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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Watchmen' box-office reporting: Not a pretty picture

A wise old Hollywood hand taught me ages ago that the only way you can even begin to figure out a film's profit potential on its opening weekend is by knowing how much it cost to make in the first place.

So, if you were trying to write a halfway knowledgeable story about the opening weekend box office for "Watchmen," you would surely want to mention somewhere how much the movie cost. With that in mind, while most of the buzz in Hollywood today was about whether "Watchmen's" $56-million weekend take was a boffo opening or a bust (since the Zack Snyder-directed film didn't come close to the $70 million Snyder's "300" made on exactly the same date two years ago), I was eyeballing the showbiz media coverage to see if anyone got to the real issue -- was $56 million a good opening for a movie that cost roughly $150 million to make?

I hate to say it, but most of the media flunked their Hollywood math quiz. I've had my beefs with my own newspaper's box-office coverage over the years, but today's piece -- written by David Pierson -- aced the exam. Watchmen_2 The story not only had the $150-million figure but mentioned a key detail, noting that "Watchmen" actually outpaced "300's" Friday numbers, but then fell off badly afterward, something that bodes poorly for the film's performance in days to come. Pierson also noted that this drop-off came despite an aggressive marketing campaign amid "scant competition and an uptick in U.S. movie attendance."

The Wall Street Journal also passed the test, since its story included a budget figure (though it had the budget at only "more than $120 million"). But virtually everyone else flunked. The New York Times, for example, had room in its story to offer a hilarious quote from a Duke University professor (sorry about that tough loss to the Tarheels, big guy) who went to see the film and announced that "Everyone around me liked it a lot more than I did." But the Times didn't bother to dig up a budget number.

The weakest story, sadly, was from Variety, the showbiz trade whose reporters are incredibly knowledgeable but rarely show off their inside-dope in their reporting. So Variety's story had all sorts of arcane information about "Watchmen," including its running time, ratings history, theater count, etc. -- but no budget figure. Since it's apparently impossible for any Variety scribe to describe any showbiz event as "disappointing," the story decided to call the film's performance "lower than expected," though it immediately added the upbeat assessment that the film was "still scoring the best opening of the year and one of the best showings ever for an R-rated film." But a budget figure? Not a chance.

And what about Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke, who last week ran a post saying her box-office experts were predicting that the movie would do $70 million? Well, Nikki flunked the test -- twice. First off, her post on the box-office results, which claimed that the film had a "blockbuster" opening, never mentioned a budget number. And secondly, she took down her original $70 million prediction post, simply clicking a key and making it vanish into thin air. When she's right, she trumpets her scoops with a huge "TOLDJA!" headline. But when her sources are off the mark, she gets rid of the damning evidence. When I e-mailed her, wondering what happened to the original post, she said that her writing over her wrongs was completely transparent. Actually, I'd say it's the complete opposite.

But for the record, here is her response, just the way she e-mailed it to me: "As usual Patrick, and other Monday morning quarterbacks, you don't know what you're talking about. Every weekend I do box office, and some of the time, I leave up the predictions by my box office gurus. And some of the time I refine the predictions as the box office comes in. My goal is to keep up the most accurate box office in real time, and I accomplish that."

So how did "Watchmen" actually do? We'll know for sure next weekend. If it only drops off 30% or 40%, it could hold up well enough here and overseas to turn a profit. But if the drop is closer to the collapse the "Matrix Revolutions" sequel suffered, everyone who has a lot of money in the picture -- starting with Warners -- will be battening down the hatches, since its hard to believe that "Watchmen's" extreme violence and strange Nixonian-era American politics will make it a much bigger winner overseas than here.    

Photo of Matthew Goode, left, as Ozymandias and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian in "Watchmen" by Clay Enos / Warner Bros.

Comments () | Archives (37)

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This might be relevant for other comic book movies, but since a sequel is irrelevant, so is the open. Not an awful article, but is significantly off the mark on the main point.

It's pretty depressing that the media has such a bleak outlook for this film. I saw it this weekend, a Sunday morning (10:45 am-the earliest showing) in Northern California, and the theater was surprisingly packed. Unlike the NY Times writer, not a single person walked out of the theater.

In addition, the demographics of the audience seemed pretty diverse, couples, individuals, as well as both males and females. Several other critiques on the debut weekend have mentioned that the movie's long running time may have had a lot to do with the resulting weak profits. If you think about it, "Watchmen" is 163 minutes, whereas the film, "300" is 117 mins. So, "Watchmen" is 40% longer than "300", reducing the number of times a theater can play it. If you use straight math as an estimate, had "Watchmen" been the same length, it would have come away with about $77.6 million this weekend, blowing those estimates out of the water.

I haven't read the graphic novel, so I didn't understand everything that was going on as I watched it. However, as some critics have related it to "The Matrix", sometimes that level of intrigue is a good thing because it intices the viewer to see it again. Needless to say, I plan to watch it again, and I plan on convincing some friends to watch it for the first time.

Oops, I meant to reference the Chicago Times writer who said people walked out of the film there, not the NY Times.

Thank you, Patrick, for laying out the real issue when it comes to box office figures: what does the opening gross mean in terms of the cost of the movie in question? I'm in my first year of an MBA program and the first formula we learned on day one was the profit equation: Profit = Revenue - Cost. The true significance of a $56 million dollar opening lies in the cost of the movie and what the opening means in terms of subsequent weeks (e.g. the tracking for 'Watchmen' that pointed out the declining Saturday/Sunday numbers). Kudos.

I think you are being a bit critical. I am sure Watchmen wont be considered a huge moneymaker, but it should be able to recoup its budget. Watchmen is known world-wide and these fans will definately spend on a DVD that will be coming loaded with extra's.

I find it curious that so many are speculating eagerly about its failure. I appreciate the creative risks taken...

It comes down to this: Do you mind watching a blue schlong swinging around in a non-porn movie?

Who cares about the Budget Figures, anyway? I mean is Joe Theater-goer waiting anxiously for the press to break the weekly budget figure news? IS there a newspaper that dedicates all of its intellectual output only to budget figures? No.
Just do a story that says: Hey everybody, there's a new film opening called Watchmen. Go see it and tell us what you think. Have a nice weekend. Or something like that. The rest is really unimportant. We need GOOD news. Not budget news.

Maybe the "poor" opening numbers reflect a recent increase in some theater prices to 10.50 a ticket, plus tax.

When you make seven dollars an hour, and the price of everything has gone up tremendously, where is your money better spent?

Movie attendance may be up but from what I've seen it's all in bargain matinees and not full price evening showings. Those 6.00 tickets offer significantly less profit to all involved then the 10.50 ones.

I had no clue Nikki Fink still had a job.

Friday's Watchmen number was NOT ahead of 300... it was behind by about 14%. But yes, it did drop faster than 300 over its opening 3 days.

And the $150 million figure... that is what WB admits, not what is real.

No doubt, many outlets did much, much worse in covering this story. But there are many mistakes in the body of the LAT story.

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