watchmen manhattan screaming

“Who is watching the Watchmen?” Just about everyone…or so it seems.

The brand new film adaptation of the classic graphic comic Watchmen is a hit of monstrous proportions on its opening weekend, but not everyone loves it. In fact, not only is there a prominent character named Rorschach (played by Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley), the film itself is serving as a Rohrschach Test for critics, fanboys and the broader public.

First let’s look at the cold hard numbers. As I first reported Friday morning, the midnight preview screenings generated an estimated $4.5M. Contrary to some reports, that is a huge early sale. E! Online reported that the take was merely “decent,” and one analyst speculated that the picture would finish in the $46M-$50M range for the weekend. The article and analyst were off-the-mark.

There was no way for Watchmen to approach the $18.5M midnight start for last summer’s The Dark Knight. First off, it is March and not the middle of summer blockbuster season. Kids have school. People are working. These are not the lazy days of July when it is easier for many to see a movie at midnight on Thursday, and hit the office late on Friday. The other factor is the movie’s rating. This is an R-rated movie, not PG-13 like The Dark Knight.

The Thursday night start for Watchmen was 44% better than the $2.5M midnight shows for director Zack Snyder’s last epic 300 (also rated R). It was also virtually double the $2.3M midnight start for November’s Quantum of Solace (PG-13). Those are much better comparables than The Dark Knight or say last year’s PG-13 rated Twilight, which grabbed a reported $7M midnight preview gross.

Watchmen has been spectacular at the box office all day long, and, after consulting with multiple sources, I am projecting a staggering $25.2M (that does include midnight previews) for Friday. That is approximately the 32nd-best opening day in modern box office history, but it is the all-time #12 opening day for a non-sequel.

ALL-TIME TOP 15 OPENING DAYS FOR A NON-SEQUEL
1. Spider-Man – $39.4M
2. Twilight – $35.9M
3. Iron Man – $35.2M
4. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone – $32.3M
5. The Simpsons Movie – $30.7M
6. I Am Legend – $30M
7. The Da Vinci Code – $28.6M
8. 300 – $28.1M
9. Transformers – $27.8M
10. Sex & The City – $26.7M
11. The Passion of the Christ – $26.5M
12. Watchmen – $25.2M (projected)
13. Planet of the Apes – $24.6M
14. Hulk – $24.2M
15. The Day After Tomorrow – $23.5M

When the numbers get this big, and the movie is this front-loaded, 3-day projections are problematic, but I am going with $62.5M (my final prediction on published Wednesday was $63M). It is possible that the movie will manage a better “internal multiplier” and start inching closer to $70M, but I am at $62.5M for now. If the number holds, that would give Watchmen the all-time #4 opening weekend for an R-rated movie, trailing only Matrix Reloaded, Passion of the Christ (which had better source material contrary to what fanboys may believe) and Snyder’s 300.

ALL-TIME TOP 10 OPENINGS FOR AN R-RATED MOVIE
1. The Matrix Reloaded – $91.7M
2. The Passion of the Christ – $83.8M
3. 300 – $70.8M
4. Watchmen – $62.5M (projected)
5. Hannibal – $58M
6. Sex & The City – $57M
7. 8 Mile – $51.2M
8. Wanted – $50.9M
9. The Matrix Revolutions – $48.5M
10. Troy – $46.8M

One interesting facet of this movie is the fact that three different major studios have a piece of the action. Warner Bros owns domestic distribution rights, Paramount has the foreign and Fox, which won a very public battle over the rights to the movie, is getting 5%-8.5% of gross participation that will be set by the film’s worldwide revenue success. That puts an awful lot of powerful Hollywood types on the same team, working to ensure Watchmen’s success.

Critics are divided about Watchmen as a movie. The movie has a 65% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the most established critics – what Rotten Tomatoes classifies as the Cream of the Crop – has generated a lower 43% positive reviews. Here’s a sampling from writers that I know and like.

Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal
“The reverence is inert, the violence noxious, the mythology murky, the tone grandiose, the texture glutinous. It’s an alternate version of The Incredibles minus the delight.”

Pete Hammond, Hollywood.com –
“A stunning, mind-bending, breathtaking densely-packed motion picture experience.”

David Poland, Movie City News –
“The problem with Watchmen is, in the end, that it is a bit of a big stiff bore for two acts with an improved, but mostly uninspired third act. Look at Watchmen from the back to the front. Do you care about what has happened to any of these characters, except Rorschach, by the time you leave the theater?”

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“After the revelation of The Dark Knight here is Watchmen, another bold exercise in the liberation of the superhero movie. It’s a compelling visceral film.”

Obviously, the reviews are all over the board. Although, there’s no question that the writer of the original Watchmen graphic novel, the enigmatic Alan Moore, hates the movie, it’s just as certain that he has not and will never see it. In fact, he put a curse on the whole project.

Director Zack Snyder signed on for a gig that proved too tough and too problematic for the likes of brilliant filmmakers like Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, The Fountain) and Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum). Perhaps Alan Moore is right. His book is “inherently unfilmable.” There’s no way to pack the dense details of the brilliant 1986 landmark into a movie – even when it’s 2 hours, 43 minutes long.

I am a huge fan of the graphic novel having read it in college. I deliberately didn’t re-read Watchmen in advance of the movie because I think it needs to be judged as its own individual piece of work. Snyder’s problem all along has been, “How do you make a movie that both satisfies hardcore fans and is accessible enough for people who have never even heard of Watchmen?”

For the time being, the spectacle, the buzz, the fanboy fervor and a pitch-perfect marketing campaign have set the stage for an historic 3-day opening. Once the mainstream audience discovers that Watchmen is more about ideas than it is about heroes with capes, it will be interesting to see how it holds up. For comparison’s sake, 300 fell 53% from its opening weekend of $70.8M, but the drop-off will almost certainly be bigger here.

300 ended up at $210.6M domestic and $456M worldwide, but Watchmen is likely to fall short of those numbers. In fact, whereas 300 finished with a 2.97 multiple (2.97 X $70.8M = total domestic box), Watchmen is more likely to be in the 2.5-2.6 range. That would translate to a, still impressive, final US gross of $155M-$160M.

EXCLUSIVE STEVE MASON EARLY FRIDAY ESTIMATES
1. NEW – Watchmen (Warner Bros) – $25M, $6,923 PTA, $25M cume
2. Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes To Jail (Lionsgate) – $2.43M, $1,130 PTA, $70.13M cume
3. Taken (Fox) – $2.21M, $733 PTA, $112.8M cume
4. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) – $2.05M, $709 PTA, $120.56M cume
5. He’s Just Not That Into You (Warner Bros) – $1.3M, $532 PTA, $81.92M cume
6. Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience (Disney) – $1.27M, $995 PTA, $15.27M cume
7. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony) – $995,000, $389 PTA, $130.43M cume
8. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Disney) – $865,000, $378 PTA, $36.1M cume
9. Coraline (Focus) – $725,000, $357 PTA, $63.07M cume
10. Fired Up (Sony) – $700,000, $389 PTA, $11.46M cume

EXCLUSIVE STEVE MASON EARLY 3-DAY ESTIMATES
1. NEW – Watchmen (Warner Bros) – $62.5M, $19,274 PTA, $69.6M cume
2. Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes To Jail (Lionsgate) – $8.62M, $4,010 PTA, $76.33M cume
3. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) – $7.58M, $2,625 PTA, $126.1M cume
4. Taken (Fox) – $7.44M, $2,469 PTA, $118.04M cume
5. Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience (Disney) – $4.95M, $3,882 PTA, $18.95M cume
6. He’s Just Not That Into You (Warner Bros) – $4.05M, $1,659 PTA, $84.68M cume
7. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony) – $3.93M, $1,537 PTA, $133.37M cume
8. Coraline (Focus) – $3.11M, $1,591 PTA, $65.48M cume
9. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Disney) – $2.81M, $1,228 PTA, $38M cume
10. Friday the Thirteenth (Warner Bros) – $2.06M, $1,212 PTA, $63.9M cume

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