Sunday, March 15, 2009

Watching the Box Office

I've been holding off on writing this entry until after preliminary box office figures came in for Watchmen's 2nd week in release. However, now they are in - and they are pretty much in line with what I expected: Watchmen posted an approximate 67% drop from from its opening weekend, according to early estimates.

This is not the least bit surprising to me. The film seemed to largely satisfy (if not amaze or inspire for return visits) many of those who had read the graphic novel. However, from my casual perusal of the web and Twitter comments, it seemed to generally alienate (if not bore) those who had not read the book. Its complex narrative structure became inaccessible or incomprehensible. Further, by removing both the rich backstory of the main characters as well as the subplots and minor storylines to accommodate the time constraints involved in telling a feature-length film, it seemed to lose something in the translation to screen. While those familiar with the comic might have been able to "read the backstory" of the comic into the film (or be satisified in knowing that the DVD would supply many of these additional materials down the road), those who came to the material for the first time were likely to encounter essentially an arthouse superhero film.

The problem with it being an arthouse superhero film was even more complicated by the fact that a) it wasn't a very good one if viewed on its own merits, as opposed to in relation to the source material; and b) it had been marketed by Warner Bros. as "just another superhero action film." In the short term, Warners' decision to minimize the film's complexity in its marketing materials might have served it well: thus, the opening weekend box office was solid, if not breathtaking. However, with regard to the film's longer term viability, such strategies are more problematic. This is most immediately apparent from the way the film has quickly crashed and burned at the box office as fans of the comic book (at least, those that I know, and whose responses I have read online) seem to have decided that it is not worth seeing again in theaters. This is further compounded by the negative buzz, which has contributed to disinterest on the part of many of those who are not part of the relatively narrow niche of individuals who have read the book.

Now one can certainly argue that in the longer term, the film may do okay financially. I imagine the DVD sales will be quite solid for those who want to see all the additional materials that had to be excised from the film due to time constraints. In addition, the success of the film has led to a dramatic increase in the sales of the graphic novel, which in turn will lead to more interest in the movie...and so on.

Nonetheless, in spite of the potential long term viability of Watchmen, it seems quite likely that the film's disappointing box office returns -- if not outright failure -- will reinvigorate discussions about the extent to which Hollywood's business model for theatrically-oriented motion pictures is increasingly out whack with marketplace realities. It seemed that this discussion had begun to be initiated last year when Speed Racer crashed and burned at the box office. Yet that conversation was cut short by the astounding performance of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, thereby leading to the repeated declarations of the age of the comic book movie and the continuing longevity of the big budget event film as the raison d'etre for Hollywood.

Now it seems this conversation is likely to appear again. However, I wonder whether the questions asked -- or responses provided -- will be the right ones. It is well known that theatrical box office accounts for ever-diminishing amounts of the overall income for motion pictures. The premiere of feature films has become an exercise in establishing the brand for future markets (most especially DVD). Yet in spite of this, the size of (domestic) theatrical returns are seen as an indicator for future returns -- thus if a movie takes in smaller-than-expected amounts at the box office, it is anticipated that returns down the road (especially in terms of DVD and merchandise sales) will also be smaller than expected. Thus, tremendous energy is expended on promoting the film early on, in the hopes that it will not only take off (and "have legs" in theaters) but also in ancillary markets.

But what seems to have emerged in this day and age is that box office discourse has taken on a life of its own. We hear constantly about box office grosses everywhere-- in the pages of USA Today, on the nightly broadcasts of Entertainment Tonight and so on. These reports suggest to an uninformed general public that box office in itself has meaning -- that $100 million at the box office means $100 million to Warner Bros. Anyone who follows the industry to any extent knows that of course this isn't the case. However, the mere fact that it these numbers are reported regularly to the public means that studios have defined their marketing practices in part to drive excessive opening weekends so that the film builds or sustains buzz for aftermarkets. What all this means is that box office returns have become symbolic practices, leading to material realities that differ from those promoted by the popular media.

Watchmen doesn't merely have the potential to provoke a reassessment of the meaning of box office, however. It might also contribute to a reconsideration of the reasons why certain movies get made and others do not. It seems fairly safe to say now that, however satisfying a movie such as Watchmen may have been to some fans -- and however much it may be an even better film when re-experienced in various ways on DVD -- it never should have been made in the manner it was. This is not to say it should not have been made at all, but rather that, given its budget level, combined with additional marketing expenses, it is unlikely that any (relatively faithful) iteration of Watchmen could have done well at the box office. Of course, this lesson is one that has been learned repeatedly as director after director came and went from the project and one studio after another ran the numbers and put the project in turnaround. The film was not made for so many years in part because of the difficulties of adapting the script effectively and in part because of the challenges of maintaining something near the original vision of the graphic novel in a cost effective manner. (The problem with Watchmen, in particular, is that there is no way that it could have been made as a feature that was faithful to the source material without spending this kind of money -- which is why some have long argued it would have worked better as an HBO-style TV mini-series.)

But Warners made it anyway. From one (narrower) perspective, I am thrilled that the company was willing to take a (measured) chance on material that was more narratively challenging, thematically rich, and aesthetically complex than, for example The Incredible Hulk. But I have to wonder if, in the end, this very risk will end up setting back more ambitious projects in the long run. To what extent will a perceived underperformance of this film lead to more conservative behavior on the part of film executives down the road? As yet another reason for saying no when -- just as a few months earlier -- The Dark Knight might have provided a reason for saying yes?

And I'm not just speaking about comic book adaptations here, but any project which can not only be marketed as simple and accessible but also IS in fact that way when experienced in theaters?

It will be interesting to see if - or the extent to which - Watchmen is discussed by the press and industry in ensuing months. What lessons will be taken from the film? What will be the consequences of its box office performance, both in terms of what is greenlit and who will keep or lose their jobs? To what extent, in this age of multimedia conglomerates, can or will one film have any substantive impact on corporate practices and production decisions? And when - if ever - will the popular tales told about box office returns be challenged or complicated by a wider range of bloggers, reporters, etc?

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