There’s a strange thing going on today: a press backlash against Watchmen. But not against the movie – against the opening weekend.
Watchmen opened this weekend to 55 million dollars. An early March release of a hard R, nearly three hour long, almost defiantly non-mainstream, movie star free movie based on a comic book that is, probably more than I wanted to admit, niche, opened bigger than Batman Begins and Superman Returns. Those are two PG-13 films based on characters so iconic one of them is on stamps, and that opened in the summer, the traditional blockbuster period.
Now, Superman Returns didn’t do so hot in the long run, and Batman Begins was a sleeper. Warner Bros certainly hopes that Watchmen is much more the second than the first, but this film is so completely it’s own thing that you have to try and figure out just what the realistic expectations were for this movie in the first place.
There’s one element of Hollywood math to keep in mind: except in cases of true disaster (City of Ember last year, for instance), movies always make money. And Watchmen is uniquely poised to make lots of money for Warner Bros by being an almost eternal catalog title, as well as through a shit load of ancillary marketing, including toys, clothes, Black Freighter DVDs, and continued sales of the original book. Walking out of the film with Drew McWeeny of HitFix and Mr. Beaks of Ain’t It Cool, we all agreed this film would probably be the new Blade Runner - a dense, difficult work that would polarize and alienate many, but would go on in a few years to become considered a classic and sell a new DVD/Blu-Ray/VirTrueReality edition every few years.
But that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the opening weekend of the movie. The reality of today is that Watchmen opened to 55.7 million dollars over the three day, and that’s being spun as a bad thing. To those people I have to say: are you fucking kidding me?
Like the film or not, you have to look at Watchmen and admit that Zack Snyder has accomplished one of the great modern acts of corporate smuggling. I don’t think Snyder et al thought this film would be more mainstream or more commercial. I think they just sort of didn’t care. Snyder made the movie as he wanted to make it, and whether you think it works or fails as a film, it has to be acknowledged that Snyder’s Watchmen makes almost not a single concession for the mainstream audience. Anyone who watches the film and then thinks it would be a huge hit with the mall crowd obviously holds middle America in higher esteem than I do; Watchmen is not a movie that plays like a normal blockbuster. Hell, it makes The Dark Knight look like an episode of Superfriends. This was a movie that would always have to fight to build an audience.
The fact that the movie opened higher than two seemingly sure thing Warner superhero properties should be a badge of pride for WB’s marketing team. How do you open Superman Returns? Well, half your job is done for you when it comes to recognition – you tell people a Superman movie opens this weekend and they know what you’re selling. Watchmen had to be sold to the general audience from the ground up. In fact, if one were being uncharitable, one would point out that a possible part of the Saturday drop for Watchmen comes from the fact that the movie that was being sold from the ground up was 300 with superheroes, which this was not. But I’m not being uncharitable; I understand why that tactic was used, and while I think some aspects of the campaign could have been done better (they should have focused on the mystery a lot earlier, for instance), I think the challenge was immense, and they mostly rose to and met it.
The reality is that it’s incredible that Watchmen opened to 55.7 million. That’s a fucking triumph for a movie like this, a movie whose main success is really getting made the way the director wanted it made, especially in a climate when artistic expression clocks in much lower than concerns like building a franchise and hitting the four demographic quadrants. And what Warner Bros has accomplished with Watchmen is something more subtle than making box office dollars: they’ve cemented themselves as an artist friendly blockbuster studio. Filmmakers with heat will look at Warner Bros and see a studio that spends lots of money on weird, offbeat and personal visions, and they’ll be more likely to want to work there. It’s sort of the exact opposite of what is happening with WB’s revenue-sharing Fox partners: people see how shoddy Fox treats filmmakers and they’re less likely to want to go play ball on their lot. And if you can’t attract the talent you can’t attract the numbers in the long run. Once upon a time this was the function Oscar movies served – getting the great talent and the prestige to your studio – but now that Oscar films are the province of the Dependents, maybe Watchmen is a new paradigm for attracting mainstream talent.
So why would any reasonable person look at this movie and then look at the opening weekend and declare it soft or underperforming, when it’s obviously terrific? Self-defense. We’re seeing more and more ‘journalists’ getting into the box office prediction game, which is probably best left to people playing Hollywood Stock Exchange. No offense intended to our own Andre Dellamorte, who at least brings a professional background to his predictions; Dre’s job once required him to be able to accurately assess a film’s box office chances, and not just for shits, giggles or boasts. But as more and more people get into the prediction game, their reputation rests on the reliability of those predictions. And when they’re off wildly – as they were this weekend, with many calling a 70 million dollar weekend – they need to protect that reputation, so they blame the movie, not their own flawed systems and understanding. See, they know what Watchmen should have made, so when it doesn’t, it’s got to be somebody else’s fault.
It’s sort of pathetic. I understand that you want to appear right – Nate Silver isn’t Nate Silver today because he called the election for McCain – but you also have to be honest. You have to step up and say, ‘Yeah, I blew that.’ But they don’t, and their spin becomes fact. Instead of looking at a 3 hour, hard R, low on action movie and being impressed at the numbers, everybody starts talking about how it didn’t break any records. And then that trickles down to other pundits, who pass it along as holy writ. On his Twitter feed today Peter Sciretta of Slashfilm (a generally good guy) said, “The economics of splitting the box office over three studios is why Watchmen underperformed,” a statement so wrong it kind of hurts. First of all, it assumes that the film did underperform, a concept I reject, but it also mistakenly conflates a number of elements. The domestic box office has jack shit to do with splitting the BO over three studios, since one of those studios only gets the foreign box office. And the numbers this weekend have even less to do with splitting the box office; did the movie make 55.7 because people were… aware that three studios were involved? How does splitting the take change the hard numbers that have come out of the weekend? Again, it’s a distortion that gets placed in front of people as fact, and so it becomes truth. Watchmen did underperform. Why? Because we said it did.
As I said before, Watchmen will make money. Warner Bros would surely have loved for the 70 million figure to have been what the movie took. They’re worried about next week. They hope that the film’s hardcore faithful, who flocked to midnight shows, will keep coming back, and maybe bring some others with them in the future. But they’ll make money on it in the long run, and they’ll be trotting out new editions for home viewing for years to come (wait until the Collector Set that comes with the book, for instance). The studio looks good, and I think Zack Snyder comes out ahead as he and his people wrest the spin back on their side – look at how he opens hard R movies, for instance. And there’s no sequel anyway, so as long as nobody is losing their jobs over the theatrical, who cares?
Actually, there is an X factor: Snyder wants his director’s cut (which I suspect features much that will shut down critical naysayers) released in select theaters this summer. If the original run doesn’t earn that much, this rerelease could be nixed. But here’s where things get interesting: Warner Bros has a weak summer. It’s why they moved Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from the winter. While the rerelease of The Dark Knight didn’t change anybody’s life, that film didn’t boast 30 new minutes. Could Warner Bros get that hardcore midnight screening crowd and then some out to see the longer cut in theaters? Quite possibly. If the summer was full of WB moneymakers I wouldn’t even consider this happening, but right now it’s a small possibility.
And in the end, who cares? Why are we getting caught up in the box office? When did loving movies turn into a competitive sport? People get up in arms that Paul Blart: Mall Cop made bank, but I can’t understand how that impacts their lives. It’s a function of the desire for sequels and spin-offs, I think – instead of worrying if the movie is any damn good, we get caught up in whether or not it can spawn more of the same. First and foremost you should care if the movie is good, and you should hope that the filmmaker does the same. If we care about box office at all it should just be caring that a filmmaker you like doesn’t end up with a Heaven’s Gate type career-ender on their hands.
What a movie makes or doesn’t make doesn’t speak to the film’s quality. It never has, and it never will. Instead of pretending that you have some kind of MBA in box office, maybe you should be appreciating the fact that we sometimes get lucky and a genuinely good, original, and artistic movie escapes from the studio system.
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