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'300' is a number that adds up

Barry Koltnow
The Orange County Register (MCT)

A lot of people were surprised. I wasn't surprised.

I knew all along that "300" would be a monster hit, and that $70 million opening weekend qualifies it as a genuine monster. Even the studio that made the movie was surprised. In a best-case scenario, studio executives said publicly they had hoped for a $50 million weekend, although I suspect that even they thought that $50 million was wishful thinking.

One can't blame them because a $50 million weekend in March is huge.

March is not the same as a summer blockbuster month like May. If "Spider-Man 3" opens with a $50 million weekend in May, executives will be flinging themselves out of their office windows.

So, it is understandable that these executives were a little hesitant to predict a bigger weekend for "300." But it wasn't just the month that crippled their confidence. The reality is that a majority of people in Hollywood lack confidence. They are a timid and fearful bunch. They are a glass-half-empty segment of society.

Chicken Little is their official mascot.

According to the film's producer, every studio in town turned him down when he was pitching "300." It took him years to convince one studio (the same studio that earlier took a chance on a strange new movie called "The Matrix") to give him $60 million to make "300."

As much as I mock these short-sighted studio executives, I get their mind-set.

They looked at what "300" had to offer and, based on prior experience, did not think that it would be a big hit.

In case you haven't seen it, "300" recounts the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when 300 Spartans held off an invasion force of up to a million soldiers from the Persian Empire. The Spartans met their inevitable fate, but their dramatic last stand inspired the politically fractured Greek city-states to unite and later defeat the invaders, paving the way for the growth of Western democracy.

Directed by Zack Snyder, a commercial director whose only previous film experience was the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, the film is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel and relies heavily on computer-generated effects to tell its violent tale.

Hollywood naysayers read that plot summary and threw the filmmakers out of their offices.

Although the people who rejected "300" look pretty stupid right now, and probably are spending this week trying to explain their stupidity to their stockholders, I'm going to cut them some slack.

On paper, "300" looked like a $60 million write-off waiting to happen. It had nothing going for it, particularly if you apply the standard Hollywood formula.

First, it is about a historical event, and everybody knows that nobody goes to the movies to get a history lesson.

Second, it has a downer ending, and everybody knows that people don't go to the movies to be depressed.

Third, it's a sword and sandal epic, and everybody knows how much audiences hated "Troy" and "Alexander."

Fourth, it has too many computer effects, and everybody knows that people are turned off by movies with too many special effects.

Fifth, it lacks big-name stars, and everybody knows that movie stars drive blockbusters.

I could add a few more reasons not to make this movie - "people don't like violent movies," "people don't like comic book movies" and "people don't like going to the movies in March" - but you get the point.

None of those excuses is relevant when you've got a movie that people really want to see. Those excuses are reserved for movies that do not fulfill their primary function - to entertain.

When I spoke with the director of "300" a few days before the opening, he told me that he felt only one obligation.

"My No. 1 responsibility was to create a great ride."

Hey, what a concept. A filmmaker who actually comprehends the notion that the only sure thing in Hollywood is that an entertaining movie has a better chance for success than a movie that fails to meet that standard.

It doesn't matter if the movie is a comedy, a drama or an action flick. If it delivers on the promise of being entertaining, people will come to see it.

OK, marketing has something to do with putting butts in seats, but there is nothing more powerful than word of mouth. A clever marketing campaign will fool a few people, but if audiences don't like the movie, it will never continue to draw audience past the opening weekend.

That will be especially true this summer, when no less than nine major sequels will open, one week after another. If studios have any expectations of long-term success in that competitive environment, they better hope that they've done more than make films that are bigger, louder and more effects-laden than the originals.

They also need to be more entertaining.

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