Let's pick up a chainsaw, rev it up, and slash a zombie in half for a brutal cross-section of the current state of the entertainment industry. Zombies are everywhere these days -- on TV with AMC's hit series The Walking Dead and in blockbuster films like World War Z.
Yet the widely varied portrayals of zombies in TV and film represents something much deeper, a clash of different ideas within the entertainment industry that define what it takes to tell a compelling story that keeps viewers interested.
From chocolate syrup blood to CGI overload
For fans of the genre, George Romero's 1968 film the Night of the Living Dead is the seminal zombie movie, kicking off a wave of zombie films and "splatter" horror cinema. On a modest budget of $114,000 ($966,000 adjusted for inflation), Romero used chocolate syrup blood to give birth to a new genre of undead films.
Today's zombie films, by comparison, are far more expensive and heavily dependent on computer-generated special effects. Films like Resident Evil and World War Z feature hordes of sensory-overloading CGI undead. They're also expensive to produce -- World War Z cost approximately $190 million to make.
Yet these costly CGI zombie films are only a symptom of Hollywood's real problem -- the industry's over-dependence on special effects-laden 3D IMAX summer blockbusters.
Hollywood is the biggest zombie of them all
Like the victim of a zombie attack, Hollywood has been bitten many times -- first by Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), which popularized CGI use in movies, followed by the Wachowski brothers' Matrix trilogy (1999-2003), which emphasized hyper-stylized CGI action sequences, and then with Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy (2007-2011), which elevated 3D CGI sensory overload to a whole new level.
James Cameron's 2009 film, Avatar, was the most brutal bite of all, which made the "3D IMAX" experience a requisite feature for most major film releases.
With every bite, Hollywood became more of a zombie dependent on increasingly expensive films, becoming a top-heavy business model where huge budgets did not necessarily guarantee big returns. Studios became convinced that audiences would only pack theaters to see special effects on the big screen.
Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) has been notorious for racking up losses with this business model over the past few years, with expensive bombs like Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, and The Lone Ranger costing more than $360 million in net losses.
This zombie is a self-sustaining beast
However, those losses were not enough to persuade Disney to focus on lower-risk projects. The company's acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm guarantee that expensive comic book adaptations and a new Star Wars franchise will be the company's box office bread and butter. In other words, it will be fully dedicated to the current status quo of making blockbuster films.
It's no wonder Steven Spielberg and George Lucas declared that the movie industry will head toward a system of tiered priced tickets. According to Spielberg, tickets for 3D IMAX films with D-Box motion seat effects could eventually cost $25, while tickets for quieter dramas on smaller screens might only cost $7.
Will TV blow away the zombified movie industry?
The more of these zombified summer releases we see -- young adult novel adaptations, comic book reboots, and orgiastic CGI explosion fests -- the wider the divide between the TV and movie industries grows. Movies and television shows both want viewers to come back -- movie studios want to build franchises; television studios want their shows to survive past a single season.
Yet TV shows are notably more successful at building followings than movies -- not due to special effects, but through well developed characters and storylines that grow on viewers over the course of 12 to 24 episodes. In other words, good TV shows today share many of the same characteristics as well-made films from the past.
AMC's The Walking Dead, based on the comic book series of the same name, is a prime example. Instead of tossing hordes of CGI zombies at the viewer, The Walking Dead focuses on the premise that humans are far more vicious enemies than the undead in a post-apocalyptic world where society has crumbled. Each 43-minute episode of the series costs less than $2.8 million to produce, for a total budget of $33.6 million per 12-episode season (expanded to 16 episodes per season for the third season) -- far cheaper than most major Hollywood movies.
AMC's major shows -- The Walking Dead, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad -- all have strong followings, which contributed to a 15.8% year-on-year jump in revenue last quarter as earnings surged 227%. Revenue at Disney's Studio Entertainment segment, by comparison, declined 2% as operating income plummeted 36%.
The upcoming divergence of the movie and TV industries
As televisions become larger and more technologically advanced and television shows are able to present addictive, story-driven experiences superior to two-hour movies, I believe we will see a growing divide between the movie and TV industries -- in which the former continues producing expensive amusement park rides while the latter pursues the proper evolution of filmed storytelling.
Even Spielberg lamented that his critically acclaimed biopic, Lincoln, was nearly released as an HBO film when studios expressed trepidation regarding its box office prospects.
A final take on the future
When we look back at some truly great films that Hollywood has produced -- such as Psycho, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump -- we realize that to create an exceptional film that improves with subsequent viewings, a studio needs gifted writers, a skilled cinematographer, and an innovative director -- not millions of dollars in CGI effects.
Some recent films have successfully used CGI to enhance the story, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Black Swan, and Life of Pi, but these examples are few and far between. Instead, CGI is more frequently used to create unrealistic special-effects laden set pieces where environments are rendered around an actor in front of a green screen. We are also offered unnecessary sequels to classic films like Oz the Great and Powerful, and prettier but blander reboots of familiar titles like Total Recall and Robocop.
If Hollywood is a zombie, it is not a common roaming ghoul -- it's a big, bloated beast. It's a monster that will take more than a few bullets to put down -- it needs to be finally put out of its misery by several massive studio bombs.