Forecast: Can 'Cowboys & Aliens' Rope in Audiences?
This weekend, three new nationwide releases duke it out: Cowboys & Aliens rides on to approximately 5,600 screens at 3,750 locations, The Smurfs plucks around 5,400 screens at 3,395 locations (including 2,042 showing it in 3D), while Crazy, Stupid, Love. woos more than 3,300 screens at 3,020 locations. Throw in holdovers Captain America: The First Avenger and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and that's the Top Five for the weekend.

Historical antecedents point to a 50-60 percent drop for Captain America, which would give Cowboys & Aliens the edge to claim first place this weekend. On paper, an action spectacle directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), starring Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones/Han Solo), co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci (Transformers, Star Trek), produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg teams with box office potential. But Cowboys & Aliens has struggled in its extensive, year-long marketing campaign (including its Super Bowl spot). Sure, it has been more polished than Green Lantern's panicked ad spree, but most ads have made Cowboys & Aliens look like a half-baked Western and a half-baked alien-invasion movie shoe-horned together.

Cowboys & Aliens title, which is a riff on "cowboys and indians," is catchy, but it may have a Snakes on a Plane effect: title tells all in a goofily blunt way, so no need to see the movie. The premise does raise the stakes on the typical alien invasion movie by having lower-tech humans, though that's somewhat contradicted by giving Craig an alien weapon from the start. The marketers have tried to mitigate the potential silliness by taking a serious approach and presenting the Western portion first. There's a lot of Craig not saying much (in a nod to Clint Eastwood) in a cliche Western and some grumpy Ford (though none of the Ford that audiences love), and then aliens randomly attack. Recent ads have included more interaction between Craig and Ford, though not to the level their casting asks for.

One can hope that the True Grit has primed audiences for more Westerns, and that the Western angle will make the alien invasion angle seem fresh. Hybridized Westerns, though, often fail, including Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex and The Warrior's Way ("Cowboys and Ninjas"), and, True Grit aside, regular Westerns generally don't reach mass audiences. The cross-genre exercise seems more for movie buffs and fan boys than for the general public. Perhaps aware of all of this, Cowboys & Aliens' ads have featured the line "We have one advantage. They underestimate you." Maybe that relentless marketing has turned the corner for this movie. Distributor Universal Pictures did report a last-minute expectation in the $40 million range.

Box Office Mojo's "when will you see it" polling hasn't provided a clear read on Cowboys & Aliens, perhaps due to the picture's genre mash-up. With an "opening weekend" score in the 34-35 percent range, interest seemed less intense than fellow alien movies Super 8 (47.1 percent), District 9 (46.2 percent) and Battle: Los Angeles (44.8 percent), which didn't bode well. However, its voting pattern was comparable to Fantastic Four (36.5 percent opening weekend) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (29.4 percent), which was a positive sign. These comps suggested a spread of $26-53 million.

The Smurfs is the latest talking critter comedy, and the sub-genre seemed like a sure thing until such stumbles as Marmaduke, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Zookeeper, though Yogi Bear and Hop saved some face with their $100-plus million runs. In addition to its brand awareness, Smurfs, which copies the premise from Enchanted, has one key thing going for it: the critters are small. Led by Alvin and the Chipmunks, the most successful talking critter movies feature diminutive critters. Aside from that, Smurfs looks like a run-of-the-mill genre entry, and distributor Sony Pictures has pegged it for the high-$20-to-low-$30 million range in its last-minute expectations.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. has been pitched as an adult alternative, featuring familiar faces Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore and Emma Stone (who is shown prominently but oddly not named in Crazy's television ads). Carell's playing to type in what looks like a more mature version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and he's had success pitching to this audience before with Date Night and Dan in Real Life. Crazy appears to have more going for it than Larry Crowne from earlier this month, though there are some reservations from its male-centric romantic comedy ensemble premise.

In Box Office Mojo's polling, The Smurfs posted 6.2 percent for opening weekend, which was close to Gnomeo and Juliet (6.3 percent) but less than G-Force (7.8 percent). Crazy, Stupid, Love. had 9.3 percent for opening weekend, which was better than Larry Crowne (5.9 percent) and similar to In Good Company and The Dilemma.

The Forecast, July 29-31

1. Cowboys & Aliens - $36 million

2. Captain America: The First Avenger - $29 million

3. The Smurfs - $26 million

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - $23.5 million

5. Crazy, Stupid, Love. - $19 million

Bar for Success

On the one hand, the bar should be low for Cowboys & Aliens, because it's a Western. On the other, Cowboys is a big alien invasion movie with big name talent behind it, and it's positioned as an intended event movie with a massive, year-long marketing campaign, so the bar should be high. With so much riding on it, an opening close to $50 million would give it box office justification. As for The Smurfs, the average of its comps is close to $30 million, so that's a reasonable number, while Crazy, Stupid, Love. could get by in the high teen millions.

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Comps for:

'Cowboys & Aliens'

'Crazy, Stupid, Love.'

'The Smurfs'