Early estimates put 300, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book about nobly doomed Spartan warriors, at about 70 million dollars this weekend. That’s an astonishing number, giving 300 the third highest R-rated opening ever (behind The Matrix Reloaded and The Passion of the Christ, both long-awaited installments of popular franchises) and the single highest March opening in history. While flogging the movie at an LA junket, producer Gianni Nunnari raised the possibility of a sequel, but I don’t think that will actually happen. But there will be ripples coming out of the big splash 300 made this weekend.
The most obvious side effect of all this is the Warner Bros is going to fast track Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen. Another R-rated comic book movie, Watchmen might be the holy grail of comic to film projects, having languished for decades. It’s no 300, though, and even the most dim-witted WB execs have to see that. For one thing, there’s much less action. For another, it’s a much bigger movie, and probably essentially more costly. The budget needed to bring Watchmen to life has always been one of the problems getting the film off the ground, along with its unconventional tone and attitude towards superheroes. With his 300 clout, Snyder is going to be able to get the movie made much more the way he wants to, but he’ll still have to compromise along the way. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Watchmen in the coming weeks; Snyder has said he wants to start filming in the late summer, and I imagine we’ll all be meeting the cast of the film this July at Comic Con – maybe we’ll even get a peek at what Doctor Manhattan is going to look like.
300 represents the continuing momentum of the hurtling freight train that is R-rated movies. For a while there it looked like the R-rated big movie might be long gone, as studios stuck to very safe PG-13 movies that could appeal to wider audiences. Many people decried this move, saying that it meant the end of films aimed at adults; what’s funny about the resurgence of R-rated pictures is that almost none of the ones that have been big hits could be considered films for adults – they’re all squarely aimed at 15 year olds, or the 15 year old inside of us all. But the fact that they’re making money at all means that the studios are going to slowly get back into adult movies because someone is going to slip an honest to god, R-rated grown-up concept by them.
The huge March opening also shows that another trend is continuing – the transformation of the blockbuster business into a 12 month a year monster. Before Jaws and Star Wars summer was the dead season, when execs figured people were going on vacation and not to the movies. Ever since then, the summer has been inexorably creeping outwards, with many major films staking claims in April. 300 and last year’s Ice Age: The Meltdown have shown that March is a month where a blockbuster can flourish, and a couple of years’ worth of crummy horror movies have shown that audiences still want to go to theaters in January and February. Much as TV’s summer rerun season is a thing of the past, so is the idea that there’s a specific window for certain big, spectacular movies.
What 300 won’t change is the death of the sword and sandals genre. If anything, 300 is really a fantasy movie, having more in common with Lord of the Rings than Alexander. The success of Sin City didn’t suddenly lead to a return of films noir, since it was obvious that it wasn’t the genre that was drawing crowds. The question I have is whether the bean counters in the system are viewing this as a comic book movie or not, but in the long run I don’t think it matters – we’re quite far past the breaking point for comic books movies. While studios may not continue churning out superhero movies the way they have for the past few years, they will continue to look to comic books of all sorts as the basis of movie ideas.
One of the biggest aspects of 300’s massive money take is that the film was so damn cheap – with a budget of around 60 million, it’s already made back the production costs (of course Warner Bros sold the living shit out of this movie, so it will still have a way to go to earn back prints and advertising, but Hollywood math is all about illusion anyway, so the production budget’s what we’re looking at). I would love to see 300 (and Sin City) be the beginning of a new frugality in Hollywood, where executives see how much return they can get on a reasonable (for the modern day – 60 million is around the AVERAGE cost of a Hollywood film) investment like this. Of course part of what makes this frugality possible, the near-complete use of CG environments, might be tougher (or more expensive) in a movie that doesn’t have a highly stylized look, but one of the few positives to come out of King Kong was showing how convincing a CG city could be. The movies began on soundstages, and it’ll be sort of fitting if they end up there as well. I doubt CG environments will replace real ones any time soon, but then again, the audience’s definition of what is acceptable levels of reality in a motion picture have changed quite a bit over the years.
The reason I want movies to be cheaper is simply that the less they cost, the more likely the studios will be to do something interesting with them. When a movie is pushing 200 million dollars, the studio starts sweating, as math dictates that the film will pretty much need to be one of the biggest earners in history just to ever be profitable. The less a movie costs, the easier it is to recoup the investment, and the easier it is to recoup the investment, perhaps the more leeway the studios will give to talented filmmakers. A Sin City, which cost 40 million, needs to appeal to a much smaller segment of the audience to be a success. George Lucas and friends seem to be more interested in CGI as a way to let filmmakers realize their wildest whims; I’m more interested in it as a way to give filmmakers the economic breathing room to realize their artistic visions.