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 search-and-rescue mission.

"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 hustle."

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 director.

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 basket."

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 john.jurgensen@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 19, 2021 12:17 ET (16:17 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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