Reporting from Austin, Texas — — The private jet from Van Nuys kicked up pale dust as it landed on an airstrip just outside this state capital, and the passengers crossed the tarmac with the quiet determination of candidates preparing for a rally in a battleground state.
"This is our Iowa caucus," director Jon Favreau said as he climbed into a waiting black SUV with Ron Howard, the two-time Oscar winner who is a producer of Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens," scheduled to hit theaters July 29. "This is like the primary. Our election night is that opening weekend this summer."
Favreau, Howard and their team didn't fly 1,400 miles to meet with foreign investors, movie exhibitors or a panel of top film critics. Their destination was a scruffy little theater in a strip mall where about 250 college-town movie fans munched on pepperoni pizza and swigged beer during a 24-hour movie marathon.
In this age of Twitter, Facebook and relentless entertainment blogging, the makers of special-effects films know that the tastemakers who matter often smell like onion rings. The quest to earn their approval is starting earlier and earlier in the life of films.
"This is all new to me," said Howard, who grew up on Hollywood sets as a child actor. "There's a conversation now with fans and it starts a long time before the movie is even finished. The frightening thing for me is if somehow the wrong story gets out there and your film is misunderstood in some way … you need to shape the message, really. But Jon is the expert at this stuff."
Favreau's "Iron Man" movies have piled up more than $1.2 billion in worldwide box office since 2008. He has more than 900,000 followers on Twitter, and at comic-book conventions he works the crowd like a presidential candidate hitting the coffee shops of Iowa City.
"With this one, we're on an independent ticket," Favreau said, clearly enjoying the political analogy. "Very few people know the source material. We're out there trying to educate people who don't know anything except the title. They don't know if it's a comedy, and they're not sure of the tone of the film. They don't know if it's something we're smirking through.... This is our first time showing a hunk of the movie, and this is the place to do it."
The SUVs pulled up outside the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard, where zombie movies, kung-fu rarities, silent films and truly twisted horror flicks are served up with drinks. On this particular December Saturday, the venue belonged to the delicately titled Butt-Numb-a-Thon, an annual event put on by Harry Knowles and his website, Ain't it Cool News (www.aintitcool.com), devoted to the latest in movies, TV, games and comics.
The movie marathon, a proudly ragged affair, dates to 1999 and, as the Austin film scene and its spiky blogger culture earned attention, Hollywood noticed. In 2001, on the eve of his first "Lord of the Rings" film, director Peter Jackson sent a taped message. For a sequel two years later, he showed up in person. Other directors followed: Mel Gibson, Bill Condon, Guillermo del Toro and Zack Snyder.
Unlike those filmmakers, Favreau arrived in Austin with a movie that was seven months from release and far from finished. "Cowboys & Aliens," which stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, is a mash-up genre movie about space invaders who land in the Old West. Its special effects are a work in progress — the 40 minutes of footage Favreau brought along showed actors being yanked into the sky by wires that will be erased digitally.
The purpose of the trip to Texas was to fire up apostles to champion the underdog film against competing summer releases, but Favreau said the influence goes both ways. He admitted that if this sort of preview went over badly, he could chart "a course correction" in the editing room, and he doesn't pretend that art could ever trump commerce in a summer movie.
"It's not something I would do if nobody was watching them, like Van Gogh painting for himself," the 44-year-old director said. "Some filmmakers are artists, they're auteurs. I see it as a medium of communication. If I'm putting something out there and the fans are not getting it, then I'm not doing my job."
Inside the theater, fans were watching "On the Town," a 1949 shore-leave musical with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. The Hollywood entourage, which included screenwriter Roberto Orci and Holly Bario, co-president of production at DreamWorks Studios, had arrived a bit early, so they wandered into a music store nearby to kill time. Howard strummed an acoustic guitar, and Favreau bought a ukulele to add to his collection.
"OK, time to go," came the word, and Favreau led his team into the high-ceilinged theater.
"Nobody leave," Knowles told the audience. "Everybody, here's Jon Favreau …"