just 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."

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 September 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 television as an AMC channel series in 2010, and is now among the most popular shows on television.

"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."

Animation is slow-footed because of the attention that goes into the design of characters and immensely complicated scenes.

Among live-action films, the first movie tends to move more slowly than sequels. That is because executives and filmmakers often struggle with decisions that will permanently define the series - a world that may prove as lucrative as that of "Avatar," which was 15 years in the making.

"When you get it right, the upside can be enormous," Mr. Grey said. "When you get it wrong, the downside can be enormous."

The New York Times