May 6, 2013

Zombie PR apocalypse! Why we know so much about Brad Pitt's next movie

The new issue of Vanity Fair features a tell-all on just what the heck went wrong with World War Z, the upcoming picture co-starring Brad Pitt and an undulating, block-long mass of zombies. 

The flick doesn’t debut in the United States until June 21, but negative gossip--spending run amok, scripts that were impossible to follow--has plagued the Paramount production for months. The source material itself was tough to adapt: a novel formatted as an oral history told from the points of view of multiple characters. In the VF article, the filmmakers don't hold back about the troubles they faced. In fact, they spill everything.

(I myself got a first-hand hint that the picture was having publicity problems a few months ago. A flack for the film sent out an email to my colleagues essentially ordering us to describe World War Z as a thriller, not a horror film. Movie publicists rarely use such a heavy hand unless they’re having serious trouble translating a film’s concept to a future audience.)

Here’s what raised my eyebrows about the VF piece: Not the tales of woe, although those are always fun. No, what surprised me was that the article exists at all.

Studios tend to keep their talent--their actors, their directors--on a notoriously short leash. If a studio boss doesn’t want talent to do an interview, that interview does not happen. Period. And yet, here were the World War Z filmmakers--including its director, its screenwriter and two of its studio execs--spilling unflattering tales of emergency rewrites and millions of dollars in overspending. 

To understand my surprise, some history may be in order. As recently as 15 years ago, Hollywood journalists reported whatever they saw or heard during their interviews--positive or negative--and studio publicists just had to live with that. (Read the classic Esquire profile of Frank Sinatra or Time magazine’s 1992 take on Katharine Hepburn if you want to know how fabulous and revealing celebrity reporting used to be.) Cut to today, and it’s clear that stars now have the upper hand. The truth is no longer the priority. Reporters for glossy celebrity mags are expected to write only positive puff pieces that publicists like. 

So naturally, when I saw that VF article, I wondered what the suits behind World War Z were thinking. Clearly, Paramount had authorized the filmmakers to talk, and they knew it wouldn’t all be pretty. Was this a sort of reverse-psychology PR push? A pre-release damage control?

Cherie Kerr a crisis PR expert at Kerr PR and ExecuProv, thinks so. And she's double-qualified to discuss such matters, because she's also a filmmaker.

“Sounds to me that the studio is competing with some pretty heavy competitors for [the same audience], and because they are in such a financial hole, they need to create whatever buzz they can to intrigue people,” says Kerr, whose new film, We’ve Got Balls, just debuted at the Newport Beach Film Festival. 

After reading the VF expose, “flim-goers will have that morbid curiosity. They’ll have to see visually what was depicted in the article. They will want to know how the third act finally looks on screen.

“Scandal and controversy always pique the interest of both an industry audience and the people who pay to see these types of movies. Some will feel they were behind the scenes and will get to live that as they watch the film unfold. The article is not scathing. It doesn't discount the film as crap. Just like the final cut, the audience will want to know how the behind-the-scenes goings on appear to impact the final product. And, how it finally ends.”

Clever strategy, eh? Maybe. Or maybe not.

“I think doing something like this for a PR move can be brilliant, but it also can set the stage for the audience to expect a complete failure,” Kerr notes.”The stakes are high.”

Indeed: According to that VF article, World War Z cost no less than $200 million to make. Factoring in marketing and distribution, the project might need to rake in $400 million...just to break even. Otherwise--PR push or no PR push--we're looking at a dead film walking.


  1. What a wonderfully refreshing honest article! I love love love this blog! Such thorough and thoughtful articles. Thank you, Fame Fatale!

  2. Thank you Debbie! And, readers: Keep those entertainment and celebrity questions coming!