I’m in the middle of a horrible bout of food poisoning on the same weekend World War Z beat projections and earned an estimated $66 million at the domestic box office. Even if those numbers end up a little high, it’s still way better than the official projection of $40 million. World War Z, toothless adaptation of a beloved zombie classic, is a hit and Sarah is puking her guts out. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Of course, it still came in second to Monsters University, which took in $82 million, but WWZ’s strong runner-up showing, and its B+ CinemaScore with audiences, means it should carry well into its second weekend, when it faces White House Down (which I’ve heard is abysmal, but I’m not sure that’s going to matter to people who want to see White House Down). Paramount is certainly crowing about their “victory”, claiming WWZ is the highest-opening original live action since Avatar. That would be true, if it weren’t an adaptation. I’m not sure how “adaptation” is equaling “original” here, unless they mean that it’s not coming from a pre-existing franchise.

That’s the game Paramount is playing, though. There’s some magic math and studio double-speak going on, because the other alternative is to be totally honest and admit that while it opened better than they expected, it cost so much to make and market they can never really achieve blockbuster status. They’re celebrating breaking even at best. It started with that lowball opening projection of $40 million, even when the box office analysts finally moved the line to $50 million late last week, Paramount stayed on their original projection—because it would look better if they beat it by a wider margin.

With a reported budget of $190 million (which seems…low), and another hundred million in marketing, WWZ will need to earn $600 million to break even (about 50% of box office goes back to the theater owners). Again, we’re just talking about BREAKING EVEN. All this is in service of not losing money, not actually making it. Can WWZ make a profit? Well, it’ll take a couple weeks to clear $100 million domestically, and this summer is super crowded, with major releases every weekend. The all-important international box office wasn’t quite as strong as domestic, not a good sign, and they’re shut out of the lucrative Chinese market. So it’s not likely. WWZ’s box office is a war of attrition.

And it’s not just Paramount’s pride on the line here. This was the hardest Brad Pitt has hustled  in YEARS, and it paid off in not getting egg all over his face. WWZ isn’t remotely what it should have been, but Pitt isn’t embarrassed, either. And he’s being rewarded, not only with a better-than-expected opening but he’s getting the sequel the lame ending begged for. So we’re celebrating mediocrity with…more mediocrity.

It’s this triumph of mediocrity and it makes me nervous. WWZ was dumbed-down entertainment. When Brad Pitt threw down with Leonardo DiCaprio for the rights, everyone thought it would be the movie that finally won one of them an Oscar. That it could have done for horror what Lord of the Rings did for fantasy—make the Academy sit up and take a genre film seriously. Instead they made a castrated, family friendly zombie movie which is like being the toughest poodle. Because they’re going to make just enough money to avoid cratering their accounting department, Paramount is calling this a win and will make more of this generic crap. This is where the studio system fails—it would be better if breaking even was treated like what it is: a participation ribbon.

This also makes me very worried for Pacific Rim, which is an actual original live-action (and if WWZ with its masses of CGI counts as live action, so does Pacific Rim) action movie. It’s already standing deep in nerd territory, and WWZ is proof that audiences like their genre movies watered down. If WWZ makes just enough to count and Pacific Rim fails, you can kiss inventive summer blockbusters goodbye.

Attached – Brad Pitt continues to promote the film overseas.