Hollywood Psych
By Sean Collier
March 19, 2009

The girl knows how to rock some bangs.

In Hollywood, people do things. Actors do things. Directors do things. Producers do a great many things, and few of them make much sense. Executives do things, and writers do things (quietly, and alone.) Outside of Hollywood, people do things, too. Distributors do things, then in turn and according to specific directions, movie theaters do things. Critics do things, but sadly, very few people notice. Most importantly, we, as the collective moviegoing public, do things. Here at Box Office Prophets, we are proud to tell you who did things, when and where they did them, and just how much money was involved. In Hollywood Psych, I'm going to wait until these things are done, and then tackle the tough question: why.

Zack Snyder has now helmed two vastly ambitious comic book adaptations. The releases of these films were separated, almost precisely, by two years. 300 was released to American theaters on March 9, 2007, and Watchmen hit theaters March 6, 2009. Therefore, we have two comic book adaptations, released on the same weekend a mere two years apart, from the same director, but with widely divergent expectations.

Before its release, 300 was seen as something of an also-ran, a quick follow-up to fellow Frank Miller graphic-novel-turned-film Sin City. Previews showing off 300's unique, flashy visual style certainly grabbed some attention, but little fanfare and buildup accompanied the historic(ally questionable) epic. Some surprise was in order, then, when 300 opened to $70 million (the biggest March opening ever, by the way) en route to a $210 million finish.

Conversely, the hype for the film adaptation of Watchmen, almost universally accepted as the finest graphic novel of all time, has 20 years of history. The alternate-reality comic first had parties interested in a big screen rendition soon after the release of the comic books in the mid-'80s; a never-ending stay in development hell seemed to suggest that the film would never get made. The book was too big to adapt, the story too cumbersome, the requirements of capturing the look of the artwork and style too daunting. Yet, Snyder stepped up to the plate and, after a year of trailers and ubiquitous hype, delivered an incredibly expensive gift to comic fans everywhere.

Yet, despite build-up, inescapable marketing campaigns, and a fine bit of source material, Watchmen did not meet expectations. It failed, in fact, to even hit the mark set by 300 two years prior, turning in a total of $55 million over its opening frame, and falling off a cliff for a second week tally of just under $18 million. At this point, it looks less and less likely that Watchmen will make its money back.

It's hard to determine what gave 300 an edge over Watchmen. Obviously, several factors are readily eliminated, as nothing can be attributed to release date (the same,) director (the same,) genre (the same,) or cast (similarly low-profile in each release, with a possible slight edge to Watchmen.) These are, traditionally, some of the easiest ways to predict and analyze box office performance – who is in it, who made it, what's hot right now, and so forth.

Studio execs were quick to point out that Watchmen's lengthy runtime prevented some amount of business; a nearly three-hour movie, will generally have one less showing daily than a two-hour movie. This is something of a fallacy in this case, however, due to the extraordinarily high screen count for Watchmen, a record number for an R-rated film. While 300 may have had a few more showings, there was certainly more than enough opportunity for moviegoers to see the film. (Also, generally speaking, when studio execs offer excuses for an underwhelming performance, it's a smoke and mirrors tactic. They don't want you to notice that the film just plain didn't do too well.)

Watchmen's length was also perceived to be potentially off-putting for moviegoers on the fence; however, a quick look at recent yearly box office champs reveals that there's certainly no stigma against long films. Watchmen's length was nearly identical to that of The Dark Knight, and audiences certainly had no trouble sitting through it. The Spider-Man films, the Lord of the Rings series, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies; we have more than ample evidence that length is simply not a deterrent.

By all accounts, 300 and Watchmen stepped into the ring evenly matched. While Watchmen had a longer history, more prestige, more ads, and a more devoted fanbase, 300 had broader appeal, a lighter feel, and an innovative (for the time) look. So what gave 300 the edge? Why couldn't Watchmen deliver on 20 years of hope and promise?

2009, thus far, has been an interesting year at the cinema. Despite a massive recession and steep drops in retail sales, the box office has been strong, with nearly every week beating the same frame last year. Unlikely hits have included Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Taken, not to mention a surprisingly big weekend (followed by a death plunge) for Friday the 13th. The trend here is escapism. Action, comedy and horror are the genres of diversion, and emotional escapes from reality. If we laugh, scream, or are taken in by high-intensity action sequences, we're not thinking about politics, our jobs, the economy, which Wall Street executives we'd like to punch in the eye, and so on.

This spells trouble for any film that makes us stop and think. Watchmen, with themes of political impotence, international nuclear proliferation, and the ever-presence of possible annihilation is far from light fare. If the numbers are showing people are going to the movies to escape, this is not the film for this year's moviegoers. This is a heavy, heady piece, not a diversion.

Does making this argument amount to writing off Watchmen's struggles as a product of the economy, the current scapegoat du jour for any and all trouble? Possibly. But it's not just that Watchmen can't match the take of 300 – it can't match the take of 90 minutes of Kevin James falling down. Something is amiss, here. It'll be interesting to see how these trends play out as the year rolls on and the economy struggles to right itself.