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'Watchmen' is going largely unwatched

COMPANY TOWN

The Warner Bros. superhero epic generates buzz but falls short of blockbuster status at the box office.

March 13, 2009|Claudia Eller

Everybody is talking about "Watchmen."

Now if only more people would watch it.

Amid a flurry of anticipation and hype, director Zack Snyder's superhero epic opened last weekend with $55.2 million in U.S. ticket sales -- a solid but less-than-blockbuster debut for a movie that Warner Bros. and its partners will have spent $200 million-plus to make and market.

The question now is whether all the Internet and water cooler chatter will translate into footsteps into the theaters this weekend.

"The film had a very respectable opening," said Christopher Dixon, managing director at Gabelli Group Capital Partners. "The killer, of course, is whether the picture is able to sustain its popularity."

Warner Bros. has a lot riding on "Watchmen." Like all its rivals, the Time Warner Inc. studio is under pressure to improve its bottom line amid shrinking DVD sales and a challenged economy. Warner Bros. spent millions of dollars fighting a lengthy legal battle with rival 20th Century Fox over the rights to "Watchmen." While Warner retained the right to release the movie as planned, the court recently ordered the studio to pay Fox up to 8.5% of the film's gross receipts and reimburse its $1.5 million of development costs.

For "Watchmen" to be a breakout hit, it will not only have to entice new and repeat business from fanboys but attract a more hesitant general audience, which may be hard to lure given the R-rated film's explicit violence and dark overtones. Comic book fanatics and critics have been divided. Some love it because it is faithful to the best-selling graphic novel of all time. Others think it's long and boring.

The good news for Warner Bros. is that the controversy has created buzz. "Because of its polarizing nature, my hope is that the debate carries people into the theater," said Jeff Robinov, Warner Bros. Pictures president.

Based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's acclaimed comic book series, "Watchmen" is a murder mystery set in an alternate 1985 America governed by Richard Nixon and populated by retired costumed superheroes who band together to investigate a murder of one of their own.

The DC comic book property has been equated to "Moby Dick," "War and Peace," even called the "Holy Grail" of graphic novels.

Known as Hollywood's big-event movie and franchise-centric studio, Warner Bros. had high hopes for "Watchmen" when it took on the project three years ago after it had made the studio rounds for decades.

The studio has been hot to develop a new generation of comic-based movies from its rich library of DC Comics characters. Warner's last DC project, "The Dark Knight," was a global runaway hit, grossing just over $1 billion. But the comic book publisher has not had the kind of success that rival Marvel Studios has had transforming such properties as "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and "Iron Man" into big-screen juggernauts.

And Warner Bros.' earlier attempts to cash in on Hollywood's comic book movie mania with such releases as "V for Vendetta" and "Constantine" were far less lucrative. And "Catwoman," starring Halle Berry, was a wipeout.

Warner will begin production April 13 on its next DC title, "Jonah Hex," an action adventure starring Josh Brolin and John Malkovich and directed by Jimmy Hayward.

More immediately, the prospects for "Watchmen" will depend on good word of mouth. It doesn't help that last weekend the film received a "B" rather than an "A" grade by CinemaScore, which polls moviegoers as they leave theaters.

"The element of word of mouth may not be translating," said Jeff Gomez, a "transmedia" consultant who helps companies convey stories and themes of genre movies across multiple platforms. "For average moviegoers, it's hard to get an emotional bond with these characters."

Warner's Robinov insists that despite that "Watchmen's" opening fell below industry expectations, he was "elated" with its debut given that the film had no big stars, a hard R rating, and a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, meaning it has fewer showings per day.

"It's a very complicated movie. . . . It's how ["A Clockwork Orange" director] Stanley Kubrick would have tackled a comic book movie. It's not a conventional plot-driven film."

For that reason, he said, it's unfair to measure "Watchmen's" opening and ultimate success against the $70.9 million debut of Zack Snyder's unexpected 2007 smash hit "300," an R-rated epic that cost $65 million to make and went on to gross $456 million worldwide.

Robinov said because "Watchmen" is not an obvious commercial movie, he has somewhat tempered expectations for it long term.

"It's not 'Iron Man,' 'Spider-Man' or 'Dark Knight' [all PG-13 films] -- it's a much different movie but one that I'm very proud of."

Robinov said the studio's risk is mitigated because it has two financial partners, Paramount Pictures, which is distributing the film overseas, and Legendary Pictures, which has co-financed many Warner Bros. movies.

"The primary focus of the major studios is to find tentpoles that in success can go a long way to justify paying for their huge overhead," said Dixon, noting that with "Watchmen," the studio "went into the vaults to see if it could come up with a relatively unexploited property. If the movie doesn't connect, it will have to go back into the vault and find another one."

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the works

Warner is poised to begin shooting its next DC Comics title, "Jonah Hex," an action- adventure story starring Josh Brolin and John Malkovich and directed by newcomer Jimmy Hayward, on April 13. The studio has a number of other DC properties in development, among them such high-priority projects as "Green Lantern," to be directed by Martin Campbell, "The Flash," and another "Batman."

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