'Cowboys & Aliens': Five lessons to take away
This post has been corrected. Please see the note at the bottom for details.
There haven't been many film experiments in recent months more interesting than "Cowboys & Aliens." A genre mash-up not based on a widely known property, Jon Favreau's expensive new movie also rode in with several high-profile personalities, including an A-list actor from this generation (Daniel Craig) and an equally big name from a previous generation (Harrison Ford).
Yet the science-fiction western could pull off only $36.2 million in box office receipts this last weekend. That's barely more than the other big summer action movie that wasn't part of a known franchise, "Super 8," which opened to $35.5 million without the help of A-list stars. "Cowboys" didn't even win the weekend, at least not yet, finishing in a rare tie with the less promoted (and expensive) "Smurfs" reboot.
So what does the "Cowboys" performance tell us? A quick synopsis.
Hybrid hiccups. Genre mash-ups can go one of two ways: They can unite disparate audiences or they can alienate them. "Cowboys" seems to have done the latter, with younger fanboys in particular unsure of what to make of the western element (nearly two-thirds of the audience was older than 30, writes my colleague Amy Kaufman). That seems to be the larger trend. Last year's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" -- which combined martial arts, video games, comic books and romance -- was a miss. We'll see how "Attack the Block," which combines horror with science fiction and comedy fares. The movie performed only decently in limited release this weekend.
Favreau's foibles? Jon Favreau is the rare Hollywood personality who regularly toggles between studio acting and big-ticket directing. How's he doing on the latter front? After "Iron Man" gave his career a jolt in 2008, things have been a bit choppy. "Iron Man 2" made a boatload of money but got lukewarm reviews from many critics. (Shortly after, he left the franchise.) And now despite an all out-Favreau blitz, his new film has opened to a disappointing sum. Sure, it was better than 2005's "Zathura" -- but that isn't saying much.
The Craig effect. Perhaps the most intriguing of all the object lessons. Daniel Craig is undeniably a movie star, having helped resurrect the James Bond franchise with "Casino Royale" five years ago. But do we only want to see him inhabiting an icon? We didn't really care much about him in "Munich" (which came out a year before "Royale"). And we didn't necessarily warm to him here. Troubling news for those behind the upcoming thriller-horror film "Dream House." And it raises the inevitable question about the extent to which we'll embrace him in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
Publicity pushiness. It's impossible to quantify how much promotion "Cowboys" actually received. But the film was certainly hard to avoid. A stream of TV spots in the last few weeks, plenty of actor talk-show appearances and a big Comic-Con premiere last weekend still couldn't will the film to a decisive weekend win. It all suggests that publicity can offer diminished returns if a movie's concept doesn't go down well with potential audiences. Consider this: "Battle: Los Angeles," a film that was promoted far less but that had an easily digestible concept and trailer, opened to just about the same amount.
A dinged model Ford. Harrison Ford's career has been in the doldrums for a while. A return to the kind of fanciful action that made him a movie star could have ushered in a larger comeback, at least more than a dramatic vehicle like last year's "Morning Glory." But it turns out we may not want much to see Ford chasing bad guys across exotic landscapes much anymore either.
For the record, 12:44 p.m. Aug. 1: An earlier version of this post referred to "Cowboys & Aliens" as a 3-D movie. It was released only in 2-D.
Photo: Daniel Craig in "Cowboys & Aliens." Credit: Universal Pictures