WB hoping '300' draws fanboys, femmes

On paper, there are steep odds against Warner Bros.’ “300,” which bows March 9.

It’s based on a Frank Miller graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae that didn’t sell especially well; the violence virtually guaranteed an R rating; there are no marquee stars; and helmer Zack Snyder is a relative newcomer.

Producers Mark Canton and Gianni Nunnari say they spent five years trying to get a studio interested in “300.” Warners in particular was skittish, having released the sword-and-sandal epics “Alexander” and “Troy” previously, with mixed results.

“In order to get anyone to do this, we had to get across what we wanted to do,” Canton says. “(So) Zack did a test reel, and everyone at Warners loved it.”

The resulting film is a hyperstylized blend of spectacle and style: think “Troy” meets “Sin City.” Snyder, who gained notice with his 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” delivers plenty of visual punch using the greenscreen and bluescreen techniques advanced on “Sin City.”

Still, some thought that “300″ might be limited in its appeal. “Sin City,” also based on a Miller graphic novel, did robust biz but was revered by fanboys and not many others.

But during test screenings, “300″ elicited a surprisingly strong response from younger females, prompting Warners to broaden its marketing campaign. It’s now targeting women, with ads on shows including “Lost” and “24.” The only quadrant the studio isn’t going after is older women.

Though young women didn’t turn out much for the studio’s “Alexander,” this movie has two big draws for femmes: a strong female lead, and the “hottie” factor.

Queen Gorgo, played by Lena Headey, was added to up the estrogen factor, since there are few significant female characters in Miller’s graphic novel.

“Women are responding to the character because she’s so strong. She’s not just eye candy, like in other traditional epics,” says Canton.

In addition, Gerard Butler, the Scottish thesp who plays King Leonidas, and the hordes of Spartans are scantily clad throughout the film, revealing ripped bods after months of intensive workouts.

Film’s budget was $60 million. WB defrayed its own investment by inking co-financing deals with Legendary Pictures and Virtual Studios. It’s the first time the two funds have boarded the same movie. It’s not clear how the three partners divvied up the pie, but Warners is said to have a larger share.

If tracking is any indication, the gamble will pay off. Buzz is intense among comicbook fans, young and old, whom the studio has been aggressively courting for months, eliciting comparisons to the originality and edginess of “The Matrix.”

Besides a massive television blitz — it’s hard to watch a sporting event without seeing a spot — the studio launched a hefty MySpace campaign and has been holding promo screenings around the country.

“300″ virtually owns the sked the first weekend out, being the only wide release, and could enjoy smooth sailing for much of the rest of March.

Still, Warners is intent on managing expectations, particularly comparisons with “Ghost Rider,” which opened at $52 million. That pic, however, is rated PG-13.

Box office observers say “300″ will enjoy a fair amount of repeat business. It’s also likely to play strong overseas. “Sin City” grossed more than $158 million at the worldwide box, $84 million of which came from overseas.

“You can’t bottle this movie,” says Nunnari, “Although a lot of studio heads will try, if ’300′ does what we think it will.”

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