By John Jurgensen
"Army of the Dead" rolls several tried-and-true movie plots into
one. A heist involving a cash-filled vault. A motley band of
fighters reuniting for one big score. Lots of zombies.
It's also the brainchild of Zack Snyder, a director with
hardcore fans and a filmography featuring Superman, Batman and
other major Hollywood assets.
These are the components of a franchise starter kit for Netflix,
which is going after movie properties that can grab viewers on a
global scale and keep them coming back for more installments. The
company rolled out "Army of the Dead" in about 600 movie theaters
last week (its widest theatrical release yet) ahead of a streaming
premiere Friday. But before anyone had even seen the movie, Netflix
shot a prequel ("Army of Thieves") expected later this year, and
entered production on an anime series ("Army of the Dead: Lost
Vegas") set for next year. Coming this summer, a virtual-reality
experience that pops up in various cities, where ticket buyers can
ride a simulated taco truck into zombie-infested Las Vegas on a
"People don't want to wait. They are used to series -- they want
to binge it," Mr. Snyder says. "Now there's so much content, you
forget. 'Army of the Dead,' what's that? Oh yeah, that zombie movie
from a couple years ago."
"Look, now they're doing all the 'Game of Thrones' prequels, but
how many years later?" adds Deborah Snyder, a producer of the film
and its offshoots with Mr. Snyder, her husband.
Netflix is building franchises in an effort to fix a
disadvantage it has in Hollywood. Despite the company's dominance
of the global streaming business, it doesn't own the kind of
time-tested intellectual property that reliably spawns tentpole
movies and TV series, to say nothing of merchandise and theme park
attractions. That I.P. (in industry parlance) is what Marvel and
"Star Wars" are to Disney, and "Fast & Furious" and "Jurassic
Park" are to Universal, and "Game of Thrones" and DC superheroes
are to WarnerMedia.
When it comes to the lack of legacy film franchises in its
portfolio, the streaming giant says it's an underdog. "We're four
years old, not 104 years old like many of our competitors," says
Scott Stuber, head of Netflix films, referring to his time leading
the division. "So we've got to be scrappy and we've got to
The company recently bought two sequels to director Rian
Johnson's hit murder mystery "Knives Out" for reportedly more than
$400 million. It announced a sequel to "Enola Holmes," starring
Millie Bobby Brown as a sleuthing sister of Sherlock Holmes. Mr.
Stuber says he has good scripts in hand for sequels to the action
movies "Extraction" (which starred Chris Hemsworth) and "The Old
Guard" (Charlize Theron).
"Army of the Dead" is based on an idea Mr. Snyder hatched after
directing a 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead." In the aftermath of
a zombie outbreak, the undead (led by a subset of cunning "alpha
zombies") have been confined to Las Vegas, which is slated for
nuclear destruction. A war hero played by Dave Bautista (an acting
veteran of several Marvel blockbusters) has to run the zombie
gauntlet with his team to retrieve a fortune from a casino vault
and win back the love of his daughter.
In 2019 Netflix acquired the project from Warner Bros, where Mr.
Snyder made movies for some 15 years. "Army" never progressed past
the concept stage there, but Netflix fast-tracked the movie. "As
quick as you can write it, we'll do it," Mr. Stuber recalls telling
The projected budget was reported to be $90 million. The Snyders
say the actual production cost was lower, and far cheaper than the
name-brand superhero movies he made for Warner Bros. with budgets
north of $200 million.
"For Netflix it's a big deal, but not a deal breaker. They would
have made another movie like this for what it cost," the director
says. "But for Warner Bros., if they make a Batman movie, that's a
deal-breaking movie for them. All the eggs they have are in that
At Warner Bros. Mr. Snyder applied a kinetic, often brooding
cinematic style to comic-book adaptations like "300," and the
studio's stable of superheroes in "Watchmen," "Man of Steel" and
"Batman v Superman." His relationship with the studio cratered
during the making of the all-star vehicle "Justice League," as they
clashed over issues such as running length and the director's
intentions for certain characters. Then Mr. Snyder left the project
after the death of his 20-year-old daughter. Warner Bros. hired a
different director, Joss Whedon, who finished the movie and
injected a lighter tone. The release was panned and Mr. Snyder's
fans waged an online campaign to see his version. The studio paid
$70 million for him to complete his alternate cut of the movie, and
released the four-hour saga (title: "Zack Snyder's Justice League")
in March on the HBO Max streaming service.
"At Warner Bros. the I.P. was a liability to me, because it was
this monolithic thing with glacial movements, and only surrounded
by fear. It was all defense all the time," Mr. Snyder says.
At a Friday night showing of "Army of the Dead" at a 12-screen
Cinemark theater in Hazlet, N.J., 19-year-old Jake Maida is the
kind of fan Netflix is betting on -- a Zack Snyder aficionado who
is excited to see what the director does with the creative leeway
granted by the streamer. "It's just nice to have him in total
control of his work," said Mr. Maida, who was at the cineplex with
his dad and a bucket of popcorn each.
Netflix's franchise agenda goes hand in hand with its quest to
feed international subscribers homegrown content. "Army of the
Dead" has a cliffhanger ending designed with export in mind.
"Zombies are a global thing," Mr. Stuber says. "There's no reason
they can't be in Bogotá or Paris" or other places where Netflix
produces local-language movies and TV shows.
Urged to consider "Army of the Dead" offshoots set in other
countries, Mr. Snyder's team came up with one for a character in
the movie named Dieter, an off-kilter safecracker played by
Matthias Schweighöfer. Though virtually unknown in the U.S., he is
a famous actor and filmmaker in Germany. He directed and starred in
"Army of Thieves," which was shot around Europe over two months
last fall. The prequel movie features an international cast and a
story about robbers who take advantage of the financial disruption
caused by America's zombie problem.
"I love the word 'franchise' because it sounds so cool and we
don't have them in Germany," Mr. Schweighöfer says.
For Mr. Bautista, a former pro wrestler known as the
fan-favorite character Drax in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"
films, taking the lead in "Army of the Dead" was part of a plan to
actually transition away from big action franchises. "I want to be
in business with Netflix because I want to be a filmmaker, not of
big epic films, smaller films," he says. Mr. Bautista recently
joined the cast of Netflix's first "Knives Out" sequel.
The Snyders draw a distinction between "cinematic universes"
that studios derive from existing libraries of intellectual
property, and their own attempt to create one from scratch with
"Army of the Dead."
As Ms. Snyder puts it: "In a world where everyone is reinventing
I.P. that we've seen already -- a regurgitation of a movie from 10
years ago, a TV show coming back with a new cast -- to have
something original is just refreshing."
Write to John Jurgensen at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 19, 2021 12:17 ET (16:17 GMT)
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