‘Cowboys & Aliens’ And The Box Office: A Summer Battle

Why was alien/Western mash-up's $36.2 million debut considered a failure?

Hollywood box-office quiz time! One Steven Spielberg-produced alien flick based on an original idea hits theaters this summer, earns $35.4 million in its opening weekend and is roundly praised as proof that original ideas (those not based on board games and theme-park rides and the like) can thrive in the pop-culture marketplace. Another Steven Spielberg-produced alien flick that might as well have been based on an original idea (considering how few people had actually read the graphic novel on which it was based and how screenwriters changed everything except the title) hits theaters this summer, opens to $36.2 million during its first weekend and is tagged a major disappointment.

What gives? Well, in the comparison between the praised [movie id="455087"]“Super 8″[/movie] and the rebuked “Cowboys & Aliens,” a lot, including budget, talent and a certain genre hybrid that just never seems to connect with moviegoers.

” ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ arrived with big-budget Hollywood hype — the stars (Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig), the huge budget ($160+ mil), and the above-the-line pedigree (Jon Favreau, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg),” said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Super 8′ carried none of the big production clutter, and most impressively, was made for a third of what ‘C&A’ cost.”

Projections heading into the weekend pegged “Cowboys” to gross in the $40 million to $50 million range, on par with something you’d expect from a movie based on an original idea with marquee talent on both sides of the camera. But reviews were tepid, the public has never shown a deep love for alien/Western mash-ups and, as Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru notes, “Cowboys” was the eleventh action movie released this summer. Its audience was also 53 percent male, leading Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, to speculate that Universal could have tried to appeal more to women.

“[Star] Olivia Wilde wasn’t included in the marketing blitz as much as she should have been,” he said. “Going after fanboys can be a risky bet, because it often means that you’re alienating other groups.”

Perhaps “Cowboys” might have excelled at the box office in March, when even something like “Battle: Los Angeles” (a poorly reviewed original movie, its most recognizable face Aaron Eckhart’s) was able to gross $35.6 million. Between the crowded summer calendar, the weak reviews and the unpalatable subject matter, “Cowboys” simply had too many cards stacked against it to thrive. It’s likely to drop hugely in its second weekend. While hardly an outright bomb like “Sucker Punch,” another original concept, “Cowboys” has stumbled enough to provide Hollywood with some valuable lessons.

To begin, studios are likely to stay far away from the alien/Western concept for a while. What’s more, “Cowboys” shows once again that even A-list talent can’t ensure a big opening. But what “Cowboys” won’t do is make Hollywood shy away from basing films on less-recognizable properties or even original ideas altogether.

“Studios are already gambling on properties that are not based on recognizable properties, and most of them are big-budget sci-fi spectacles,” Bock said. “Call it the ‘Avatar’ effect. Currently, there are nearly a dozen in production, many in 3-D. Most of them do have one thing in common: a dearth of big-name stars. Look for that trend to continue, as studios continue to bulk up the budget with SFX instead of stars.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Cowboys & Aliens.”

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