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'World War Z' and the Art of Bumping Movies

World War Z Brad Pitt Close Up Trailer Screengrab - H 2013
Paramount Pictures
Brad Pitt in "World War Z."

Once considered a troubling omen, a good bump now can avoid a $200 million disaster; the Brad Pitt movie "really needed work, and work got done," says Paramount's Brad Grey.

This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the Brad Pitt zombie thriller World War Z finally opens June 21, even casual movie­goers likely will know that its release date was delayed by six months as Paramount worked desperately to salvage a pricey production that had gone off the rails.

Normally a studio would go to great lengths to avoid taking on the cost and bad publicity that can follow when a $200 million-budgeted film's opening is pushed. In this case, Paramount did not have much choice. The film lacked a third act, and the studio hired Lost's Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard to create a new ending. Now industry insiders, who believe the movie could open in the $40 million to $50 million range, say Paramount may have managed to save the troubled Marc Forster film. The move is the latest evidence that postponing a high-profile movie isn't necessarily devastating to a studio, even if it admits that a picture needs more work. (Whether WWZ actually can recoup its costs still is unclear.)

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"I don't think the sting of moving a release date is as big as it used to be," says Warner Bros. film studio chief Jeff Robinov, who pushed The Great Gatsby from Christmas 2012 to May 2013 and was rewarded with $250 million in worldwide gross and counting. Warners bumped the Sandra Bullock sci-fi thriller Gravity from November 2012 to October 2013 and 300: Rise of an Empire from August 2013 to March 2014 to complete effects work. In Gravity's case, says Robinov, the complexity of the effects made it impossible to make the original date, but he believes the film can be an awards play in the fall. For 300, he says, Warners could have made the release date, but "we would have limited time to sell the movie with the effects in place."

While the bad press -- studios still fear the "troubled production" label -- and wildfire effect of social media can hurt, Robinov says delays can help. "If you have the goods at the end of the day, you're going to be fine," he says. "You have the ability to screen the movie and get the word out really easily." Moving dates "used to be a huge deal, but the shock value has worn off," agrees Ken Kamins, manager for Peter Jackson, whose third installment of The Hobbit was bumped from July 2014 to December 2014, though Robinov says that was not caused by any production issues. It was changed to mimic the December releases of the other Hobbit films.

Paramount's recent experience moving World War Z and another problem film, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, has turned into an inadvertent case study. Five weeks before the studio was to release G.I. Joe in a prime June 2012 spot, Paramount pushed it to March 2013. (It already had run an expensive Super Bowl ad and booked talent media appearances.) Initially, Paramount said it was moving G.I. Joe to add 3D, but within a week, the real story -- that the studio, spooked by the weak opening of Universal's Battleship, was opting for reshoots -- became public. Nonetheless, G.I. Joe has grossed $360 million worldwide.

Bumping big films opens the door for a media pile-on, but Paramount CEO Brad Grey says that given the ballooning cost of making and marketing tentpoles, the studio is willing to face the blowback. "That's become something of a spectator sport, and that's just the way the world is right now," he says. "I don't think it can impact our judgment on what is best for the profitability of the movie. We try not to be terribly rigid about it if we think there's a path to greater success."

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For WWZ, Paramount countered the bad buzz with word-of-mouth screenings (Pitt introduced the film in four cities in one day on June 6), and the studio cooperated with a Vanity Fair article on the harrowing backstory. "A lot of people got together in a very disciplined manner and finished this movie," says Grey. "It really needed work, and work got done. We spent about $20 million. I think it was well worth it."

Sometimes moving a picture doesn't help, of course. Warners moved New Line's $200 million Jack the Giant Slayer from summer 2012 to March 2013 with no luck (a soft $197.7 million return worldwide). And getting stars back for reshoots can present challenges. Producer Frank Marshall hopes that the rising cost of event pictures might be leading studios to pause before the cameras roll. In May, Universal pushed his Jurassic Park 4 off a June 2014 release -- a welcome decision. "Rather than dive into these things and try to fix them on the run, they're saying, 'OK, let's wait a year,' " says Marshall. His film has an advantage, however: Universal won't risk losing computer-generated stars to other commitments.