'Watchmen' boxoffice forecast tricky

Film has more scrutiny than most 1Q releases

Who's watching the Watchmen is a recurring theme in Zack Snyder's new superhero film.

It's a question that applies equally to Warner Bros.

The studio that turned the darker side of men in capes into boxoffice gold last summer with "The Dark Knight" will try to do the same next week when it releases "Watchmen," an ensemble picture about a group of superheroes in an alternative, Nixonian America.

Riding a trail of fanboy hype and unwanted legal headlines, the movie comes out under more scrutiny than any other first-quarter property in years.

Among its many questions, the film pits the virtues of Snyder, who has proved he can turn out a hit male-centric action movie, against the potential drawbacks of comic-book writer Alan Moore, who has a disappointing big-screen track record.

In other words, will "Watchmen" be "300" or "V for Vendetta"?

Snyder is enough of a brand that Warners has used him extensively in its marketing materials, but Moore -- who famously distances himself from movie adaptations of his work -- has yielded a number of flops. With domestic grosses of $66.5 million and $31.6 million, respectively, his "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "From Hell" underperformed, while "Vendetta," with dystopian elements similar to those in "Watchmen," pulled in only $70.5 million.

On Wednesday, Warners unveiled "Watchmen" in the U.S., screening the film for reporters and critics on its lot.

Although critics were mixed -- in a strongly worded review, The Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt said, "The film does not transport an audience to another world" -- the first weekend is expected to perform strongly because of fans of the source material.

But it's the second weekend that will prove whether "Watchmen" can break out to a wider audience.

"The marketing has succeeded in making this look like an event movie, and the field is wide open for it to be a hit with people who've never heard of Alan Moore," Box Office Mojo's Brandon Gray said. "But there are things to be wary of -- this isn't a property that's known to the general public. It may be that people's reaction is, 'This looks cool,' and then they don't see it."

How many have that reaction will be critical for Warners. While the estimated $125 million budget was relatively modest for a superhero movie -- and that amount was split with co-financier Legendary Pictures -- Warners will collect on the domestic side only (Paramount is distributing the film internationally). Warners also could be on the hook for as much as 8.5% of the movie's boxoffice because of its legal settlement with Fox (though Warners is expected to attempt to recoup that payment from producer Lawrence Gordon).

Finally, Warners needs as many blockbusters as it can get during a year in which it will face tough comparisons: In 2008, the studio earned $1.4 billion globally between "Dark Knight" and "Sex and the City" alone. While the next Harry Potter film looks like a sure b.o. winner, "Watchmen" could set the tone for a year filled with other big bets including the Christian Bale-toplined reboot "Terminator Salvation" and the Guy Ritchie-helmed "Sherlock Holmes."

Other studios will watch closely, too. The rush is on for comic books, with even such lesser-known properties as "Priest" and "Afterburn" -- set up at Sony Screen Gems and Relativity, respectively -- in development and Universal in a deal with Dark Horse for its properties. "Watchmen" will be one of the first key indicators as to how this wave of lower-profile properties will fare.

"The rush has been on to buy comic-book properties," one rival exec said. "Now we're going to see if it makes sense to turn them into movies."