I always laugh when Nikki Finke, the relentless reporter (and sometimes overly shrill writer) of the must-read Deadline Hollywood blog reflexively reminds her readers that “I don’t do geek” before sharing the news on the latest fanboy film. I chuckle because it’s absolutely impossible to cover the commercial life of Hollywood these days and not do geek. Take a look at the top grossing films of last year and its no surprise that there are a lot of capes and cartoons in the future of your local cineplex.
Next up, of course, is “Watchmen,” which has unique challenges among the recent entries superhero cinema. Among them: It’s long, it’s complicated, it’s rated-R, it has no famous movie stars and, well, how many action figures can you sell for a film where one masked hero sexually assaults a teammate? (For the record: The movie does have a strong ensemble of “actors, not movie stars,” as one producer told me, and you can see them above; left to right, it’s Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson.)
I think movie will do great (just like another brutal and challenging Zack Snyder-directed March release, “300“) but it is intriguing to size up the business issues. Here’s a well-executed Wall Street Journal piece by Jamin Brophy-Warren that uses Thomas Tull, the chief executive officer of Legendary Pictures, as a entry point for the topic. An excerpt:
The 38-year-old Mr. Tull is part of a new generation of film and TV executives who were raised on videogames and comics and are now turning those childhood obsessions into big-budget realities. Last year’s “The Dark Knight” is the second-highest grossing film ever in the U.S., bringing in more than $500 million at the box office. Popular TV shows like “Heroes,” “Lost,” and “Smallville” draw heavily on the imagery and themes of comic-book culture. Directors such as Joss Whedon and writers like Brian K. Vaughan jump back and forth between comics, movies and other media attract thousands of fans at entertainment conventions. Hollywood has embraced these executives because they have the inside track on a coveted audience: teenage boys.
“Watchmen” is the greatest professional challenge yet for Mr. Tull, who, among other things, used to be in the coin-laundry business before launching Legendary. The company, which has a production deal with Warner Bros., put up about half of the $100-million budget for “Watchmen.” Unlike “Dark Knight,” which featured heroes and villains such as Batman and the Joker who are familiar to people who don’t read comics, the new film doesn’t rely on any well-known characters. And while “Dark Knight” starred Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, “Watchmen” doesn’t feature any big-name actors.
More from WSJ…
For the movie industry, “Watchmen” is the first big test of the year. Financing films has become increasingly difficult as the global credit-crunch has tightened wallets. But despite the recession, box-office returns in 2008 were about even last year compared with the previous year, in part due to the success of “Dark Knight.” So far this year, box office is up about 14%, according to Box Office Mojo.
Although Warner Bros. has marketed “Watchmen” heavily and it faces little competition upon its release, the film is not a sure thing. Doug Creutz, vice president of equity research at Cowen & Co., says the movie’s R rating and graphic content could deter some moviegoers — and prevent the target audience of teen boys from seeing it at all. The movie features a long scene of superhero sex and a number of violent scenes throughout, including some particularly bloody ones in a prison-escape sequence. It’s also a long film, clocking in around 2½ hours. Mr. Creutz doesn’t think the film will bomb, and notes that “300″ faced similar hurdles. But he says that if “Watchmen” isn’t a blockbuster, “I think Warner Bros. might be disappointed.”
The comic-book version of “Watchmen,” a dark tale about a world where superheroes are banned and must operate underground, was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. First released as a series in 1986 and 1987, it was hailed for its subversion of comic-book clichés. Superhero tales typically focus on battles between good and evil. The characters in “Watchmen,” however, are flawed and complex, and the moral choices they make are difficult and messy. The comic’s serpentine story is laced with references to poetry, philosophy and music, and features numerous tangents, including a subplot about a sailor lost at sea. “We were doing things that hadn’t been seen before in the superhero genre. I mean, we had a full-frontal nude male,” says Mr. Gibbons.
Ah yes, that famous blue penis. Wait until Finke and the rest of the non-geeks in Hollywood try to figure that one out. There’s a lot more in the WSJ article, you can read it here.
I’m off to San Francisco for WonderCon, hope to see some of you there. Please drop by the panel I’m doing on Saturday with “Watchmen” director Snyder and some cast members, it should be a great event.
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WANT MORE? All “WATCHMEN” coverage at HERO COMPLEX
CREDITS: Top cast photo by Peter Kneffel of EPA, shot in Munich. Images from the film courtesy of Warner Bros.