Saturday, March 7, 2009

Watchmen opens to $25 million Friday (what it means for the moment)...

As for Watchmen's $25 million opening day, here's the skinny... Had I not worked 68 hours at my normal job this week, I would have had time to do a Box Office Bingo for this weekend, and the number that I had in mind for the weekend was $65 million. It looks like that's about what Watchmen will do, somewhere between $60 and $65 million for the weekend. Of course, what I did not expect is how badly the movie would be received, even in the geek community, which greatly changes the importance of the opening weekend. I also wrote elsewhere that we shouldn't rush to judge the movie as a flop if it only opened to $50 million. I still believe that, but I also believe that the movie is in big trouble for one simple reason - quite a few people, even among the hard geek crowd, just don't like it.

Warner Bros. knew this, they knew they had a 165-minute, violent, character drama that had an occasional action scene and contained a handful of special effects moments. They sold the hell out of the idea that the movie was slam bang superhero adventure, chock full of hard action and colorful scenarios. Fans of the book know this was not the case, but the public at large did not. In the same way that audiences revolted over the 2007 Christmas weekend after they went into Sweeney Todd not knowing that it was a musical, so too will many 'regular moviegoers' be annoyed at sitting through a mournful and sorrowful mediation on heroism and squandered destiny when they expected X-Men 4.

That's why Warner Bros. waited until Tuesday to do a real press screening. That's why they played such hard ball with embargoes, especially with online critics. They knew they had to pull a massive con on the mainstream public, because they spent at least $150 million making and marketing an inside joke, a superhero equivalent of Mars Attacks! And, for the game to work, they either had to convince the geeks that it was a masterpiece and hope to hell that they spread the word amongst their non-geek friends, or they had to have an opening so massive that they could get to $200 million even if they collapsed by 70% next weekend. Neither of these things seem to have happened.

So, in real-number terms, a $25 million Friday (including $4.5 million in midnight screenings) basically puts Watchmen in the same league as X-Men, The Hulk, The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, and Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer. In these cases, you have openings ranging from $53 million to $62 million. You have final grosses ranging from $132 million to just over $155 million. Worldwide, you're talking a comparative final gross of between $250 million and $340 million. Obviously, this is not chump change, and this would be a huge victory if the budget had been kept in check, and if the legal department had cleared everything first (I cannot overstate what a law 101 bungle that was... ownership is 9/10 people). But for the money at stake, $400 million seems to be the break-even point and that probably will not happen.

That Warner Bros. got a 2.75 hour R-rated cult superhero comic to an opening weekend on par with mainstream properties like X-Men or The Hulk is quite impressive, and the marketing team deserves a huge pat on the back. But, the large budget (around $120 million), giant marketing costs ($100 million worldwide?), and um... other expenses (the Fox lawsuit, which means that Fox will get about 10% of all income) means that the movie not only had to open huge, but it had to be well-liked by the populace at large. If even the Ain't It Cool News geeks are divided, then what hope does the film have in general America?

A couple things to end on... first of all, I know full well that I am diagnosing a film's entire box office path based on one day. I'll gladly eat crow if the math is wrong and the film ends up having legs. Second of all, Warner Bros. deserves credit for taking a genuine artistic and financial risk. Watchmen is not a typical comic book story, and Warner Bros. deserves kudos for allowing the movie to be made in the fashion that it was. That I was just so-so on the final product is unfortunate, but I'm glad it was attempted in the manner in which it was.

Warner Bros. has consistently been the most artistically daring of the major studios when it comes to tent pole films. They let the Harry Potter franchise be whatever it needed to be, and they were rewarded with the biggest franchise in film history. They gave the Wachowski Bros $60 million, two tickets to Australia, and the freedom to make something called The Matrix, and then then sat by and let the sequels be whatever the Wachowski Bros. wanted them to be, critics be damned. The risks haven't always paid off, but their $125 million gamble on Speed Racer was just as courageous as their $180 million gamble on The Dark Knight. And their $150 million dice-toss on Watchmen is an act of artistic courage, regardless of whether it ends up being a financial victory.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome take on the business of geek love.


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