Tentpole carries hopes for 'Atlantis,' other franchise prospects

Fourteen years after Scott Mitchell Rosenberg first shopped an image of a cowboy looking over his shoulder while galloping away from a chasing spaceship, “Cowboys & Aliens” hits screens today. For Platinum Studios, it’s the six-shooter the company has been looking for to fire up a franchise across multiple platforms that it can call its own.

In an unusual deal — one that few creatives other than George Lucas have been able to broker — Platinum has retained full rights to “Cowboys & Aliens” with the exception of films, which DreamWorks, Universal, Paramount and Imagine share. U distribs domestically.

That means Platinum can publish new comicbooks, produce games, sell toys and set up licensing deals around the property while collecting all the coin.

The comicbook-centered entertainment company has already initiated a big push, with HarperCollins reprinting a collection of the original “C&A” books in hardcover in March, which sold out. A softcover edition is out and was selling briskly leading up to the pic’s release. An online version of the comicbook had generated 3 million views before Platinum pulled it to give HarperCollins an incentive to publish the books.

Barnes & Noble and Graphicly have the rights to publish a digital version of the books for the Nook e-reader. Coming soon are iPhone and iPad games, from Free Play and Gameloft.

And KKM Global Brand Strategies is handling worldwide merchandise deals for different age groups, including branded slot machines, a toy raygun and light-up action figures.

Meanwhile, Platinum and Orbit Media Group have started to spin off new stories, including a children’s book and app, “Cowboys & Aliens: The Kids,” revolving around the tale’s children before the war with the aliens began.

For fans of the graphic novel, the Jon Favreau-helmed “Cowboys & Aliens” that is unspooling at the megaplex this weekend, and stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde, is very different from the printed page. Outside of the title and high concept, most of the characters and sequences in the $163 million production are new, including the alien wristband, now wrapped around 7-Eleven Slurpee cups in a promotion for the pic. Only one scene — when the aliens attack the dusty Western town — is lifted from the books.

That’s just fine with Platinum’s Rosenberg; it’s all part of the company’s big transmedia-like plan for the property.

“For us, it’s about the whole brand and the world that comes along with it,” Rosenberg said. “The film is just one part of the story.”

When DreamWorks and Universal initially picked up the film rights, the deal included just the U.S.-based storyline, not what happened in the rest of the world when the aliens invaded in the 1870s, and other planets in the universe that the extraterrestrial beasties visited.

“I love that the movie’s story and the comicbook story are different from each other,” Rosenberg said. “They should be.”

“We have no limit to the different worlds and characters we can play with,” the exec said of the elements that appear in a 10,000-page bible penned for the property in 1997.

“The people who get it are the fans of ‘Cowboys & Aliens,'” Rosenberg said. “We hear from them and they’re buying things.”

Rosenberg first came up with the idea for “Cowboys & Aliens” when he was 13. A mini comicbook was created in 1997, and a full version published in 2006, nine years after the first film scripts were being penned.

After development stalled at DreamWorks and U, Rosenberg set up the project at Sony before going back to DreamWorks and U. Par retains foreign distribution rights through its former ownership of DreamWorks.

The issue during development was always tone. Studios wanted to pursue a “campier” angle, given the title and plot that would have made it similar to WB’s “Wild Wild West.”

“What we cared about a lot about was the tone,” Rosenberg recalled.

Getting that right, with the eight scribes that wound up working on the film, delayed the pic from hitting the bigscreen sooner. “Even though it took a long time, I was happy. Everybody knew the tone had to be perfect,” Rosenberg said.

Platinum has a lot riding on getting the film version right. It’s a publicly traded company and a successful pic could propel not only its stock price (the way that individual films once boosted Pixar as a solo entity and still benefit DreamWorks Animation), but also its other products tied to “Cowboys & Aliens.”

“The very thought of the film happening has been helpful” in brokering new product deals, Rosenberg said. While a number of spinoffs were already in development, “the film absolutely helped push them along.” And attracted new investors.

“They like us making more money,” Rosenberg said. “They know what our plans are and like buying into the future.”

Throughout the development of “Cowboys & Aliens,” Rosenberg has been encouraged by Hollywood’s eagerness to adapt more comicbooks, especially ones based on characters that the general public may never have heard of.

Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Marvel put the Mouse House in that position after realizing that most of its well-known properties were locked up at other studios, leaving it with thousands of lesser-known titles to adapt.

“For us, that’s perfect,” Rosenberg said, citing “Men in Black,” which he published as a comicbook, that wasn’t a big seller until the film was struck a chord with auds.

Because of that, “You don’t have fans that get upset when a film is different from the comicbook,” he said. “I’m a big believer in other media and different storytelling.”

Platinum has a number of other film projects based on its books set up around town, including “Unique,” at Disney with “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman attached, as well as “Nightfall,” with William Stuart’s Aurora Prods and James Wan (“Saw”); “Mal Chance” and Tony Krantz (“24″); and “Blood Nation” with Alexandra Milchan.

But with “Cowboys & Aliens” under its belt, Platinum is now ready to build a franchise plan around another of its books, “Atlantis Rising.”

Platinum now controls the rights to that property after a film version was initially set up at DreamWorks with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci on board to produce (they also co-produced “Cowboys & Aliens”).

It’s an actioner about an underworld civilization that wages war against the rest of the Earth. A revamped version of the book arrives in August to pave the way for new pic.

Rosenberg wants to introduce a version that hasn’t been seen before.

“Everybody always wants to see Atlantis as Shangri-la or (its inhabitants) as bad guys,” he said. “Why do they have to be bad guys?”

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