Cowboys and Aliens and The Smurfs do battle, tying with $36.2 million This weekend is an excellent example of why it’s the numbers, not the rankings that matter when discussing box office. And, more importantly, the context of the numbers must be taken into account as well as the hard figures. As of this moment, The Smurfs and Cowboys & Aliens are battling for the top slot at this weekend’s box office, with both films hovering at $36.2 million. One cost $110 million while the other cost $165 million. One has strong foreign prospects and a guarantee of eternal life as a family DVD purchase/rental, while the other faces an uncertain future as it belongs to a distinctly American genre. Point being, The Smurfs can take solace that it somewhat over-performed this weekend, while the Jon Favreau genre mash-up may go down as one of the bigger whiffs of the summer season.

Cowboys and Aliens opened with about $36.2 million this weekend, mostly on the strength of men over 25. Sci-fi westerns are a tricky business, as (somewhat stereo typically speaking perhaps) western fans don’t like sci-fi while science-fiction geeks aren’t fans of the classic westerns. Of course, neither Wild, Wild West or Jonah Hex were very good, and Cowboys and Aliens received some shockingly poor reviews. The film received a weak reception from its world premiere at Comic Con last weekend, something that the many powerful people behind the film (director Favreau, producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, etc) were not expecting. Since the film was targeting older audiences as much as the stereotypical geeks, the reviews did matter in this case. The film has a Cinemascore grade of a B+, which is a little low for such apparently mainstream entertainment.

As far as long term marketing, it was a clear case of not quitting while you’re ahead (see past perpetrators of this crime). I loved the teaser from last November, but was less and less impressed with each new trailer. More importantly, the several additional trailers were basically the same footage re-cut. It’s nice that Universal didn’t blatantly spoil the whole film in the ad campaign, but using nearly identical footage cut up slightly differently for six months gave the impression that the bag was empty. Universal should have just gone with the terrific teaser and kept a certain amount of ‘mystery’. This is alas, another apparent miss for Universal, all the more unfortunate in that it was an ‘original’ property (it was based on a very cultish comic book). Results like this are why Universal passed on The Dark Tower and In the Mountains of Madness (not that I disagree with those calls). When Universal whiffs on one ambitious original property after another and (presumably) scores a hit next summer with Battleship (hilarious teaser HERE), what lessons can we expect them to take?

Also estimating $36.2 million, the other theoretical contender for the weekend crown is The Smurfs, which is of course the CGI/live action adaptation of the popular cartoon series that ran from 1981-1989 on NBC. Ironically, NBC and Universal are now owned by the came corporate overlord, but this was a Sony production. This was another example of the formula spawned by Alvin and the Chipmunks back in December of 2007. Take a popular kids cartoon from the 1970s or 1980s, insert expensive CGI-animated versions of the title characters into an otherwise cheap live-action melodrama (often the same plot actually). The Alvin and the Chipmunks films grossed $361 million and $443 million worldwide respectively, while Yogi Bear (which really should have been an R-rated monster film) earned $201 million for Warner Bros. last December. Of course, things that start cheap gradually grow more expensive, and this new incarnation inexplicably cost $110 million (hoary for Jayma Mays for getting $20 million…?). We pundits and critics of course decry this kind of film as the epitome of what’s wrong with mainstream Hollywood. But while that may be true, it’s also a reminder that many moviegoers don’t treat cinema as a hobby or a profession or a passion, merely as a diversion (the film pulled an A- from Cinemascore, with an A from those under-18). I’m taking my kid to see this one this afternoon because she wants to see it, plain and simple. And while it may be terrible, if she laughs, I’ll survive. The Miyazaki marathons can come when she’s a little older.

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