Something remarkable happened the week after Watchmen opened: screenwriter David Hayter penned an open letter to the fanboys of America begging them to see the movie again on its second weekend of release.
Wrote Hayter: You have to understand, everyone is watching to see how the film will do in its second week. If you care about movies that have a brain, or balls, (and this film's got both, literally), or true adaptations . . . And if you're thinking of seeing it again anyway, please go back this weekend, Friday or Saturday night. Demonstrate the power of the fans, because it'll help let the people who pay for these movies know what we'd like to see. Because if it drops off the radar after the first weekend, they will never allow a film like this to be made again.
Whether that is true is beside the point. What struck me about his letter is Hayter's misapprehension of the role geek culture plays in the Hollywood machinery.
I read Hayter's letter on Ain't It Cool News. Scrolling through the talkback posts, I was relieved to see at least a third of the commenters expressing a kind of gentle disbelief. Several of them correctly pointed out that the difference between "barely making back its budget" and "worldwide blockbuster" status does not, and never has depended on the fanboy demographic. Instead, it depends on a studio's ability and desire to push the movie on the wider audience. An audience that had not read Watchmen. An audience that would not care if the movie's climax lacked a certain transdimensional cephalopod.
Fanboys didn't make Dark Knight a blockbuster. Fanboys didn't make the Lord of the Rings trilogy an Oscar-winning juggernaut. So foisting on them the responsibility for making (or breaking) Watchmen comes off as not only desperate, but misguided. I appreciate Hayter's passion for the project he slaved over for years, but he barked up the wrong tree.
What Hayter doesn't seem to grasp is that once a film is released, it's out of the barn, fanboy-wise. Their numbers alone are not sufficient to propel a movie to blockbuster-status (see: Serenity, Sin City). If fanboys can affect a movie at all, their influence manifests itself before a movie reaches theaters.
Take Watchmen; it seems safe to say that the studio heads would have preferred a PG-13 movie clocking in at two hours. Scratch the flashbacks, the dismemberments, Dr. Manhattan's glowing blue wang. The creative team behind the movie, however, could easily have presented reams or gigabytes of testimony showing a hardcore potential audience that would absolutely revolt if offered a watered-down version of the source material.
Say the bosses insisted on a traditional happy ending; the geekverse would have erupted in apoplexy. And eventually that level of focused negativity would leak onto, say, Yahoo's entertainment page. It's all about critical mass; the average moviegoer could care less about Ozymandias' costume, but if you churn out enough posts, threads, and rants about anything, eventually the mainstream media catches on. And reports it. No news sells like bad news.
Fanboy support is no guarantee of box office success, but it can and I'm sure, did offer a sort of security blanket for worried bean counters. It tells them: there is an audience for this, a vocal one that will turn out in droves for that all-important first weekend.
Watchmen did fifty-five million and change, which is nothing to sneer at. Neither, however, does that mean the movie will break even. Thus we have the invention of Hayter's all-important SECOND weekend. (Watchmen did a little less than eighteen million, not the turnout for which he was hoping.)
Not that fanboy support or the lack of it determines the fate of all geek projects; you would have been hard-pressed to find a geek site that didn't rail against Fox's selection of Brett Ratner to direct the X-Men 3, but it handily outgrossed its predecessors. On the other hand, Fox is also the studio that brought you the Fantastic Four movies, Daredevil, and Elektra. Every financially sound decision has been matched by a critical and box-office disappointment. No need to blame the geeks for Fox's misjudgment.
That is assuming the geek collective has any influence at all. If fanboy power does exist, it probably reached its height from 1997 to 2002. 1997 saw the release of Batman and Robin, a near-Extinction Level Event as far as superhero movies were concerned. It must have stunned every studio exec to see how suddenly and utterly an apparently impregnable franchise could collapse.
Joel Schumacher's evisceration of the Batman mythos compelled the studios to place their own nascent franchises in the hands of directors like Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, and Bryan Singer. Raimi's Spider-Man arrived in 2002 to authenticate the geek renaissance hinted at by Singer's X-Men in 2000.
In the meantime, the internet exploded, and with it, fanboy culture. For a few years, the average computer programmer/ EverQuest player/ Spider-Man geek probably maintained a more impressive web presence and reached a wider audience than any major studio's website. It was during this period that studios learned to take the fanboys seriously, at least to the extent of dangling carrots of access in front of them.
Savvy directors and producers now at least pay lip service to this notion of geek power. Actors dutifully present themselves at comic and sci-fi conventions. Fanboy high priests are invited to make set visits in the hope of winning favorable coverage. (I don't have any statistics or anecdotal evidence, but a gut feeling tells me this works.) I imagine kowtowing to the geek demographic is one more annoyance the average Hollywood personality could do without, but it beats the avalanche of negative press that would otherwise attend your (mis)casting as the hero's love interest.
Movies based on nerdly canon have improved over the past decade or so, both critically and financially. But most of that improvement could probably be credited to directors hailing from a generation that devoured comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, and big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Joel Schumacher
knew Batman from only the 1960s TV series. And that is what he faithfully reproduced. So you might expect a low-budget horror impresario like Sam Raimi to have a better grasp of what makes a nerd-related superhero movie really tick.
In that sense, you could say fanboy culture has become mainstream culture. But if that is so, David Hayter's letter should have appeared on cnn.com, not assorted fanboy websites.
The point I would make to Hayter is this: you and the Watchmen team made an R-rated, nearly three-hour movie based on a comic series published almost a quarter century ago, one ninety-nine percent of the American populace has never heard of.
The raw fact that you were able to produce your vision of Watchmen at all is testament to the devotion, and whatever power is possessed by, the fanboys.
You opened your present from the Geek Nation the minute the movie wrapped. That is all you can rightfully expect, and all the Nation has to give. Be grateful for it.