Box Office: Why Cowboys & Aliens Got Smurfed

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Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Smurfs

The big boys came into town — stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, über-producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, Iron Man director Jon Favreau — with a can't-miss hybrid of western bravado and sci-fi fantasy. And when the weekend gun smoke cleared, the bruisers staggered out bruised: they were fought to a draw by a passel of blue pint-size cuties from Belgium. According to early studio estimates, Cowboys & Aliens and The Smurfs both earned $36.2 million at the North American box office to tie for first place. The photo finish will be resolved on Monday, when the films' actual grosses are announced.

[MONDAY UPDATE: In the final reckoning, Cowboys & Aliens earned $800,000 more than The Smurfs — $36.4 million to $35.6 million — for a clear win. The third-place Captain America: The First Avenger took in $25.6 million, about $700,000 above its predicted gross. All other top-10 movies finished within $200,000 of their Sunday estimates.]

A farrago of live action and animation directed by mixed-media master Raja Gosnell (Scooby-Doo, Beverly Hills Chihuahua) and starring Neil Patrick Harris as the main human, the Smurfs movie got toasty-roasted by the critics, with a hapless 20% score on Rotten Tomatoes. But 8-year-olds give less credence to reviewers than to TV commercials, and the film's worldwide tie-in with McDonald's Happy Meals paid off in heightened awareness of this junk-food comedy. Attracting mostly kids and their parents (65% of the audience), The Smurfs cadged a lofty A-minus rating from CinemaScore's survey of exiting moviegoers, less than half of whom paid extra to see it in 3-D. Given its $110 million budget, the film will need to maintain good numbers for the next few weeks and do hearty business abroad if it is to spawn the sequels that Sony hopes to make. Still, odds are that the Smurfs will join the Chipmunks as small-fry profit generators.

For many, the surprise this weekend was not that The Smurfs did so well but that Cowboys & Aliens had such a wan debut. With a budget of $163 million, plus another bundle for marketing costs, the film mostly attracted the geezer demographic (63% of the weekend audience was over 30), and even with that, it managed only a mediocre B CinemaScore, which bodes ill for the movie's shelf life. Universal publicist Paul Pflug wrote in an e-mail on Sunday that "the pedigree of the filmmakers and bold concept made the film a bet worth taking." Yet plenty of indicators could have warned the sponsors of Cowboys & Aliens that this was a sucker's bet. Here are four:

1. Daniel Craig is not a movie star
A fine actor with a steely gaze and abs so hard that only a diamond could scratch them, he got a career dream-boost when he was cast as James Bond in the 2006 Casino Royale reboot. That film earned about $168 million in North America, as did the next 007 episode, Quantum of Solace. (Each film grossed more than $400 million abroad.) But the other 10 movies Craig has made since 2005 have pulled in a total of $171 million domestic, including big-budget underachievers like The Golden Compass, The Invasion and Spielberg's Munich. The 43-year-old Englishman has another Bond project on the horizon, plus the David Fincher remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and a prominent voice role in Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, so he may yet prove to be a box office magnet. But not now, and not with Cowboys & Aliens.

2. Harrison Ford is no longer a movie star
Franchise roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones spurred this surly dude to a long run at the top of the pops. But Ford's mid-career marquee éclat, when he starred in such robust adult-oriented hits as The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger and Air Force One is sooo last millennium. (And we don't mean Millennium Falcon.) Except for the predictably boffo Indy episode three years ago, no Ford vehicle in the past decade earned as much as $50 million domestic. Cowboys & Aliens will easily top that, but considering the movie's cost, it's not a gold star on his résumé.

3. The western is still dead
For more than half of the century-long span of feature films, the western was a dominant genre. But the sagebrush epic petered out in the 1970s and has emerged only fitfully since, usually because some powerful director wanted to pay tribute to the movies he loved as a kid. Thing is, few moviegoers of middle age or lower have been exposed to new westerns, let alone have developed an addiction to the form. It's been a couple of decades since Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven were big, Oscar-winning hits. And when the occasional nouveau western like 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit earns some cash at the domestic box office, it flops overseas. Hollywood movies are a global business, and a genre without global appeal is a risky investment.

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