WATCHMEN: Three Hours To Midnight

Alan Moore, thermodynamic miracle.

After years–decades!–of seeing that creepy Alan Moore picture on the flap of Watchmen, I can finally start to imagine that he’s probably laughing now. (OK, yes, I know: The Comedian is dead.) Watchmen lawsuits, studio politics…all the drama and absurdity about Hollywood that a writer of drama and absurdity would love to hate.

The latest controversy: Director Zack Snyder has brought his epic in at nearly three hours, but the studio wants to lose nearly 40 minutes, so that it can unspool more screenings at the theaters each day. Snyder says he may have to bin subplots like Hollis Mason and Rorschach’s prison psychiatrist–and, at that point, you might as well just subtract the film’s intrinsic field and be done with it. Relegating the director’s cut to a DVD extras menu isn’t exactly the type of homage you’d expect for the best-selling graphic novel of all time.

And while it’s true that the, ah, devotion that some fans demonstrate to Snyder’s creative vision seems to overlook that Moore’s creative vision didn’t want a movie at all, I think it’s the studio’s logic–really, its conventional wisdom about ALL film lengths–that has the actual plot holes here.

The Watchmen. Yeah, they look pretty pissed.

The Watchmen. They look pretty pissed.

As a general principle, when a film’s creator thinks its quality will suffer from the studio forcing a shorter running time–simply based on the raw running time itself, and not on the pacing or focus of the narrative–the weaker film that results almost invariably sells fewer tickets.

The notion that longer running times earn less money gets disproved over and over again: Lord Of The Rings came out as three different films, all around the three-hour mark, and all of them scored massive takes. Titanic took about three hours to sink, and it became the top-grossing film in history. Movies from Birth Of A Nation to The Sound Of Music to The Godfather trilogy…the list goes on and on.

It’s fair to say that these are the successes, not the failures; but the question is how many well-crafted films failed at the box office simply because their running times were too long, and not because their running times reflected bad filmmaking. Sure, for every Troy, there’s an Alexander; but the success of Troy demonstrates that it wasn’t Alexander’s running-time that conquered him.

The fact is, adding or losing a daily screening doesn’t affect the long-term profit of a film…unless it’s a really, really bad film. When that happens, a shock-and-awe approach to opening-weekend screenings (the Godzilla remake, for example, which at that time trampled onto more screens than any film in history) can recoup some of the film’s expenses before word-of-mouth drives people away for the rest of its run.

Hurm. Studio wants to cut 40 minutes from journal. Probably homosexuals or Communists

Hurm. Studio wants to cut 40 minutes from journal. Probably homosexuals or Communists.

That aside, simply adding a screening doesn’t really affect overall ticket sales in any substantive way, unless the theaters actually sell out every screening–meaning that people can’t otherwise get a ticket at all. So the only time this reasoning even aspires to good sense is when the film is a either blockbuster or a catastrophe.

And yet, even when positioned as a blockbuster, stripping narrative simply to add a daily screening– without regard for storytelling– becomes itself counterintuitive: a weaker film, after all, is less likely to be the kind that sells out every show. Leaving a stronger film at a longer length actually makes the studio more money, not less.

Or, put another way: Imagine if back in 1985, DC Comics had rung up a cottage in Northampton and said, “Cheers, Alan–bad news. Sales always drop for the back-half of a maxi-series, so we want you to cut Watchmen down to six issues.” Would we even be having this discussion?

It’s probably already a thermodynamic miracle that Snyder has taken a supposedly unfilmable 400-page graphic novel and brought it in at less than 180 minutes. The trailer alone sold 900,000 new copies of the graphic novel. And, with that many new converts to the faith, the last thing you want is to cut a good sermon short.

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  1. […] Posts: WATCHMEN: Three Hours To Midnight.] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Watchmen Legal Battle: Fox vs. Warner […]

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