The Big Picture

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

March 9, 2009 |  6:34 pm

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.

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