Film

Watch-meant: The Meaning of $55 Million


Watchmen

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Carla Gugino
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Brothers
First date: 2009
UK Release Date: 2009-03-06 (General release)
US Release Date: 2009-03-06 (General release)
Website
Trailer

So what is it? A hit? A flop? Something somewhere in the middle? At a mere $55 million in weekend box office, Warner Brothers (and those litigious hangers-on FOX) must be circling the spin wagons and preparing to pour on the positive publicity. Twenty years ago, making more than half of the notorious blockbuster number of 100 in one three day period would be almost inconceivable. Today, it's a drop in a deep, debt ridden bucket. While the amount of money something makes is never a clear sign of aesthetic or critical accomplishment, Hollywood measures meaning in dollars and cents - and the sheep-like media, incapable of solid independent thought, publish said spreadsheet summarizations with schaudenfraude delight.

So what exactly does a $55 million take mean for the long-in-gestation adaptation? Clearly, when compared to the $100 million of Iron Man, or the $300 million of The Dark Knight, we are waltzing through middling motion picture territory. The revamp of The Incredible Hulk did about $55 million its opening weekend, as did the female niche effort Sex and the City: The Movie. Claiming that a similarly small and specialized fanbase should be ashamed for only half a hundred is ridiculous. Besides, Watchmen is nearly three hours (including previews and trailers) and walked into theaters with an incredibly hard "R" attached to its availability. Making $55 million with the local pre-teen crowd packing Cineplexes is one thing. Doing it with the 17 and up crowd deserves some kind of special consideration.

That won't stop those who hate the film from filling their greenback ducts with bile and spewing a kind of planned propaganda about the movie's destined destruction. Others will toss their hands in the air and wonder what more a filmmaker has to do to draw an audience. There will be revisions, considerations for Thursday Midnight screenings and IMAX attendance, but one thing's for sure - the $55 million figure will become the benchmark of 2009, a number ready to be shot down by X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, and Public Enemies. Still, one can try and gauge the impact this opening will have on the talent involved, taking into consideration more than the amount of cash that fills the coffers. Let's begin with:

The Studio(s)

Warner Brothers/FOX

For Warners, it was all win/win initially. They had the director they wanted (hot off the phenomenal triumph of 300), the screenplay they needed (wonky, but totally workable), a cast they could bank on (no big names = no big salaries), and a pre-publicity buzz that made marketers drool with anticipation. With both messagesboards and viral campaigns loaded for bear, there was no way a Watchmen movie would fail. FOX must have thought so too, since they jumped in during post-production to claim their piece of the potential pie in court. Now, no matter what happens, Warners has wondered over into lose/lose terrain. If Watchmen doesn't make $200 million, it will be seen as a failure - especially when it comes to profit sharing time. And if by some chance it surpasses all expectations and makes much, much more, the numerous hands reaching out for a cut will be painful to any earnings margin.

The Source

The Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Of all the questionable outcomes, the impact on Watchmen as a literary entity remains the most complex. Surely, the semi-success of any film adaptation will draw readers anew to the original graphic novel, and those not put off by the format will find a work of incredibly dense and discerning wonder. Moore's prose is plaintive and philosophical, wrapping up many intriguing ideas inside a seemingly simple story of revenge. Of course, the Cold War setting will seem dated, and the notion of Nixon as a three term President could put many off their measured morning in America coffee, yet there's much more here than parallel histories and wistful "what ifs".

Still, there is a drawback to such attention and that's the dreaded "s" word - scrutiny. There will be some who come to Watchmen and wonder why the book is so beloved. Others will see Moore as a miserly old coot who happily cashes the checks his works incur while cursing the various mediums making said money. Some will take his adaptation complaints to heart and boycott anything but the written word - and that's too bad. The film version of Watchmen is an exciting and rather special epic. While commerciality is perhaps the bane of Mr. Moore's creative existence, it's also not the final defining factor of anything's worth. If it was, his cult would be laughable, not legitimate.

The Writers

David Hayter and Alex Tse

For Hayter and Tse, the ultimate realization of a Watchmen movie means much more to both of them than any bottom line balance sheet. The former has been down this road before (he worked on both X-Men films and The Scorpion King) while the latter is experiencing the first brushes with popcorn fame. In fact, Tse is already hard at work adapting Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man for future Snyder consideration. Since they were given the task of remaining faithful to the graphic novel, and will be seen as doing same (one missing squid aside), there's no real downside to their contribution. Even if the film went on to severely underperform, they won't be pegged as the problem. Indeed, for many involved in the production, Moore and Gibbons will be given more grief than those charged with accurately bringing their vision to life.

The Director

Zack Snyder

For his part, Snyder has already won. Even if the eventual returns don't cover the cost of production, the man behind Dawn of the Dead and 300 set out to make the best. Most believable Watchmen movie he could, and given the outcome, he did just that. Sure, you can argue over how he truncated the tale, and how successful something like The Tales of the Black Freighter will be both outside and included in the final DVD cut, but he bested noted imaginative individuals like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky, and there's something to be said for actually filming the "unfilmable". Any primping on his part will be seen as studio swagger and the resulting returns on home video will guarantee at least a few more dream projects before the fiscal reality of a less than Dark Knight return sinks in.

The Stars

Jeffery Dean Morgan/Patrick Wilson/Jackie Earle Haley

Of the many names associated with the Watchmen movie, only three truly stand out. We can't consider Malin Akerman or Matthew Goode because many thought of them as miscast, and with Billy Crudup disguised under a buff blue CG persona, his career clout is also limited. But there's no denying the continued interest in Jeffery Dean Morgan (the Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II) and especially Jackie Earle Haley (as the reactionary Rorschach). All three men should see their profile in Tinsel Town amplified significantly. All three give award worthy performances in a genre effort that rarely gets such a mention (Heck, SE&L is still shilling for Haley as a Heath Ledger like lock come Oscar time) and they provide the emotional core to the complex narrative. With only Wilson currently capable of walking the fine line between mainstream commerciality (Lakeview Terrace) and indie edge (Hard Candy), here's betting the others find their phones ringing relatively soon.

The Franchise

Sequels?

Oddly enough, this is a dead subject - at least from the purists' initial position. Aside from the aforementioned side projects and an expanded DVD/Blu-ray run come five to seven months from now, Watchmen just does not lend itself to a sequel or series. Snyder approached it as a self-contained work, and the ending offered currently closes things off nicely. Still, Moore did allow for some continuation leeway when he ended on the discovery of Rorschach's journal, and you know a cash flush studio - if there is a way to make another Watchmen movie and not totally alienate or piss off the predisposed demographic, they will do it. Here's betting that multiple digital reconfigurations and special editions will be the most this movie sees of a supposed continuation.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image