Cowboys & Aliens: All that effort for a flop

Oh, the lengths some people will go to to get their comic made into a Hollywood film

Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens

Mike Selby

The big budget, big studio, and big star 2011 film ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ was based on a comic book nobody had ever heard of it, leaving many to wonder just how this exactly happened?

The quick and most popular version begins with Scott Rosenberg, who — after created a self-published comic titled ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ — was just a little more obsessed with the idea that it could be made into a great film. To create buzz, he called every comic book store he could find in the yellow pages, and asked if he could send them numerous copies of his comic for free. As expected, those contacted said yes.

Rosenberg prints thousands of copies, and sends them out to the stores that wanted them, who are free to sell them, give them away free to customers, or throw them away. He then releases a press release about the tens of thousands of ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ comics available at all these comic book shops.

So far so good, except Rosenberg lies in the press release, and calls his give-aways “sales.”

The comic book industry press immediately smelled a rat, and nobody ran Rosenberg’s less than truthful press release. Nobody that is, except for Entertainment Weekly. Their brief mention of Rosenberg’s comic sales was enough for Hollywood to seek him out, and purchase the rights from him. All this lead to a Spielberg produced film sporting a $200 million budget featuring two of the absolute biggest names in film: Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.

All of this is true, except —like Rosenberg’s press release — it leaves out a few facts.

The first is Rosenberg wasn’t just a guy with a self-published comic book trying to get it noticed. He was actually a heavy hitter — either owning or running independent comic companies such as Malibu, Eternity, and Aircel Comics since the late 1980s. While running Malibu comics, he broke just about every industry sales record possible with movie and television options, and tie-in merchandizing. Malibu was so successful it was bought by Marvel Comics in 1994, which enabled Rosenberg to finance yet another comic book company, Platinum Studios.

Unlike other publishers, the sole purpose of Platinum Studios is to create and adapt comic book stories and characters to feature films, television programs, video games, and more. It is also a publicly traded company, which currently “consists of approximately 5,600 characters that have appeared in comics in 25 languages and in approximately 50 countries.”

So Rosenberg wasn’t simply a guy with a self-published comic who fibbed on a press release. And ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ turns out to be anything but a self-published comic.

Its origins start way back in the mid 1990s, when Rosenberg strategically placed a full page ad in Variety, stating ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ was an upcoming feature film based on the comic. Again, no comic at the time existed, so this was just a move by Rosenberg hoping to get his idea noticed. One it turns out, that worked, as a massive bidding war between major studios took place, with Dreamworks winning the option rights for half a million dollars, which would immediately double once filming began.

Filming however, never did start, as half a dozen writers turned in unsuitable scripts as the months passed. Those involved lost interest, and the project is eventually scrapped.

A decade goes by, and Rosenberg still wants this film made. He has a team create not a ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ comic book, but a ‘Cowboy & Aliens’ graphic novel. He knows more than most that a new and unheard of comic would never outsell or come close to matching the numbers that a Spiderman or a Batman comic routinely bring in. Graphic novels however, at this time, sold in very low numbers. With some business savvy — like lying about sales numbers on a press release —he could create a bestselling graphic novel.

Unlike the short version, he didn’t just give ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ away to comic book stores. He had certain stores purchase thousands and thousands of copies, which he then reimbursed them with for.

The rest of the story is exactly as it happened above. Nobody believed his press release for a second, except for Entertainment Weekly, which got Hollywood’s interest in it for a second time.

And that is the long version of ‘Cowboys & Aliens,’ and Rosenberg’s quest to have his comic (which didn’t exist, then did exist, but only as a graphic novel), have enough imaginary sales to have Hollywood make a big budget film that (besides some great acting) rates 5 out of 10 at best and is seen as a flop by its own studio.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library