Talk about an interesting case study… I won’t tell you that the most anticipated superhero movie debut since last summer’s The Dark Knight, and one of the most expensive because of its $130M to $150M budget, is a bomb financially. I also won’t tell you this non-sequel and non-remake big-screen retelling of a wildly admired graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons sucked creatively. Because even I believe that sometimes films shouldn’t be judged on just those criteria. Instead, this is one of those rare times in Hollywood when the concensus complains that the director and the studio tried to stay too faithful to the source material in order not to offend the sensibilities of the fanboy core audience. (Don’t quibble with me about the ending being changed. That giant alien squid nonsense was a non-starter even with CGI up the wazoo.)

But, first, let’s consider if the pic will earn out. “It’s way to soon to tell,” one of the studio moguls involved tells me. “What counts is where a film finishes, not where it starts. We have to see what the holds are like and what the international does in the end. With decent holds, it should be fine.” Estimates I’m hearing are that Watchmen will make $130M domestic and that’s more than it will take in overseas. But remember: Warner Bros still owns most of the pic as producer and domestic distributor. And Paramount owns 25% plus is the international distributor. Then Legendary Pictures owns a chunk. Then there were all those courtroom fights between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. When the dust finally settled, Fox will receive up to 8 1/2% gross participation, and a piece of everything going forward (including any improbable sequel or spinoff), and a cash payment upfront including recoupment of its development costs and attorney fees. So cutting Fox in at the last minute played havoc with Warner Bros’ economics on the movie. Which is why there’s a lot of speculation that Warner Bros will seek to sue Larry Gordon, and he in turn seek to sue his law firm that made the deal (Bloom Hergott), which supposedly has a $10 million insurance policy which will end up in Warner Bros pocket.

Then let’s consider whether the pic will have legs. Warner Bros is encouraged. Sunday, the studio took an aggressive stand with an estimate of $11.5M and exceeded that. On Monday, the pic did $3.8M, nearly what the studio hoped for. And, for the 2nd straight weekend coming up, there’s no real competition against Watchmen. (Only Disney’s family film Race To Witch Mountain.)

As for overseas, most foreign moviegoers never heard of Watchmen. In fact, few did in this country except for old and young fanboys. There aren’t superheroes with household names. And the movie had no stars. So the result was no one really knew what Watchmen would make at the North American or international box office. The final figures were $55.2M here (pumped up by the $4.5M from 1,600 Thursday midnight and Friday 12:01 AM shows including all 124 sold-out Imax screenings, as well as the highest location count ever for an R-rated opening at 3,611 theaters), and $25M abroad.

Yet I can assure you that every Hollywood studio agreed before the release that the ambitious pic from 300 director Zack Snyder would have an enormous weekend opening. The expected range ran as high as $70M despite a long running time of two hours, 43 minutes because of what was a record number of theaters for an R-rated release and pent-up demand by mostly older male audiences with a lot of awareness among young males and even some females. Warner Bros believed it would end up “in the $60sM”. And an office betting pool by Paramount’s distribution department settled on a weekend total in the high $60sM. But by Friday night the Hollywood experts saw that even $60M would be impossible.

“It was a great opening despite what the gloom-and-doomsayers think. But even I had unrealistic expectations that it was going to do $70M,” said one of my studio marketing gurus who prides himself on very accurate box office forecasting. “I’d always pegged the movie at mid-$50sM. I’m mad at myself for ratcheting it up at the end. Not that I believed anybody’s hype. But I looked at the way pictures have been over-performing in recent months, and I bought into that notion that this is a tentpole and why shouldn’t it over-perform as well?”

As I noted before the weekend, Warner Bros spent its full-frills $50 million marketing budget for the movie — about average for a tent-pole these days — on a very aggressive campaign that spent big in the outdoor market and on TV advertising. But rival marketing execs were surprised, but also impressed, that the studio’s campaign for Watchmen stayed so true to the graphic novel andto fanboys of all ages – but left everyone else dazed and confused as to what the movie was about or even who the good or bad guys were. As one admired: “The campaign was about planting a big flag in the ground as if to say, ‘We are an event. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re not cool enough to get it’. “

For instance, the Warner Bros team resisted the obvious tagline for Watchmen that “someone is killing off superheroes” in order not to oversimplify or oversell it. (As close as the marketing came was “We want our superheroes”.) That meant doing something movie marketers rarely do: accepting that Watchmen is an acquired taste based on a restrictive idea and written as an inaccessible story and then made into a movie that isn’t for everyone.

But that doesn’t widen the audience for this coming weekend when Watchmen‘s negatives — the complex story that was too murky, the hardcore sex and violence too noxious — are watercooler talk? “I hate to think that, after two fucking years of marketing, we’re a one-weekend movie,” a Warner Bros exec confessed to me a week ago. But that may be what happens. “It’s impossible to change course now,” one studio exec says about Watchmen‘s long reluctance to even explain what the film was about in its movie trailers and TV ads. “The time to do that was in the last 10 to 12 days before the opening.”

Some other marketing gurus hold out hope that, since Watchmen‘s core audience of older males are not as obsessed with seeing pics like this when they first come out, they may buy tickets this weekend if the pic has received enough good word of mouth. At the same time, the execs point to missed opportunities. “The superhero genre is one that parents are most willing to take kids to. But all the blood and sex in Watchmen hurt what the opening could have been with families.”

Once the pic opened, “either you were familiar with the source material, or you had trouble following the bouncing ball,” one studio marketing exec analyzed for me. Exit polling showed that the audience didn’t really like the movie (as shown by a Cinemascore of only “B”). “Alan Moore always said that Watchmen the graphic novel couldn’t be successfully made into a movie. Maybe he was right. Because, at the end of the day, Zack Snyder’s slavish attention to detail in making Watchmen such a literal translation is what ultimately doomed the film. He cared more about the appeasement of the fanboys than in a cohesive, coherent movie meant for everyone.”

Yet even a sizable faction of fanboys railed online that Snyder’s take was too beat-by-beat faithful, with many expressing the wish that the Paul Greengrass version, which would have been set in the present day (instead of 1985 America against a Nixon-Kissenger backdrop) and involved multicultural terrorism (instead of the Cold War), had been made instead. (Oh, and they thought Zack’s music selection “zucked” by using all-too-obvious tunes like Hallelujah, Sounds of Silence, and Ride Of The Valkyries.) Though Snyder may have the last laugh (and help reverse the current Industry-wide DVD sales slide) because of all the talk that he’s been secretly making a 4-hour version for home release.

Inside Hollywood, some studio execs blamed the Warner Bros brass for — get this — being too hands-off because Snyder had given the studio such an incredible success with 300 and the moguls just figured he knew what he was doing with Watchmen. “This may have been one of those times when you second guess,” a Hollywood bigwig opines. “What distinguishes a great studio exec from every other studio exec is that they manage these filmmaker egos without letting them know they’re being managed. But,” the bigwig adds, “not everyone is Chris Nolan.”

WEIRD OR WONDROUS? Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ Clocks $55.6M Weekend