This is an an excerpt from my front-page story in tomorrow’s Los Angeles Times:
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, 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 …”
There was wild applause for the filmmaker, who is also an actor well-known for his work in projects as varied as “Swingers,” “Friends” and “Rudy.” The room was a bit ripe after three back-to-back films, and the venue had the ambience of a rathskeller where beer pitchers are drained and dropped. “The room’s getting a little funky. We’re here at the right time,” Favreau said, eliciting a zesty cheer. He and Orci presented Knowles with a gift, a “Cowboys & Aliens” poster autographed by the whole team as well as executive producer Steven Spielberg. The director then spoke to the audience in a conspiratorial tone.
“The studio hasn’t seen it, Steven hasn’t seen it — he’s not seeing it until next week — but I can show you some stuff … I’ve got two reels here,” Favreau said amid applause and whistles. He pleaded with the crowd not to divulge too many plot details. “Feel free to talk on the Internet if you like it, you don’t like it — what your opinion is, that’s fine — but let’s just not ruin it for anybody else.”
Favreau also took the opportunity to explain the movie’s title, which is taken from a fairly obscure comic book and which joins “Snakes on a Plane” and “RoboCop” as notably on-the-nose film titles. There was angst among the producers in November after a New York Times article suggested the film might be an eccentric misfire in the making.
“A lot of people wonder, is this sort of an ironic title that’s supposed to be fun or is this a movie that’s supposed to be taken seriously with high stakes?” Favreau said. “And the answer is: Yes.”
The footage started off with Craig awakening in a desert, an amnesiac who quickly has to defend himself against three armed marauders. In the film’s opening sequence, the violence is brutal and efficient, and the crowd thundered its approval — as it did again when Ford made his screen arrival as a glowering cattle baron. The story that unfolded was grim and unhurried — until alien spaceships appeared in the night sky and attacked.
The audience hooted its approval. The bruising intensity of the film was welcomed even more enthusiastically. One fan bellowed, “You made Harrison Ford kick ass again!” The Hollywood visitors waved and said good night. On the sidewalk outside, Favreau pumped his fist. “I didn’t know how nervous I was until the lights went down.”
Favreau acknowledged that this new model of early engagement is fraught with peril. The footage he showed has yet to be whittled down and, sure enough, there was online criticism in the next few days that the movie might be too meandering. Reviews of rough drafts give any creator pause.
“Filmmakers have never had to deal with this before,” he said. “Politicians have and that’s why that analogy works so well. You have to have a thick skin. You can’t go on the Internet and look at everything and take it all to heart. It will leech your confidence. You can’t misread the polls or read the wrong ones.”
His film faces a crowded field this summer, filled with the special-effects and animation blockbusters that keep Hollywood studios in business, including new installments of the “Harry Potter,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers” franchises. The crush will be foreshadowed Sunday between whistles at the Super Bowl when nine commercials for upcoming films are expected to be aired at a price of $3 million for every 30 seconds.
On the flight back to California, there was the loose-limbed weariness that follows an adrenaline afternoon. A feast was waiting in Styrofoam in the cabin of the jet — hot, messy takeout from Salt Lick, a barbecue joint — and then Favreau, Orci and the others prodded Howard to tell a few tales from the sets of “Happy Days,” “Night Shift” and “Splash.”
The plane started its final descent, and Favreau and Orci were eager to see the feedback on Twitter and websites like HitFix, UGO and Badass Digest. By the next morning, they would see that it was upbeat overall and, in some cases, gushing. “You never know what it is going to be in a year, but if this ends up as one of those few [movies] that sneaks out there, this will be an important moment to look back on it,” Favreau said not long before the landing gear went down. “This might be the turning point. And if not, it’s still a lot of fun. The barbecue was good.”
— Geoff Boucher
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