By Sean Collier
March 19, 2009
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.