Watching and Waiting

March 03, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Can there be a March blockbuster? This is a question that hangs over Hollywood, casting its shadow into every nook and cranny. Even those who don't care a whit about Watchmen as a film recognize that the implications of its success (or lack thereof) may determine how release schedules are mapped for years to come. To this point, there are only two recognized "blockbuster safe" zones: early May through early August and November/December. Watchmen is trying to expand the envelope. But here's the multi-hundred-million dollar question: Is this really a blockbuster or is this just an overhyped niche movie with a passionate fan base?

Warner Brothers is intentionally downplaying their public expectations for Watchmen, indicating that 300-like numbers would be "exceptional." They cite two factors that will likely "hold down" potential revenue (both first weekend and long-term): the film's R-rating and its length (165 minutes). In reality, however, those are both red herrings. 300 was able to achieve a $210 million overall domestic gross and $71 million first weekend domestic gross despite an R-rating. (It's also worth noting that 300 was also a WB film released in early March.) As for length, the two highest-grossing movies of all time (Titanic and The Dark Knight) clocked in at 150 minutes or longer.

The reality is that Warner Brothers is hoping Watchmen exceeds 300 by significant amounts. These days, it takes a total domestic gross of about $300 million to reach true blockbuster status. The old levels of $100 million and $200 million are no longer valid - too many films reach those plateaus and ticket price inflation has diminished their importance. If Watchmen doesn't blow past 300, it will be viewed by some as a "miss." Unfair? Yes, but that's the way it is. Remember Peter Jackson's King Kong? Despite a total U.S. gross of $218 million, it was widely referred to as "a failure." Why? Because it didn't reach $300 million. So what is Warner Brothers' actual hope for Watchmen? Around $80-90 million on the first weekend and close to $300 million overall. But does Watchmen have the backing and broad-based appeal to reach that level? Consider that, since January 2007, only seven movies have topped the $300 million mark. Granted, three were comic book movies, but all featured "franchise-type" characters. And, of those seven pictures, only two were not sequels. Can Watchmen play in that company?

If Watchmen performs at or near Warner Brothers' expectations, it will legitimately open the doorway for March to be viewed as another safe harbor for blockbusters. It is conceivable that the so-called "summer window" could expand to include March and April, creating an extended period for big-budget releases that would last from March 1 to early August. This would drastically alter the release dynamic. On the other hand, if Watchmen underperforms, the studios will take that as a signal that March isn't ready for prime time.

That's the business side of things. What about how movie-goers view the arrival of Watchmen?

Watchmen is unquestionably an event movie. Event movies are not necessarily blockbusters, and blockbusters are not always event movies, but there's a strong correlation between the two. Event movies are greatly anticipated by groups of die-hard fans, and this anticipation sometimes spreads to the general population. Event movies often generate incredible amounts of hype but sometimes result in huge opening weekend box office spikes followed by a rapid decline. Non-event blockbusters often provide less spectacular but more steady revenue over an extended period of time. Consider an example... Few would debate that the early Star Trek features (in particular, the first one) were event movies. The same could be said of last year's Sex and the City. Yet none of those films, even adjusted for inflation, achieved the level of a blockbuster. On the other hand, 2004's Meet the Fockers made $279 million. In 2009 dollars, that's $323 million, which qualifies it as a blockbuster. By no one's definition was Meet the Fockers an event movie.

It feels different to sit in a theater, especially on the first weekend, and watch an event movie than it does to watch a regular motion picture - even one that is packing in crowds. Event movies are accompanied by an energy and excitement that are absent from normal productions, even if those are blockbusters. People write about Watchmen, blog about Watchmen, talk about Watchmen, and count down the hours until Watchmen has its first screening. How many viewers did those things for Meet the Fockers?

The great unknown about Watchmen is whether it will be able to do what The Dark Knight and Iron Man did and cross over to the mainstream. Because the graphic novel upon which it is based is widely considered one of the best graphic novels of all time, there is a strong, enthusiastic fan base. Beyond that inner circle are the general adult comic book lovers, and it's hard to see any of them missing Watchmen, although they may wait a day or two. But will anyone beyond those groups care about the film? Therein lies the answer to the question of whether Watchmen will be a moderate hit or a monster success. It's not for lack of publicity. The trailer has been everywhere. And the legal wrangling associated with the film's distribution rights raised Watchmen's profile. (Conspiracy theorists suggest that perhaps there was no rights dispute and that the entire affair was concocted as a ploy to raise awareness about the movie.) Now it comes down to a simple equation: Can the movie satisfy fans without alienating or confusing those who have never read the graphic novel?

So Watchmen fans wait - some devouring every crumb of rumor they can uncover, some avoiding spoilers like leprosy. Friday, March 6 at 12:01 a.m. is already marked in red on their calendars. This is how it is with event movies. They don't represent "just another trip to the multiplex." Ticket holders arrive early not to get the best seats but to be part of the experience. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers waits as well, but for different reasons. And analysts will watch Watchmen to see if this movie is going to change the landscape or just become another flagstone in a path that is already well trodden.