By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Warner Bros.’ superhero doomsday thriller with no stars and lots of violence opened to a $55.2 million weekend. That’s lower than the $60 million–plus which the studio was hoping for Watchmen. Exit polling showed that the audience was overwhelmingly male and older. It also showed moviegoers didn’t necessarily like the movie (as shown by a Cinemascore of only “B”).
Sure, Friday’s total was pumped up by the $4.5M from 1,600 Thursday midnight and Friday 12:01 a.m. shows including all 124 sold-out Imax screenings. (Imax even added about 20 more 3 a.m. shows.) And Watchmen had the highest location count for an R-rated opening — 3,611 theaters — even more than the record-setting 3,603 venues for the studio’s The Matrix Reloaded.
But I won’t tell you that the most anticipated superhero-movie debut since last summer’s The Dark Knight — and one of the most expensive because of its $130 million–plus budget — is a bomb financially. I also won’t tell you this nonsequel and nonremake that’s a big-screen retelling of a widely admired graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons sucked creatively.
But sometimes films shouldn’t be judged on just those criteria. And this is one of those times. Because this is one of those rare instances where not only the visionary director but also the Hollywood studio tried to stay true to, if not the letter, then the intent of the graphic novel. (Don’t quibble with me about the ending being changed. That giant alien-squid nonsense was a nonstarter even with CGI.)
Sure, big questions remain: Is the complex story too murky? Are the hardcore sex and violence too noxious? Most importantly, will the pic have legs? “It’s way too soon to tell,” one of the studio execs tells me. “What counts is where a film finishes, not where it starts. We have to see what the holds are like and what the international does in the end. With decent holds, it should be fine.”
Warner Bros. insiders are encouraged. On Sunday the studio took an aggressive stand with an estimate of $11.5M and came close. Same thing on Monday when the pic did $3.8M and the studio hoped for $4M.
Overseas, most moviegoers never heard of Watchmen. In fact, no one in this country had, either, except for old and young fanboys. Ah, but in the legal community, this film became infamous. Warner Bros. was targeted in a lawsuit by 20th Century Fox to gets its court-ordered piece of the 75 percent of Watchmen’s proceeds. (Paramount owns the other 25 percent.)
So the result was no one really knew what Watchmen would make at the North American box office. I can report that every Hollywood studio agreed that the ambitious pic from 300 director Zack Snyder would have an enormous weekend opening. The expected range ran as high as $70M despite a long running time of two hours, 43 minutes. An office betting pool by Paramount’s distribution department settled on a weekend total in the high–$60 million region. But by Friday night the experts saw that even $60M would be impossible. So 300 will remain the highest March opener of all time at $70.9M, and Watchmen would take third place.
“It was a great opening despite what the gloom-and-doomsayers think. But even I had unrealistic expectations that it was going to do $70M,” said one studio marketing guru who prides himself on accurate forecasting. “I’d always pegged the movie at [the] mid–$50 million [region]. I’m mad at myself for ratcheting it up at the end. Not that I believed anybody’s hype. But I looked at the way pictures have been over-performing, and I bought into that notion that this is a tent pole and why shouldn’t it overperform?”
The studio did attract filmgoers from outside Watchmen’s sweet spot of males aged 17 to 34. Even some females. But Warner Bros. spent its full-frills $50M marketing budget for the movie — about average for a tent pole these days — on a very aggressive campaign that invested big in the outdoor market and on TV advertising.
Even rival marketing gurus were surprised but also impressed by the campaign that stayed true to the graphic novel and catered to fanboys of all ages — but left everyone else dazed and confused as to what the movie was about or even who the good or bad guys were. As one admired: “The campaign was about planting a big flag in the ground as if to say, ‘We are an event. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re not cool enough to get it.’ ”
That was indeed the challenge for the Warner Bros. marketing crew, which is why they created a lot of value-added content to flesh out the very graphic characters. Surprisingly, they chose low-rated NBC to air the most cross-promotional spots with the pic’s character, showcasing Dr. Manhattan during a National Treasure movie, and Rorschach or The Comedian during Heroes. Overall, there was a very robust TV campaign running on all the networks and cable TV.
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