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Will 'Watchmen' be big enough?

Die-hard fans are pumped up for this week's opening, but a lack of strong interest among teenage boys could lower expectations for the Warner Bros. release.

March 03, 2009|John Horn

Director Zack Snyder has said he labored to adapt the ground-breaking graphic novel "Watchmen" faithfully, so that comic book fanatics would not be disappointed.

Whether another segment of the audience will be enthusiastic is another question.

In a notable sign, surveys of potential moviegoers released Monday suggest that young males may not be embracing the movie as heartily as older die-hard devotees who can't wait for "Watchmen's" arrival in theaters this weekend. Young men, especially teens, are a critical component of the moviegoing audience because their ticket purchases can transform a mere hit into a global blockbuster.

Hollywood has been looking to "Watchmen" as one of the year's first breakout triumphs. Movie attendance already has surged through the year's first two months, with box-office receipts up about 17% compared with a year ago. The superhero movie "Watchmen," adapted from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 1985 graphic novel series, is likely to continue the positive streak in the film's premiere weekend.

At issue now is whether Snyder's new movie can surpass the performance of his last effort -- the 2007 sword-and-sandal swashbuckler "300," which grossed $70.9 million in its first three days on its way to selling more than $210 million in tickets in North America.Warner Bros. and partners Paramount Pictures and Legendary Pictures have invested about $150 million in making "Watchmen" -- more than twice the $64-million budget of "300." Warner Bros. spent millions more in a legal fight over "Watchmen's" film rights with 20th Century Fox. Given the steep production costs -- and the fact that Warner Bros. is paying Fox 8.5% of the film's gross receipts to settle the lawsuit -- "Watchmen" will need to have more than a couple of big weekends to become profitable.

Audience tracking surveys suggest the movie will open with a bang but can't predict how long it will stick around. Even so, studies of moviegoing tendencies can be notoriously unreliable. For example, they suggested a bigger opening for last weekend's "Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience" and a smaller premiere for Tyler Perry's "Madea Goes to Jail" on Feb. 20. But they do reveal some consistent trends about "Watchmen."

Rival distribution executives said the tracking surveys show that "Watchmen" holds remarkably strong appeal among older males but less interest among teenage boys and men in their 20s, and still less passion from women of any age.

Compared with the tracking studies of audience interest for "300" conducted a week before it opened, the "Watchmen" numbers are highly similar, but with differences.

"Watchmen" is showing similar "awareness" -- a measure of how many filmgoers know a film is coming out -- as did "300" a week before it opened. And "definite interest," a stronger measure, is nearly identical. Both films are R-rated.

But men under 25 were less aware and less interested in attending "Watchmen" than men over 25. At the same time, women of all ages were significantly less interested in "Watchmen" than men.

The gap between older and younger moviegoers may be due more to marketing than the movie itself.

Executives at rival studios also say the film's marketing materials have failed to make "Watchmen's" story line accessible, crafting a campaign that they say is narrowly aimed at the core fan base rather than a broader segment of the market.

Warner Bros. declined to comment.

Taken together, the data suggest that the film's opening weekend grosses could trail "300's" opening mark, with "Watchmen" perhaps debuting with sales of about $60 million, executives at rival studios estimated. And if the 2-hour, 43-minute film is going to benefit from word of mouth, "Watchmen" will need to generate better moviegoer recommendations than it has been getting from trade newspaper reviewers and magazine critics.

Other executives are more bullish on the film's prospects, with one predicting it will surpass "300's" opening weekend. "Watchmen," in this view, is an ambitious, effects-filled spectacle, a summer movie in the middle of spring.

Imax, which will begin showing "Watchmen" at midnight screenings Thursday (many of which already are sold out), with subsequent screenings in its large-format theaters early Friday at 3 a.m., says the interest in Snyder's new film is palpable.

"Our advance ticket sales for 'Watchmen' are crushing what they were on '300,' " said Greg Foster, chairman and president of Imax Filmed Entertainment. Playing in 62 domestic Imax theaters, "300" grossed $20 million two years ago, while "Watchmen" will open in 124 Imax screens, Foster says.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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