H’wood hot for horse operas

Lackluster B.O. can't quash Western nostalgia

Yippee-kai-yi-yikes.

Disney’s “The Alamo,” which carries the now-unfortunate tagline “You Will Never Forget,” cost north of $100 million, but scored only $9.1 million in its opening weekend. After the studio’s “Hidalgo” and “Home on the Range,” Disney may be a little shy about getting on the horse again.

But judging by other studios’ performances, it’s the genre of the Western that is shaking in its boots.

The last horse opera to cross the $100 million in grosses was 1999’s “Wild Wild West.” Every oater since has fallen well short, including big-budget to modest items, ranging from “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Missing” to “Open Range.”

And Hollywood has hardly seen its last roundup, with a slew of westerns planned. Which raises the question: What makes filmmakers and execs continue to believe in the drawing power of Westerns when, apparently, movie audiences don’t?

  • Despite the critical and financial failure of “Ride With the Devil,” Ang Lee is returning to the genre with Focus Features and Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of Annie Proulx’s novella “Brokeback Mountain.” Set in 1963, it stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboy lovers.

  • Brad Pitt recently optioned Ron Hansen’s novel “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” with an eye toward portraying the gunslinger. Andrew Dominik (“Chopper”) would adapt and direct.

  • James Mangold plans to direct a remake of the Glenn Ford 1957 “3:10 to Yuma” for Columbia Pictures.

  • Quentin Tarantino is itching make a spaghetti Western in the model of his hero, Sergio Leone.

Many Hollywood honchos grew up on westerns and want to see the genre revived. In a post-9/11 atmosphere, the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys structure would seem surefire.

And all it takes is one hit to turn a genre around. Sci-fi was considered moribund until “Star Wars”; musicals were DOA until “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago.”

In some ways, Hollywood is drawing conclusions with insufficient evidence. In their heyday, oaters were primo star vehicles: John Wayne, James Stewart and Gary Cooper embraced the genre, and audiences flocked to see the pics.

Stars like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have gone nowhere near a saddle. Cop films have replaced the western as the genre of choice for stars — at least so far.

Execs also fear that Westerns face an uphill battle when it comes to the international marketplace, which counts for up to two-thirds of a pic’s global B.O.

“The international market has never been a big supporter of the Western genre,” says Key Creatives partner Ken Kamins.

“It has always looked at it as an inherently American genre, one whose protocol doesn’t necessarily translate. Every so often people would try to slip them through, and the international market would cry foul, the way you they would when someone tried to give them a baseball movie. I would always find it surprising that studios would consider Westerns.”

On the other hand, Hollywood hasn’t had a socko horse opera that would test the international waters.

There’s also a fear that young auds don’t have an innate affection for the Western, and that its “classic” principles might seem well-meaning but stodgy.

However, there could still be a way to dodge the Western’s bullets: Make the movie bigger than the genre that spawned it.

When Kamins was going to bat for client Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the fantasy genre was viewed as something of a downer. New Line’s solution was to super-size the picture.

“They were selling the historical grandeur of the books as well as the epic scope of these movies,” Kamins says. “The intention was to generate the publicity that would generate a global element.”

That also required a much-documented global marketing juggernaut, the size and scope of which had not been attempted before.

The small screen retains its vitality as an outlet for tales of the Wild West: witness HBO’s current hit series “Deadwood,” and TNT’s steady diet of made-for pics such as “The Virginian,” “The Lone Ranger” and “King of Texas.”

However, when it comes to the bigscreen, even the genre’s supporters admit that it’s beginning to look like the Western has been run off a cliff.

“The optimist in me continues to think there has to be an audience, but the realist in me knows that Westerns aren’t a turn-on to most young people,” says Leonard Maltin, film critic and “Hot Ticket” co-host.

Maltin is also a member of the honorary committee that oversees the Golden Boot Awards, which honors those who made the Westerns of today and yesteryear. Launched 22 years ago by veteran oater-movie sidekick Pat Buttram, it also serves as a fund-raiser for the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

One of the reasons Westerns may suffer from an image problem is it’s difficult to recapture the movie era when they were the dominant genre.

“For so many years, the Westerns were movies,” says Alphaville principal Jim Jacks, whose credits include 1993’s Wyatt Earp drama “Tombstone.”

“They were the staple,” he says. “They will never be brought back like that now. But there will always be room for the good Western.”

More than 20 years ago, Jacks wrote an epic Western, “The Hundred Fires.” He brought it out of storage when John Woo said he was looking to direct a Western. Although Woo later left that project to direct “Windtalkers,” Jacks hasn’t given up on seeing his script on the bigscreen.

“It’s near and dear to my heart,” he says. “The problem is perception. Westerns seem old-fashioned to audiences.”

However, Jacks believes that the struggle is no different from the challenges that confront any period piece. “All the period films tanked this Christmas,” he says. “A whole lot of people like ‘Deadwood,’ and that will probably help the next Western that comes out.”

According to some on the Golden Boot’s awards committee, however, “Deadwood” doesn’t necessarily embody the classic values of a Western.

“It’s the attitude that right wins over wrong, that respect and hard work all pay off in the end,” says committee chairman Gaye Hovet. “There’s good and bad, and good will win when you walk the right path.”

In a world that responds to the complex morality presented on “The Sopranos,” it’s easy to see why audiences might respond to the lawless world of “Deadwood.”

“I’ve noticed a definite drop-off in (awards) attendance,” Hovet says. “We get 800-900 people, and it used to be 1,200. When we honored John Wayne, it was 1,500, and that was years after he’d died.”

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