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'Cowboys & Aliens' beats 'Smurfs' — at first

The sci-fi western tops the box office on the movies' first weekend, but it will have a hard time turning a profit. Meanwhile, 'Smurfs' shows longer-term promise.

August 02, 2011|By Amy Kaufman and Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Sony Pictures is so optimistic about "The Smurfs'" prospects, a studio executive already says a sequel is very likely.
Sony Pictures is so optimistic about "The Smurfs'" prospects,… (Sony Pictures Animation )

"Cowboys & Aliens" may have won the weekend box-office horse race by a nose, but it will have a tough time being a financial winner for its many studio backers.

After what appeared at first to be an unusual tie with "The Smurfs," a kids' cartoon adaptation, the Jon Favreau-directed sci-fi western pulled ahead by $800,000 when final results were tallied Monday. The movie, which stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, took in $36.4 million while "Smurfs" ended up with $35.6 million.

As much as the Hollywood studios love bragging rights, their priority is to avoid losing money on their big-budget bets. In the case of "Cowboys & Aliens," making a profit will be a long shot.

Unless word of mouth proves much stronger than exit polls indicated this weekend, the film won't end up with much more than $100 million at the domestic box office.

More studios have money at stake in "Cowboys" than in any other movie this summer. Steven Spielberg's production company DreamWorks SKG covered 50% of the reported $163-million production budget, and Universal Pictures and Relativity Media each paid 25%.The three equally split worldwide revenue for the picture and will take an equal hit on any losses.

Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, is releasing the movie overseas and taking a 10% cut of revenue in foreign countries for its distribution services.

Universal and Paramount are also investing around $150 million to market and distribute the movie worldwide.

Despite the movie's well-known creative talent and 16 producers including Spielberg and Imagine Entertainment partners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, audiences weren't sold on the film's concept, particularly younger people. Based on an obscure graphic novel, "Cowboys" — a mash-up of two genres — is one of the summer's only big-budget pictures that didn't arrive with a built-in fan base.

"This was much more of a conceptual play and didn't come with millions of existing fans," said Bruce Nash, founder of movie business website The Numbers. "It's not something people were anxiously waiting years for, and that makes it a harder sell."

Some of the summer's biggest hits, such as "Kung Fu Panda 2," made up for soft domestic box-office showings with blockbuster performances internationally. Pulling off that feat would be the best hope of making a profit for "Cowboys," which begins launching in foreign countries next week.

Although Favreau and the movie's stars will soon begin promoting the movie overseas, media analysts say the prospects that "Cowboys" will become a hit outside the country are dim.

"The disconnect between the title, which sounds like a joke, and the movie should be just as hard to overcome overseas as it was in the U.S.," said Lazard Capital Markets analyst Barton Crockett.

Although "Smurfs" came in No. 2 at the box office, overall its prospects look much brighter than those of "Cowboys." Sony Pictures is so optimistic that a sequel is already "very likely," according to Rory Bruer, the studio's distribution president.

The 3-D family film, whose pint-sized blue protagonists were originally conceived by a Belgian comic book artist in 1958, begins rolling out in 29 foreign markets — including Belgium — this weekend. In recent years, movies that mix live actors and animated characters have brought in more abroad than domestically, including "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" and "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties."

"I would not be surprised if the international grosses for 'Smurfs' dwarf even the domestic total," Bruer said. "Certainly the film's roots are in Europe, so we've always felt like the film was going to be quite strong there."

Family movies also frequently last longer at the box office than big action films. So although "Cowboys" won the weekend, "Smurfs" may end up with the ultimate bragging rights — and a tidy profit.

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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