SUNDAY AM UPDATE: Warner Bros’ superhero doomsday thriller with no stars and lots of violence opened to a $25.1 million Friday and $19M Saturday for a blockbuster $55.6M weekend with Sunday’s estimate of $11.5M. But that’s lower than the $60sM which the studio was hoping for WatchmenExit polling showed that 65% of the audience was male, and of those 65% over the age of 25. But moviegoers didn’t necessarily like the movie as shown by a Cinemascore of only “B”. However, pumping up Friday’s total was the $4.5M from 1,600 Thursday midnight and Friday 12:01 AM shows including all 124 sold-out Imax screenings. (IMAX even added about 20 more 3 AM shows to accomodate the big demand.) And Watchmen has the highest location count for an R-rated opening — 3,611 theaters — more than even the record-setting 3,603 venues for the studio’s The Matrix Reloaded. This marks the most anticipated superhero movie debut since last summer’s The Dark Knight. Only it’s not a sequel or remake but a long-awaited big screen retelling of a widely admired and highly creative graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Yet big questions remain: Is the complex story too murky? Is the rampant violence too noxious? Most importantly, will the pic have legs?

Overseas, Paramount is distributing it day and date in 45 major territories for $28M in grosses there. Japan and 14 markets are left to open. (Warner Bros was targeted in a lawsuit by 20th Century Fox to gets its legal piece of Watchmen‘s proceeds, while Paramount owns 25% and has international distribution.) As for North American box office, I can report that every Hollywood studio was in agreement that the ambitious pic from 300 director Zack Snyder would have an enormous weekend opening. The expected range was high $50sM into the $60sM despite a long running time of two hours, 43 minutes. But now even $60M is impossible. So 300 will remain the highest March opener of all time at $70.9M.

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One reason Watchmen did well was the lack of competition. Last week’s #1, Disney’s Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experiencesank -78% to make only $850K on Friday and $1.2M on Saturday for just a $2.7M weekend and paltry $16.7M cume (which is either a curse or a blessing depending on your POV.) It’s still the 2nd highest grossing concert film of all time. “It played exactly like a concert film with a one-week only engagement,” a Disney exec tells me. “The Miley concert, coming off of a sold-out tour and unaffordable concert ticket prices, certainly set the table with unrealistic expectations.” But this has to be disappointing given all the JB hype.

Here’s the TOP 10 this weekend. (analysis continues below.)

1. Watchmen (Warner Bros) OPENER [3,611 theaters] $55.6M Wkd
2. Madea Goes to Jail (Lionsgate) Week 3 [2,151] $8.8M Wkd, Cume $76.5M
3. Taken (20th Century Fox) Week 6 [3,016] $7.4M Wkd, Cume $118M
4. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox SL) Week 17 [2,890] $6.9M Wkd, Cume $125.4M
5. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony) Week 8 [2,558] $4.2M Wkd, Cume $133.6M
6. He’s Just Not That Into You (NL/WB) Week 5 [2,445] $4M Wkd, Cume $84.6M
7. Coraline 3-D (Focus Features) Week 5 [1,959] $3.3M Wkd, Cume $65.6M
8. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Disney) Week 4 [2,290] $3.1M Wkd, Cume $38.3M
9. Jonas Brothers: 3D (Disney) Week 2 [1,276] $2.7M Wkd, (-78%) Cume $16.7M
10. Fired Up! (Sony) Week 3 [1,798] $2.6M Wkd, Cume $13.3M

Of course the comic book fanboys are turning out for their long awaited graphic novel to come to the big screen. But what about everyone else? Turns out that Watchmen is tracking most heavily with older males — which makes sense since the movie is set in an alternate 1985 America (although Nixon has been played down in the pic). Awareness, interest and first choice is being led by over age 25 males followed by under 25 guys. On one tracking service, younger males have lower awareness but higher interest from those that are aware. Here’s what’s also interesting: there’s high awareness and positive interest from the Latino segment as well as African Americans which is translating into strong first choice numbers in both of those ethnic segments. What does it all mean? “I think that the movie is obviously poised to have an incredible opening,” a top Warner Bros exec told me confidently.

The studio is even optimistic about attracting moviegoers from outside Watchmen‘s sweet spot of males ages 17-to-34. I’m told it’s solid across all demos, and even doing well with females. That may be due to Warner Bros’ $50 million marketing budget for the movie — about average for a tentpole these days. The studio invested in a very aggressive campaign that spent big in the outdoor market and on TV advertising. But what’s amusing is that rival marketing gurus say they’re surprised and impressed by the campaign that’s also left them confused what the movie is about or even who the good guys or bad guys are and why. As one of them 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’. “

That was indeed the challenge for Sue Kroll and her marketing crew, which is why they created a lot of value-added content to flesh out the very graphic characters. Surprisingly, they chose low-rated NBC to air the most cross promotional spots with the pic’s characters — showcasing Dr. Manhattan during a National Treasure movie, and Rorschach or The Comedian during Heroes. Overall, there was a very robust TV campaign running on all the networks and cable tv. Time was purchased on Lost, CSI, Law and Order, Criminal Minds, WWF Smackdown, NFC/AFC Playoffs, 24, The Mentalist, Fringe, The Office, 30 Rock, all the late night shows on every network, and on and on. Watchmen has also been everywhere online — MySpace, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, IGN, Moviefone, NBC, For Your Imagination, Flizster, Hitifx, and Fandango.

Strangely, the Warner Bros team resisted the obvious tagline for Watchmen that “someone is killing off superheroes”. (As close as the marketing came was “We want our superheroes”.) Because the difficulty was staying true to the graphic novel as a social and cultural phenomenon but not oversimplifying or overselling it. 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. This may be a fine strategy to open the pic. But what about the following weekend when Watchmen‘s negatives are watercooler talk? “I hate to think that, after 2 fucking years of marketing, we’re a one weekend movie,” a Warner Bros exec confessed to me.

But that’s exactly what Hollywood is anticipating. The real disagreement in Hollywood this weekend is not just whether the pic is weird but wonderful, but also whether Watchmen will have legs. As one rival marketing guru quipped, “Probably not. But if you open to $70+M you can get to $150M on your knees.” As another agrred: “They will get a lot of initial interest because it’s an event movie in March — and then the bottom falls out. Whether Warner Bros can broaden the campaign to sustain interest in Watchmen is what movie analysts will be watching after this Sunday.