Before the buzz, before the unauthorized footage on YouTube, before the jawdropping, $70.9 million opening weekend, there was a chilly January afternoon in Montreal. A bunch of buffed-up manly men stood around a cavernous warehouse, wearing red capes and leather bikini briefs. Though every step outside brought the dreaded threat of shrinkage, there was surprisingly little complaining on the set of the bloody swords-and-sandals epic 300. This was, after all, a movie about Spartan warriors — the original no-pain-no-gainers, ancient Greece’s ultimate fighters trained from infancy never to show any sign of weakness and to greet death itself with a steely grin — so it would have been unseemly to kvetch about the occasional breeze gusting through your codpiece. Anyway, once the armless concubine and the scantily clad slave girls showed up for the big harem scene, things around the set would warm up considerably.
For the man at the helm, director Zack Snyder, the heat was already on. The making of 300 had been a battle, which is only fitting since the film centers on one of history’s most famous conflicts: the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, in whicha mere 300 Spartan soldiers, led by the indomitable King Leonidas, defended Greece in a defiant last stand against the 250,000-strong invading armies of Persia. One point of contention involved severed heads: Snyder wanted more — not surprising given his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead — and Warner Bros. wanted less. As it was, nearly all of the bloodshed in 300 would be computer-generated, which would hopefully placate those squeamish church ladies at the MPAA (and save on dry-cleaning bills). Still, an R-rated movie tends to make studio executives nervous — particularly an R-rated movie set in ancient Greece, based on a graphic novel, with no major stars and lots of half-naked guys who look like Party Boy from Jackass but with swords and shields. Snyder had already cut the budget down to a slim $60 million to appease the studio’s concerns and he was intent on holding the line at three lopped heads. According to his wife, Deborah, an exec producer on 300, Warner Bros. president-COO Alan Horn had weighed in personally: ”Alan does not like a lot of blood.”
He may like it a little more these days. Last weekend, 300 stormed into theaters like an army, reaping that staggering $70.9 million — the biggest opening in March history and the third-highest for any R-rated movie. The industry was stunned by the magnitude of the Spartan victory. As he watched the weekend grosses ringing up far above the widely expected $30 million range, Snyder himself could hardly believe the numbers: ”I was like, No, that can’t be right — that’s nutty time. The tracking showed we’d be popular, but not stupid popular. It’s just a goofy little $60 million movie!”
For Warner Bros. (which, like EW, is owned by Time Warner), the goofy little movie’s surprising success represents a rebound from a fairly dismal 2006, stemming some of the losses from pricey disappointments like Poseidon, Lady in the Water, and Superman Returns. Exactly what it means to the rest of Hollywood, though, depends on whom you ask. To the many critics who trashed 300 as a mindless exercise in stylized warmongering, it’s merely the latest in a string of dispiritingly pan-resistant hits this season, following Norbit, Ghost Rider, and Wild Hogs. (For more on that subject, see Mark Harris’ Final Cut column.) To others in the film industry, though, it’s an encouraging sign of an emerging new world, one where state-of-the-art computer wizardry makes it possible to create anything a filmmaker can imagine on the (relatively) cheap, where a small investment in marketing on the Internet can reap the rewards that have long been promised, and where a geekfest like Comic-Con can hold its own against Cannes or any other snooty film festival. Forget the battle cry of the Spartans — this is the revenge of the nerds.
Whatever its ultimate significance, Frank Miller, who wrote the original 300 graphic novel, along with those for Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, is just trying to savor the moment. ”It’s somewhere beyond nice,” he says. ”I’m kind of like a Tex Avery cartoon character, walking around without his head on.”
Everywhere you turn with 300, there’s another decapitated head.
It’s safe to say that watching 300 won’t earn you any credits in the classics program at your local university. The film is very much the 5th century B.C. by way of the 21st century A.D., playing fast and loose with the historical facts and, well, just fast and loose, period. Recounting the story of the vastly outnumbered Spartans’ battle against the Persian hordes, with Leonidas (Gerard Butler) pitted against the jewel-bedecked god king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Snyder packs in a glut of testosterone-pumping action-hero bons mots, fountains of blood, and the occasional flash of Iron Age T&A. The result is 10 parts Tarantino to one part Herodotus.
Then again, scholars of antiquity are not exactly Hollywood’s most coveted demographic target anyway. Gladiator‘s $187.3 million box office take notwithstanding, swords-and-sandals epics have had a decidedly uneven track record in recent history. Even as Snyder was honing his pitch for 300 in the summer of 2005, the disappointing examples of Alexander ($34.3 million) and Kingdom of Heaven ($47.4 million) were still fresh in executives’ minds. Still, the 41-year-old Snyder, who cut his teeth on commercials, persuaded Warner Bros. that the genre was ripe for reinvention.
It didn’t hurt that he promised to do it on a tight budget, using computer-generated effects to replace the usual expensive exotic locations, elaborate sets, and throngs of extras. Furthering the approach used on films like Sky Captain and World of Tomorrow and Sin City, Snyder shot his actors on bare-bones sets and CG effects artists filled in their surroundings later, turning 50 soldiers into 5,000. “It’s nothing revolutionary,” Snyder says. “Putting actors in front of bluescreen is the same technology every TV weatherman uses. It’s the aesthetic that’s different, not the tools.”
Sticking with that lean-and-mean approach, Snyder populated his movie not with A-listers like Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe but with relatively unstarry actors, casting the Scottish-born Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) in the role of Leonidas; British actress Lena Headey as his fiery wife, Queen Gorgo; and Brazilian-born Santoro as Xerxes. Butler, for one, was pleased to be the beneficiary of the studio’s economizing: “If you hire an actor who’s a marquee name as an insurance policy, it adds $20 or $30 million onto the budget,” he says. “I always thought they were going to go the other way and get somebody who was up-and-coming.” Butler certainly is that; in the wake of 300‘s opening, he has entered talks to star in a planned remake of Escape From New York.
While 300 came in at just a third of the reported cost of Troy, $60 million is still not what most people would call cheap, particularly for a film as risky as this one, and Warner Bros.’ marketing team was bent on using every means at its disposal to sell the movie to the widest audience. Their campaign to win the hearts and minds of comic-book fanboys kicked off last July at San Diego’s Comic-Con International, where Snyder and Miller held a Q&A and showed early footage from the movie. The footage was too explicit to meet the MPAA’s standards for a theatrical trailer, nor could it be officially posted on the Internet. Not surprisingly, however, it eventually found its way onto YouTube, though the studio professes innocence in the matter. “I have no idea how it got leaked on there,” says Warner Bros. domestic marketing head Dawn Taubin. “Things get leaked onto the Internet all the time, even when you don’t want them to.”
Washington politicians have repeatedly spanked Hollywood for marketing R-rated films to minors, but Warner Bros. aggressively targeted a youthful audience by setting up a vigorous promotional site on MySpace, a minimal investment of capital that put the trailer in front of maximum eyeballs. “We had over 2 million people click on the trailer button in one day,” says Warner Bros.’ president of domestic distribution, Dan Fellman. “That hit me between the eyes. You say to yourself, ‘Wow!’ ” A host of fanboy websites were only too happy to take up 300‘s banner. “We got some early buzz going,” says Berge Garabedian, founder of the website JoBlo.com. “Most people who check out sites like ours are early adopters. They talk amongst their friends in high school and college and pass along the word. I’d love it if we got a little bit of credit.”
The executives at IMAX are only too happy to give it to them. Merely by releasing 300 on IMAX, Warner Bros. announced it as an event, but thanks to those early adopters, the film became the biggest IMAX opener of all time. “I don’t think we knew what we were getting into,” says the company’s co-chairman and co-CEO, Richard Gelfond. “But as it got closer, we were going, ‘Did you see what’s going on on MySpace? Did you see the marketing things? Did you see?’… Almost everything had sold out in advance of Thursday’s midnight show.”
Of course, Hollywood has seen feverish Internet buzz fizzle when a film finally hits theaters, so the question remains: Why did the Spartans on a plain fare so much better than Snakes on a Plane? Why did almost as many women turn out for this mucho-macho action film as men, and nearly as many moviegoers over the age of 25 as under?
One theory is that 300, with its valiant warriors shedding oceans of blood in the name of freedom, tapped into anger and anxiety over the war in Iraq. It’s tempting to read the film as a sort of simplistic fantasy version of America’s current war, with an army of noble white men fighting hordes of dark-skinned enemies, many of them depicted as subhuman, effeminate (Xerxes himself has undeniable shades of Norma Desmond), and blatantly cruel. As for diplomacy, as represented in 300, it’s merely a bunch of scheming old politicians in togas, wringing their hands and moaning, “What can we do?” as real men go off to battle. It’s no great stretch to see 300 as a rousing slab of cinematic wish-fulfillment that offers an escape from the real war playing out on the news every night. The filmmakers, however, insist that there’s no political subtext to 300, or at least none by their design. “I would be surprised if even one person from the audience is watching this movie and thinking of Bush and Iraq,” says producer Gianni Nunnari. “That would be a disaster — it would mean that people were bored.”
If we accept that 300 is simply a piece of pop entertainment, what lessons can Hollywood draw from its massive box office haul? For starters, between 300‘s smash opening and the earlier success of Norbit, Ghost Rider, and Wild Hogs, the long-held notion in Hollywood that February and March represent a barren, blockbusterless wasteland into which the studios dump their most unloved and unlovable movies will now be permanently retired. “A couple of years ago, there were many weekends where there were no hits,” says Sony Pictures vice chairman Jeff Blake, whose studio has ridden Ghost Rider past the $100 million mark. “The good news for the movie business is that the public has given us the benefit of the doubt again and is looking each weekend for the film that appeals to them.”
At a time when Hollywood’s profit margins are being squeezed from all sides, 300‘s triumph will also be read by many as a step toward fiscal responsibility, a sign that a frugal — yes, even Spartan — style of moviemaking can yield rewards as great as or even greater than the traditional star-driven approach. “I think it’s totally heartening,” says Bob Berney, president of the indie film company Picturehouse, which turned another underdog film, Pan’s Labyrinth, into a mainstream success. “It’s encouraging to see that you can tap into this audience on a lower-budget film and have a huge upside. It’s good for the business and it’s good for the audience.”
It’s certainly good for Frank Miller, who is already courting Warner Bros. with the prospect of a 300 sequel, the details of which he is keeping strictly under wraps for now. “I’m not going to say more to you than I’d say to them, which is that I know what it is,” he says. “That’s all they get to hear for free.” For his part, Snyder is starting work on another graphic-novel adaptation for Warner Bros., this one based on the much-loved superhero epic Watchmen. (In a twist devoured by fanboys, a blink-and-you-missed-it frame of the Watchmen character Rorschach showed up in the leaked 300 footage.) As he did with 300, Snyder intends to stick to his hard-R-loving guns when he makes the grim, dystopian Watchmen. “There’s a lot of tough things in it,” he says. “There’s a rape, children are murdered and eaten by dogs, pregnant women are shot. Thematically, it’s just R-ish.” And having accepted 300’s decapitated heads and splattering blood, Warner Bros.’ Horn is prepared to lay down his sword and shield on the next battle. “If Zack feels more comfortable making Watchmen an R, he will win that argument,” he says. “He has just proven the R rating is not a barrier to huge grosses.”
As for what ultimately drove the Spartans to those huge numbers? In Snyder’s mind, the magic number behind the victory is not 300 — it’s 15. “My generation, the Star Wars generation, has grown older, but they haven’t grown up,” he says. “They haven’t matured. You still need to get in touch with your inner 15-year-old. Because he’s in there.” In other words, Spartan boys may have lost their innocence early, when their fathers taught them how to kill and die. But in America childhood never ends: It’s just playing at a theater near you.