"World War Z" and the Billion-Dollar Business of Zombies

Viacom (NASDAQ: VIAB  ) needs to send a fruit basket to Brad Pitt and his production company, Plan B Entertainment. Viacom's Paramount studio was in desperate need of a big summer hit, and Pitt's zombie romp, World War Z, is delivering in spades.

World War Z is riding a global zombie trend right now, and it's a powerful one. Will the trend stay warm-blooded long enough to fuel a series of Z sequels, or is the fad already as dead as its anti-heroes? Let's think about it together.

The numbers around this title are amazing. World War Z delivered a $66 million domestic opening weekend, is competing for eyeballs and dollars with a strong second weekend, is likely to top $200 million in global box office receipts by Monday, and should land north of $300 million globally when all is said and done. That is, before reaping further rewards from TV and online syndication, lunch boxes, the usual extras.

The first zombie encountered in George Romero's 1968 genre classic, Night of the Living Dead. His brood is still hunting for brains and box-office dollars. They just have more impressive makeup.

To no one's surprise, Pitt and Viacom are already looking at sequels. The film was meant to kick off a trilogy before the ending was drastically changed. Given that it's based on the rich world of the best-seller book of the same name, and really didn't tap anything but the name from the book in the first installment, there's plenty of material to explore.

In fact, it would be ridiculous not to go down that road. The zombie genre is littered with long strings of sequels and remakes -- and World War Z is already one of the biggest box office hits in zombie history, just two weeks into the release. Check out the top six zombie movies of all time in terms of American ticket sales:

Title

Opening Weekend

Final Domestic Gross

Final Global Gross

Production Budget

Hotel Transylvania

$43

$148

$347

$85

World War Z***

$66

$125*

$300**

$190

Zombieland

$25

$76

$102

$24

Warm Bodies

$20

$66

$117

$35

Resident Evil: Afterlife

$27

$60

$296

$60

Evil Dead (2013)***

$26

$54

$97

$17

Data from Box Office Mojo and Deadline Hollywood Daily. All figures in millions of U.S. dollars.
*Estimates for first 2 weeks.
**Author's estimated final tally.
*** Still in theaters.

That's right -- World War Z is already the second-biggest money maker among zombie movies in Hollywood history. Hotel Transylvania had the advantage of being an animated kids' movie with a humble PG rating.

The list above looks like a motley collection. You've got cartoons and comedies, pulse-pounding action and hardcore horror. Some are well made, others an empty collection of special effects without heart. Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) is a big winner in the zombie space, having placed four titles on this top-six list, but Paramount and Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF  ) are riding the wave too. For Paramount/Viacom, World War Z could kick-start a franchise that makes the first movie's big budget worth its salt. For Summit/Lionsgate, zombies seem like a natural fit after the fantastic success of its vampire romance franchise, the Twilight saga.

But the films above have one very important thing in common, apart from being very successful zombie titles. They were all produced in the past four years.

Add in the award-winning success of AMC Networks' (NASDAQ: AMCX  ) The Walking Dead cable TV show, and you have a full-blown cultural trend on your hands. It's been around for at least four years and is still producing bigger and bigger winners. That's a good sign for its lasting power.

I think it's fair to use The Walking Dead as a bellwether for the overall zombie zeitgeist. Right now, the series is as hot as ever. The Season 3 finale broke all-time cable show records with a fantastic 15.2 million viewers. And it wasn't a single episode of fleeting glory: That third season was the first cable show in television history to beat the average viewership of every other show, including the cable-free networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

So if the zombie fad is dead, it sure doesn't act like it yet. And who's to say that it will fall down after a short run? Look at Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Marvel milking the superhero genre ever since the 2002 Spider-Man tentpole (coincidentally directed by horror legend Sam Raimi), which started a decade-long trend of superhuman heroes making billion-dollar movies. A positive template to follow, for sure.

And keep in mind that showrunners and studios are treating zombies as if they have legs (and teeth). World War Z might start a franchise. Rumor has it that the Evil Dead reboot could spawn a trilogy of its own, giving Sony access to an intentionally low-budget franchise with big-ticket revenue magnetism. Indie producers are shopping around a plethora of zombie ideas, sometimes with dramatic twists on the basic "living dead" premise.

In short, I think it's safe to say that zombies are here to stay for a while. Certainly long enough to let Viacom spawn a series of blockbuster World War Z sequels while Sony delves even deeper into the dark realms. Again, keep a close eye on The Walking Dead to keep your finger on this trend's pulse.

But be careful. I don't trust the shifty-eyed corpse in the corner. He looks hungry.

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Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 29, 2013, at 10:51 PM, jesme59 wrote:

    They are trying to make it more than a billion dollar business at $50 per ticket. Time to kill the Zombies off? Time will tell

  • Report this Comment On June 29, 2013, at 11:46 PM, Barry161 wrote:

    Some of the movies on the list can't even be considered zombie movies. World War Z was excellent! Even with the funky 3D glasses.

    With the AMC Series Walking Dead out there winning an Emmy the bar has been raised. Previous movies and you left out the George A. Romero classics such as Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead with Ving Rhames and running zombies. Looking forward to WWZ coming out on video and sequels.

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2013, at 12:34 AM, mrfone wrote:

    England- revived the Zombie genre craze with 28 days/weeks later....Before the Walking Dead - The British/united Kingdom came out with the 1st Zombie TV mini-series in 2008- It is relatively unknown here in the USA. It is a GREAT Zombie movie that gave the US studios the thought that a Zombie TV series might work here,hence="THE WALKING DEAD!!! If you are a serious ZOMBIE DIEHard YOU have to check out--- "DEADSET" it is the 1st zombie series that started the whole TV -Zombie Craze!- Its 1 of Thee best that only a FEW know about!

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2013, at 2:13 AM, AutumnMyst wrote:

    It is shameful what people will spend on this junk. All you do is make others rich and greedy. I will not support the entertainment industry. It's a waste of money just to make someone else filthy rich.

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2013, at 3:33 AM, jamesdbourne wrote:

    to mrfone: some of your assertions are wrong.

    1. 28 Days Later did NOT have zombies! The armies of antagonists where living people infected with a contagious virus.

    2. Resident Evil (2000) was the film that brought the genre back to life, with the remade Dawn of the Dead (2002) proving that you can make serious money in the theater.

    3. The Walking Dead was originally a comic that started in 2003-ish...was at one point going to be turned into a film of its own, but then got picked up for development by AMC.

    I know not of this UK series your talkn about, but I highly doubt it was the reason for AMC to pick this up or was some forerunner to TWD.

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2013, at 3:48 AM, jamesdbourne wrote:

    As for WWZ...10 years from now people will be saying this was the height of this 'craze', as the origional ideas and gimicks that make a Zombie movie fun and worth watching has given way to the Hollywood accountants.

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2013, at 11:40 AM, mrfone wrote:

    jamesbourne I could say some of your assertions are wrong also- its all a matter of opinion...it doesn't really matter what film revived the genre.By saying revived -I don't mean the interest by fans -it has always been there and increasing.Revived to me means studios & producers willing to spend/invest $$ on the genre in hopes of making $$.For years they were unwilling George Romeros "Land of the Dead" could be an example of studios finally taking a"Chance" after years of turning him down...As a Zombie Diehard fan I really don't consider the Resident Evil series a true Zombie movie because of All the Hokey video game Monsters and super strength/powers from the so -called T-virus ! I consider 28 days/weeks closer than resident Evil...like I said Its all a matter of opinion!....As far as "DEADSET" is concerned=Its not ME saying it started the TV Zombie series= like I said Very few people from the USA even know =Go back and read british movie industry news from 2008- They are saying IT and there have been articles from US studios saying that's Why they took a chance on the "Graphic novel" TWD and decided to make it into a TV series because of The SUCCESS of DEADSET in ENGLAND!!!

  • Report this Comment On July 01, 2013, at 9:03 AM, TMFZahrim wrote:

    @Barry161, it's true that some older movies did huge box office business in inflation-adjusted terms. Night of the Living Dead, starring the pallid gentleman seen above, made nearly $200 million in 2012 dollars, for example.

    That being said, World War Z remains a strong indicator of a living, breathing trend. The movie did better than estimated over the weekend and still hasn't even opened in major international markets like Japan and Brazil. $265 million globally as we speak; looking at maybe $400 million total now.

    And the takeaway remains: Zombie movies are huge business right now.

    Anders

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