The box office gurus expected "300" to do well over the weekend, but not $70 million well -- a record for a movie opening in March.
"This was way beyond everyone's expectations," said Brandon Gray, who founded the website Box Office Mojo. "We're all trying to figure out how this movie became a phenomenon."
There was every reason for "300" to flop -- no big-name stars (although Gerard Butler is now decidedly on the map), an R rating, a historical story and, before the weekend, Warner Brothers tracking found that there was only 68% public awareness of the film.
So how did "300" become the biggest film ever to open in March, set the record for best opening weekend for IMAX screens, and earn the third-biggest opening for an R-rated film? The answer lies in a perfect storm of factors -- some man-made, some entirely beyond the control of Warner Brothers' savvy marketing department.
The consensus seems to be that this movie was a success because of its specific and arresting visuals. "Warner Brothers had this with the 'Matrix' in 1999," said Gray. "That was another movie that was sold on its unique look."
Before San Diego Comic-Con last year, "300" wasn't on anybody's radar. "Before we went we all made a list of which panels we were most excited for and nobody said '300,'" said Berge Garabedian who runs the fanboy website Joblo.
But he and his staff dutifully attended a panel on "300" along with several hundred other "early adapters." They listened as Zack Snyder, Gerard Butler and some special effects guys spoke about the film. Then they saw some clips.
"Each and every person in that room was blown away," said Garabedian. "It was slow motion, it was so visual, it wasn't real. When it was over somebody actually asked them to show the clips again, and I've never seen that happen at a panel before."
When Garabedian returned from Comic-Con he began hyping the movie on his site and he wasn't the only one. "Everybody was talking about it," he said.
Fanboy buzz is not enough to sell a film -- "Snakes on a Plane," anyone? -- but Garabedian points out that while the online community was obsessively talking about "Snakes" they were ultimately making fun of it. The people who were driving the chatter around "300" were genuinely excited about the film, especially the way it looked. And after Comic-Con, Warner Bros. marketing department made sure that the fanboys got the usual dribs and drabs of movie art and trailers just to keep their excitement up.
The marketing folks also took full advantage of MySpace. There was of course the requisite MySpace page for the film (now standard for all movies) -- featuring a ferocious looking muscle man in a metal helmet plus tons of video clips, wallpapers and links to the film's official website. But the stroke of genius came when the studio sponsored a feature upgrade to the site that told users they could store 300 photos on their profile thanks to the movie "300." (Previously the limit had been 12). That started Jan. 2 and was incredibly popular with teens. The result was billions of ad impressions and 8 million viewings of the trailer. Is it any wonder that the 52% of the people who saw "300" were under 25?
There are also mundane reasons "300" might have done well. A generally warm weekend across the country encouraged people to get out of the house and brave long lines, and no other major film was released against "300," so it didn't have much competition. And while the critics have been lukewarm on the film -- faulting it for poor dialogue and a thin story -- nobody has said anything negative about the visuals. And to a generation of kids who have grown up with the lush worlds of video games, "300" was a familiar visual masterpiece.
"I honestly think the film's success is based on the visuals," said Garabedian. "People are not coming out of the movie saying it's the best movie they ever saw, but they are completely blown away by the visuals."
In fact, "300" became so successful that kids who define themselves by their underground tastes -- the target market for this film -- decided the movie is too mainstream. Although originally psyched to see "300," 20-year-old Atlanta native Justin Scharf decided it had gotten too mainstream. "The biggest theater in Atlanta had three midnight screenings on Thursday night and they were all sold out," he said. "And after getting bombarded with advertising on MySpace I lost interest in it before I saw it," he said.