‘Cowboys & Aliens': The Journey To The Big Screen

Cowboys & Aliens,” the big-budget blockbuster film starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, hits theaters today. Many fans are likely aware that the film has been billed as based on a graphic novel, like so many other recent blockbusters. But what they may not be aware of is just how tangled and torturous a path it was for “Cowboys & Aliens” to reach the big-screen, and how very different its origins are from other comic book films.

To shed some light on that, we’re taking a look at the trail this property blazed all the way to the Wild West of Hollywood.

“Cowboys & Aliens” is the brainchild of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, co-owner of Platinum Studios, a multimedia company. Rosenberg himself has his roots firmly embedded in the comic book industry, being one of the founders of Malibu Comics in 1986, an independent publisher which secured its place in comics history both by serving as the original home for the artists collective that become known as Image Comics, and by publishing “Men In Black,” another offbeat sci-fi concept that went on to big-screen success.

Malibu was purchased by industry powerhouse Marvel Comics in 1994, and Rosenberg was made a vice-president within that company, but eventually found it difficult to exercise his creative goals under that structure, and departed in 1997. Upon his departure, he entered into co-ownership of Platinum Studios, and began developing properties for use in other media, particularly film, in partnership with the famed Hollywood power-brokers at the William Morris Agency.

Alan Gasmer, an agent at WMA, relates how, while reviewing concept art in pitch meetings, they first recognized the potential of “Cowboys & Aliens.” “[Rosenberg would] flip over a poster, and then another and another. When he got to the third one, I said, what’s that? He said, it’s ’Cowboys & Aliens.’ I said, that’s your movie. Even though he had nothing written down, I grabbed Rob [Carlson, another WMA agent], who pitched it to his client Steve Oedekerk [director of ’Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls,’ and writer of ’The Nutty Professor’]. Steve immediately said he was in, and that he would figure out the movie. We went out basically with an illustration and Steve, and we had five offers right away from Disney, Fox, Sony, Universal and DreamWorks until the latter two joined together and bought it. That’s how business was done back then.”

That initial concept art, of a cowboy on horseback firing his six-gun at a gigantic alien spaceship looming overhead, may have been enough to pique the initial interest of Dreamworks and Universal, but there would be a lot more twists and turns before “Cowboys & Aliens” would have a real shot at being made into a feature film. For starters, there was no actual comic or story behind the concept art. That meant that the property languished in development limbo for years, as different writers came on to offer their own take on the idea (including “X-Men” writer David Hayter), and the film changed studios to Sony Pictures along the way. There were so many different writers in fact, that it ultimately came down to the Writer’s Guild trade union having to settle a dispute on who should be credited on the final film. In addition, in 2002, Rosenberg was contacted by lawyers for Tom Arvis, a comic book creator who in 1995 had published his own “Cowboys & Aliens” comic. That issue was resolved after a year and a half of negotiations, which resulted in Platinum settling with Arvis for an undisclosed amount in exchange for the “Cowboys & Aliens” title.

In 2006, Rosenberg and Platinum Studios finally set to work on creating an actual graphic novel in order to propel the stalled film project forward. Established comics professionals Fred Van Lente, Andrew Foley, Dennis Calero, and Luciano Lima were brought on to create the book, which was released in stores in December of 2006, after having been initially serialized as a webcomic. But even this step forward was not without turmoil; controversy arose when it was alleged that Platinum had paid comic shops to carry the book in order to boost sales figures, in hopes of drawing attention from Hollywood.

Regardless of the controversy, Platinum’s marketing strategy paid off; Dreamworks and Universal reacquired the property, producers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Steven Spielberg came on board, and acclaimed director Jon Favreau was soon attached to the project. Fresh off the success of his collaboration with Favreau on the “Iron Man” film, Robert Downey Jr. was also in talks to star in the film, but eventually dropped out due to his role in “Sherlock Holmes.” However, the film wouldn’t suffer too greatly from his departure; it went on to acquire stars of equal magnitude in the form of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, who have brought the film to this weekend’s debut.

So, does “Cowboys & Aliens” qualify as a true comic book film? That may well be in the eye of the beholder, but as with all Hollywood films, the ultimate verdict will be rendered in one court in particular: the box office.

What do you think of the “Cowboys & Aliens” production history? Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!