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.

Time was purchased on Lost, CSI, Law & Order, Criminal Minds, WWF Smackdown, NFC/AFC Playoffs, 24, The Mentalist, Fringe, The Office, 30 Rock, all the late-night shows on every network, and on and on. Watchmen has also been everywhere online: MySpace, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, IGN, Moviefone, NBC, For Your Imagination, Flixster, Hitfix and Fandango.

But the Warner Bros. team resisted the obvious tag line for Watchmen that “someone is killing off superheroes” in order not to oversimplify or oversell it. (As close as the marketing came was, “We want our superheroes.”) That meant doing something movie marketers rarely do: accepting that Watchmen is an acquired taste based on a restrictive idea and written as an inaccessible story, then made into a movie that isn’t for everyone.

But what about the following weekend, when Watchmen’s negatives are water-cooler talk? “I hate to think that, after two fucking years of marketing, we’re a one-weekend movie,” a Warner Bros. exec confessed to me.

But that’s exactly what’s happening here. “Either you were familiar with the source material, or you had trouble following the bouncing ball,” one studio marketing exec analyzed for me. “Alan Moore always said that Watchmen the graphic novel couldn’t be made into a movie. So, at the end of the day, Zack Snyder’s slavish attention to detail in making this a literal translation is what ultimately doomed the film. He cared more about the appeasement of the fanboys than [about] a cohesive, coherent movie meant for everyone.”

Funny, isn’t it, that even a sizable faction of fanboys railed online that Snyder’s take was too beat-by-beat faithful, with many expressing the wish that the Paul Greengrass version, which would have been set in the present day (instead of 1985 America against a Nixon-Kissinger backdrop) and involved multicultural terrorism (instead of the Cold War), had been made instead.

Oh, and they thought Zack’s music selection “zucked” by using all-too-obvious tunes like Hallelujah, Sounds of Silence, and Ride Of The Valkyries.

Others blame the Warner Bros. brass for — get this — being too hands-off. “This may have been one of those times when you second-guess,” another Hollywood bigwig opined. What distinguishes a great studio exec from every other studio exec is that they manage these filmmaker egos without letting them know they’re being managed. “But,” the bigwig says, “not everyone is Chris Nolan.”

LA Weekly