Welcome to Breaking Geek, a column that just won’t go away, where uber-geek Nick Doll offers commentary, reactions, and theories regarding the most interesting news of the week (or whatever he feels like), using his expansive knowledge of all things geek! Today, I examine if the Western can ever make a comeback in film and TV.
Red Dead Redemption 2 set a new record for “biggest opening weekend” – though the comparison to Hollywood’s opening weekends is ridiculous as a ticket costs about $15 dollars and a game is $60… if you weren’t tricked into buying the other, more expensive editions. The game’s success got me thinking about the Western genre as it applies to my two favorite mediums: movies and TV.
Westerns haven’t been particularly popular on TV and at the cinema for decades. Which has always bothered me, because it is one of my favorite genres. Why don’t American or worldwide audiences have the same enthusiasm for Westerns as me?
Could the Western come back to the big and small screen?
Let’s start by looking at recent trends of how Western TV shows and movies have performed in the last decade or so:
Some Highs, Mostly Lows
We’ve seen plenty of spikes in the genre over the past decade or so, the most recent hits I can think of being the aforementioned videogame and HBO’s Westworld, which is really not even a Western anymore going into Season 3. Nor was it ever a pure Western, but rather a Sci-Fi hybrid.
Not that combining Westerns with other genres has produced many other successes. Regardless of quality, we’ve seen films like Cowboys & Aliens – which offered a sort of Indiana Jones and 007 team-up by casting Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig — not make its budget back. Likewise, The Lone Ranger, a “Disneyfied” Johnny Depp Western, is one of the company’s biggest flops (though I quite like that one… Cowboys & Aliens not so much).
A more traditional Western, the 2016 remake of Magnificent 7 did make a profit, though it’s also likely superstar Chris Pratt’s lowest grossing movie since he blew up via Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Only opening to $35 million, the film was number one at the box office, but that September was a particularly slow one. True Grit and The Hateful 8 had great returns on their budget, but still didn’t rake in a quarter of the cash of a modern blockbuster, even with their star heavy casts. Same with 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, grossing far less than $100 million.
On the more successful side, you have Django Unchained and The Revenant, both pretty big successes, but more in an Oscar way rather than being blockbuster hits, which is something we’ll talk about in a bit.
“Modern” Westerns don’t do all that great either. Though popular with critics, films like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water aren’t performing as well as other big ticket Dramas, Comedies, or Action films. I would call Logan a modern Western as well, but I think Hugh Jackman and the X-Men brand are responsible for that hit. On the DC side, Jonah Hex was a comic book film and flopped especially hard, even when compared to Green Lantern.
Speaking of Comedies, but jumping back to the actual old west, A Million Ways to Die in the West also made a profit but under-performed. On the other hand, though we never know Netflix’s ratings, The Ridiculous 6 must have been successful enough, seeing as how Netfllix is still in the Adam Sandler business.
On TV, there have been both modern and classic Westerns besides Westworld. AMC’s Hell on Wheels and FX’s Justified never had the same buzz, but still lasted multiple seasons. Then there’s Breaking Bad, which I would also consider a modern Western, which was yuuuuuge!
So, why, in a world where Americans are embracing what I like to call “fictional versions of European history” aka Fantasy series and films like Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings, aren’t at least foreign countries watching Westerns? In fact, if you read this article from our man Cam, you’ll see the Fantasty genre is a booming!
People complain about Superhero fatigue, but back in early Hollywood, more Westerns came out a year than Superhero films currently. A higher ratio of films were Westerns as well, going back decades and decades.
Why can’t they come back now? In a market where we get Blockbusters year-round, where are the truly successful Westerns at, domestically or globally? Hollywood keeps trying, but why don’t we bite?
What Makes A Western A Western
Let’s take a look at the genre to get a handle on what isn’t appealing to audiences.
We all know what makes a classic Western. Well, the basics. If a Fantasy is full of knights, wizards, and dragons; Westerns are easily recognizable with cowboys, Indians (Native Americans, but they didn’t call them that in the old west), horses, shoot-outs, bank robberies, and trains. And of course the beautiful back drop of the arid mountains of the old west.
But the classic Western, and even many modern ones, are slow. Intentionally and deliberately slow. There’s even a movie that hit not too long ago called Slow West, for crying out loud. Westerns can include long moments of silence and contemplation, and the plots don’t generally progress as much as a modern blockbuster like a Superhero film or a near-perfect Action film like Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
Look at the recent Magnificent 7 remake. Huge finale… but not a lot before that. Slowly finding allies while riding for days, waiting for the bad guys to arrive so they can save the town…. then more waiting… then prepping the town for the army that will outnumber them. It’s been modernized to be faster than an older western, even as recent as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is also a far cry from the John Wayne films of old, but it’s still slow by today’s standards as a whole.
Same with my favorite film of the previous decade, the modern Western No Country for Old Men. Lots of great, tense scenes. In fact, near constant tension, but big moments are few and far between. Again, while it is older than any other film we’ve discussed, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a perfect example; the best scene to look at being the “vacation” they spend riding bicycles and flirting with a woman as rain drops aren’t falling on their heads.
Finally, taking a look at Breaking Bad; that show moves at a surprisingly slow pace, despite all that happens. Justified also takes it’s time, spending more time on character than plot.
What else do most the films I’ve mentioned have in common?
Westerns today are generally made as either pulp movies, or more likely prestige pictures by directors who are reliable to make a profit, but don’t churn out blockbusters. Pulp and prestige pics may be great for film nerds like us, but they aren’t mainstream. Tarantino and the Coen Bros are popular enough to make back their budget and win awards, and these two have both done more than one Western apiece. And they are possibly the most successful writer/directors making Westerns today. The others that are nominated for Oscars such as Hell or High Water can’t touch Tarantino or Coen Bros numbers.
Why Aren’t We Biting?
Westerns are too slow for modern audiences. Today’s most popular films are fast and explosive. Though Westerns do have a quicker pace these days, at least the ones that were meant to be blockbusters like Lone Ranger and Cowboys & Aliens, major audiences still aren’t biting.
Because Westerns are slow, this is probably why most are made as prestige pictures meant to appeal to smaller audiences and Oscar voters. Most Westerns that are made are not intended for the mainstream, they have very specific audiences that are used to slow moving Dramas and the like. If Hollywood isn’t making many Westerns for the mainstream, how can they possibly come back?
I think the other main reason is that many people see Westerns as old fashioned. Yes, they like the magic of a Fantasy series set in that ‘olden era, but that is more exotic. Our grandparents and parents watched Westerns. That was theirs, not ours. And I think a lot of younger audiences have this bias, even if they are not aware of it.
Could The Western Return?
It could. It should. But I don’t think it will anytime soon.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is popular because it is a videogame from one of the best game studios, Rockstar. It’s not like I can list off a bunch of other successful Western games from any other franchise.
Westworld is crushing it, also mainly due to the legacy HBO carries, its quality, and the science fiction aspect.
In the current state of films and TV, Westerns usually only have a chance at being successful if mashed with a different genre. Again, Cowboys & Aliens didn’t turn a profit, but that is what I think modern audiences want to see. Westworld again is the perfect example, the Sci-Fi does carry the show more than the Western elements, even though “West” is in the title.
Mel Gibson is remaking The Wild Bunch, but will it do gangbusters business? Very doubtful, based on the track record we explored, as well as it is likely meant as a prestige picture, and sticks very close to Westerns of old.
So, good luck with that, Mel!
In the end, Westerns can’t make a giant comeback unless Hollywood continues to make them for wide audiences, even if it means mashing genres. But, I understand why studios are hesitant, after all the flops and under-performers.
Do it for me, Hollywood. I’ll watch them! And hopefully, more of YOU will too.