WB hopes big buzz translates to big box office

Can Warners’ “Watchmen” — which will see the widest opening ever for an R-rated pic — live up to the hype?

The film, based on the iconic graphic novel about a group of vigilante superheroes, is generating as much buzz as a summer tentpole, both because of the source material and the runaway success of “300,” director Zack Snyder’s last film, also for Warners.

When it bowed in 2007, “300″ became the highest March opener of all time at $70.9 million.

Four hours prior to its East Coast release, “Watchmen” has already sold more advance tickets at MovieTickets.com than director Zack Snyder’s “300” did in 2007.

As the only new wide release of the weekend, “Watchmen” is also the first day-and-date release of 2009, distributed by Paramount overseas.

Domestically, Warners Bros. is taking “Watchmen” out in 3,611 theaters. Previous widest opening for an R-rated pic was “The Matrix Reloaded” at 3,603.

There are plenty of players in the mix on the pic. Par and Warners are partners on the film, while Fox will get a cut of WB’s take under the terms of a legal settlement between the studios. Warners’ partner Legendary Pictures also helped finance.

Box office observers are unanimous in predicting a big opening for “Watchmen.” They diverge, however, when it comes to how high the number will be and whether the pic will match or better “300′s” debut.

The movie has some distinct challenges. The biggest is its running time of 2 hours, 40 minutes; “300″ was under two hours. Also, “Watchmen” is considered a “hard R” because of its graphic sex and violence.

But if the box office boom of recent months continues, “Watchmen” could join a list of films that have overperformed.

Domestically, “Watchmen” is tracking strongest among older fanboys — those between 25 and 34 — who are more interested in “Watchmen” than they were in “300.”

Younger men are also showing plenty of interest, though not as much as for “300.” Females are showing interest, but also not as much as they had for “300.”

Film’s domestic gross will be boosted by its Thursday midnight shows, as well as its 124 Imax runs.

Cast includes Matthew Goode, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley.

Overseas, Paramount’s international release strategy includes openings in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Russia, South Korea and Spain.

Pic could perform impressively outside the U.S. given strong showings by fantasy actioners such as “The Dark Knight” and “Transformers”; “300″ turned in a solid foreign cume of $245 million in 2007.

So far, the top weekend of 2009 belongs to “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” ($33 million) during the first frame of the year.

Other choices

The frame also marks a shift from awards season at the overseas B.O. “Slumdog Millionaire” led last weekend with $15 million to push its foreign cume to $100 million.

Warner Bros. Intl.’s “Gran Torino” expands into Germany and Spain. The Clint Eastwood vehicle’s still early in its foreign release with $18 million in 10 markets, led by $8 million in Australia and $5.5 million in France.

Other launches include “He’s Just Not That Into You” in Argentina and Mexico; “Marley and Me” in France, Germany and Holland; “Milk” in Mexico; and “The Pink Panther 2″ in Italy.

On the specialty side domestically, Lionsgate opens suspenser “The Horsemen” in 75 runs.

Sony Pictures Classics opens “12″ in five runs in New York and Los Angeles, while ThinkFilm takes stage play adaptation “Phoebe in Wonderland” to 16 locations. Other openers include Big Pictures’ “Yaavarum nalam” (six runs), Intl. Film Circuit’s “Sherman’s Way” (one), New Yorker’s “Carlos Saura’s Fados” (one) and Peace Arch Entertainment’s “Explicit Ills” (one).

(Ali Jaafar contributed to this report.)

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