Can 'Cowboys & Aliens' Lasso Youth?

Studios usually view Comic-Con as a venue to start momentum on projects that won’t be in theaters for up to a year. This Saturday, DreamWorks and Universal will try to turn the rabid youth demographic at Comic-Con into true believers for Cowboys & Aliens, a week before the picture opens. It’s crucially important to a movie that has a budget pegged by insiders at $163 million (whispers around town are it could be higher) big stars in Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and the god-fathering  presence of Steven Spielberg and Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. It is also directed by Jon Favreau, whose Iron Man films and past Comic-Con patronage has made him a hero to that crowd.

Despite this pedigree, Cowboys & Aliens has endured a tortured development history involving more than a dozen writers. (Just five writers got screenplay credit after the Writers Guild not surprisingly held an arbitration trying to figure who did what over 14 years.) Now the movie faces even bigger challenges. It’s a mash-up of two genres that usually don’t cross paths, Westerns and science fiction. Word around town is the film has a  cash break participation pool in the 35% range. In the wake of the behemoth opening of  Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, tracking has been soft, there is no 3D conversion to justify higher ticket prices, factors that could put the film into the $40 million opening weekend corridor. That’s not enough. And there is that trailer, which took a page from the Super 8 playbook in not giving away every reveal. The studio hopes audiences are so intrigued with the idea of the mash-up of Western and scifi genres that they’ll be curious even if they’re somewhat confused.

So on Saturday, Universal and DreamWorks will come out with six-guns blazing at Comic-Con, launching the film with a Civic Center premiere and a star roster that includes Harrison Ford (many Comic-Con attendees still dress as Han Solo from Star Wars, and Indiana Jones still is as iconic as it gets at the festival), Daniel Craig (those 007 suits are too formal for the Comic-Con crowd, but he’s still James Bond), Spielberg (making his first trip to the convention to promote Tintin) and Howard and Grazer. And then there’s Favreau, who offsets his talent as an event film director with an assiduous habit of courting fans through Twitter. He has become a certified Comic-Con rock star. Last year, when Favreau brought a handcuffed Ford onstage in the actor’s first Comic-Con appearance when Cowboys & Aliens was being made, the crowd went nuts.

Insiders tell me they are encouraged that tracking has picked up somewhat; awareness numbers are growing; and the strongest audience base of older males and females (who like those genres and Ford and Craig) is now being supplemented with increased awareness among young males. It is not surprising that marketing has been a challenge because nothing has been easy for a movie which has taken 14 years to get made. I actually broke the first story about the movie in 1997, when I was a (youngish) film reporter at Daily Variety at a time when studios spent lavishly on specs and pitches. This was a whopper of a deal, especially since Cowboys & Aliens was sold based on little more than an image of a cowboy on horseback, aiming his six-gun at the giant space ship (which not coincidentally looked like the Imperial Destroyer from Star Wars) that pursued him. The deal was made by WMA agents Alan Gasmer and Rob Carlson, who back then were averaging two spec and pitch sales a week.

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who owned Malibu Comics when that imprint sold Men in Black to Sony, met Gasmer to pitch comic ideas that would be generated by his new imprint, Platinum Studios. “He’d flip over a poster, and then another and another,” Gasmer recalled. “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, who pitched it to his client Steve Oedekerk. 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.”

Pitched as a Western version of Independence Day, Universal and DreamWorks paid $500,000 against $1.5 million. What they really bought was a drawing that suggested a concept, and the deal included a potential payday of around $3.5 million for Oedekerk (hot after writing Ace Ventura and The Nutty Professor) to write, direct and produce. It would only take about a decade for Hollywood to figure out the proper tone for Cowboys & Aliens, which evolved from an action-comedy to the dead-serious Western (with aliens) that will open nex week.

There’s a long trail of writers who did drafts, starting at a time when Universal and DreamWorks were eager to make the film — until two years later when the bloated Wild Wild West killed the momentum for another costly high concept Western. Oedekerk, whose script mixed action with humor, gave way to scribes Jeffrey Boam and Chris Hauty. Sources tell me they were told to make the film like 3:10 to Yuma, with aliens. They brought a darker tone to the material, but the project lost steam and eventually moved on to Sony and Escape Artists.  Escape Artists partner Todd Black said he didn’t read any of the early scripts — he was legally prohibited from doing so — but that development also veered from a broad comedic Men In Black tone with humor (Tom Evans and Thomas Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer wrote those drafts) to a dark, serious take by X-Men scribe David Hayter. Hayter told me that when he took the job in 2002, he, like Oedekerk, had only that illustration to work with, because the actual graphic novel wasn’t published until 2006. “I liked the idea that the audience knew more about the technology than the cowboys, and that these these low-tech heroes took on a hi-tech menace,” said Hayter.   “After I turned in the first draft, they wanted it darker. I told them, if I do that, you won’t want to make the movie. They said, do it anyway. When I turned it in, they said, ‘this is took dark, we can’t make this.’ Being proved right is not much solace to a screen writer trying not to be buried in the pauper’s graveyard.” Black said that Hayter indeed delivered a script he wanted to make, but Sony was reticent and by then they’d spent so much money they decided to let it go.

Enter Imagine’s Howard, who told me during a Deadline interview to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his and Grazer’s company that he became fixated on the concept, but thought the tone in the scripts was a little too humorous.

“I found out about it four years ago,” Howard told me recently. “I looked at the cover of the comic and thought it was fantastic. I started asking questions and it had gone back and forth between Universal and DreamWorks. It was available somehow. I looked at the screenplays. They were good, but tonally it was a little bit tongue in cheek. I went back to Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg and said I thought it was very hard to be tongue in cheek about the West because it isn’t a staple genre any more. Not like the 50s where there were 20 Westerns on TV and you could make fun the way Mel Brooks did with Blazing Saddles and have people remember. But it was a great adventure genre, and scifi, and I thought a more straightforward blending of the two could be a fresh idea. We worked on that and then Jon Favreau became interested. It was reborn and picked up a lot of momentum and a fantastic cast.”

Original suitors Universal and DreamWorks got back into it, with the latter taking the creative lead and Universal leading the marketing effort. That serious tone was shaped first by Iron Man scribes Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, and then by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof.  They worked closely with Favreau, who originally wanted his Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr, but then moved on to the iconic teaming of Craig and Ford. All five of those writers got screen credit after the Writers Guild not surprisingly held an arbitration trying to figure who did what over 14 years. Hayter was nixed because the project moved to a different studio; and even though Oedekerk originated the movie with only an illustration to work with, he was only given Story By Credi (which he shared with Fergus & Ostby). “This is only the second time we can remember where the Guild gave source credit to an illustration, and the other one was a TV movie based on a Norman Rockwell painting,” Gasmer said.

We’ll soon find out if that high concept of cowboys vs aliens–which kept the project afloat and enticed the likes of Spielberg, Howard and Favreau– rallies in the tracking, enough to captivate the global audience needed to turn the pricey picture into a summer hit.

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