Who Will Have the Last Laugh for 'Cowboys & Aliens'?

Audiences Are Confused by Trailer for the Sci-fi Western, but Don't Discount a Blockbuster's Potential

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The New York Times yesterday had a piece by Michael Cieply that touches on a phenomenon I noticed last week during a showing of the latest "Harry Potter" film: audience laughter during the preview for Universal and DreamWorks' potential summer tentpole "Aliens & Cowboys."

As I wrote then, "[The] teaser for the movie, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, seemed to catch people's attention -- until the end, when the title flashed on screen. There were quite a few laughs at the name, but at least moviegoers will remember 'Cowboys & Aliens.' The question is if they'll take it seriously." The Times' story also notes the same concern: Potential viewers might be "deceived by a title and a premise that many find inherently comic."

Cowboys & Aliens trailer

Cieply's story details the film's origins and the inherent risks Universal faces marketing the cross-genre film, a category that has had mixed results at the box office. But as comic-book movies proliferate, audiences are, increasingly, no longer making distinctions between certain genres -- unless the marketing hammers home that the movie is based on a comic book. (Case in point: "Kick-Ass" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." The former has done well on DVD after a soft box office this spring, and the latter is hoping for the same bounce.)

In an interview with the website Comic Book Resources, Marvel Comics' editor in chief, Joe Quesada, echoes this point (admittedly, his Walt Disney-owned company has a lot riding on moviegoers not regarding movies based on comics as a subgenre): "One of the great values of being a part of the Disney family is that we have access to a lot of incredible demographic research. ... The revelation today is that the viewing public doesn't see our movies as a separate genre ... a niche genre. Movies like 'Iron Man,' 'Thor,' 'Captain America' and 'Green Lantern' are now lumped in with movies like 'Star Trek,' 'Tron,' 'Harry Potter' and 'Transformers.' They're all part of the blockbuster/big action/special-effect/adventure world; that's a huge shift in perception." In any case, I don't expect "Cowboys & Aliens" to wind up as next summer's "Heaven's Gate."

The next big test for "Cowboys" and the rest of this summer's tentpoles will be at the Super Bowl. As M&V contributor Chris Thilk points out at his blog Movie Marketing Madness, as many 19 upcoming releases could have trailers or teases shown during the big game. While many people get their movie information from the web these days, there's still the power of the two-minute trailer on your high-def set to send you online to learn more about a film (and like it on Facebook).

Speaking of TV, also worth noting here is the success of broadcast and cable TV shows such as "Lost," "Fringe" and, more recently, "Walking Dead" that blur the lines between science fiction, horror, espionage, action/adventure, drama and comedy. The small screen, and the studios that feed it, has been more of an incubator and risk-taker than what those same studios often churn out for the multiplex. As audiences at home get more comfortable with what they play on the video-game consoles and watch from the comfort of their couches, the last laugh for "Cowboys & Aliens" might well be with Universal.

Aris Georgiadis is assistant managing editor for Ad Age and editor of Madison & Vine. You can also find him on Twitter.
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