Dead Genres and How To Revive Them: The Western
There’s a truism in Hollywood that certain genres are dead. In this 4-part series of blog posts, we’re going to look at these genres Hollywood wisdom says are dead, why their death is the prevalent theory, and what it may take for any writer to revive them with their own script.
First up is the Western, which has been dead arguably the longest of any genre. Why is the prevailing wisdom that Westerns are dead? The simple answer is because very few are made anymore.
In 2019, thus far, only 3 Westerns have been theatrically released. Of those theatrical releases, two were extremely limited (less than 50 theaters). Arguably the only “real” theatrically released Western, in terms of theater count, was THE KID, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Western starring Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt and Dane DeHaan. At its widest release, THE KID was in 268 theaters. It grossed a total of 1.5 million dollars. As of this writing the film has had no overseas theatrical release.
Consider what this says about the Western as a genre. This movie has three legitimate stars, and it’s about a famous figure from Western history (Billy the Kid). It has not been theatrically released overseas and it made a small amount in its domestic release.
By comparison, so far in 2019 there have been 5 comic-book adaptation films. One of these films, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, grossed 319 million overseas. And it’s not based on a piece of intellectual property that’s as common or well-known as say, THE AVENGERS.
What this tells us is that Westerns have a finite ceiling in most cases, theatrically. If THE KID, with real movie stars (Chris Pratt’s previous film, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM, grossed 1.3 billion dollars worldwide) only grossed 1.5 million, that’s a telling sign.
Knowing this, though, is a tool for the aspiring Western writer. If Westerns can’t be counted upon to do big business in domestic box office (and potentially not even be released overseas, where Westerns have traditionally had less value) that means the budget of any Western script should be low.
In 2019, Westerns are primarily a VOD (video-on-demand) genre. THE KID might not have done great in its theatrical release, but it had a real theatrical release. That means audience awareness of it is going to be much higher than it would be for most straight-to-VOD releases. Chances are THE KID will perform significantly better in domestic video-on-demand than similar competitors without that kind of theatrical release.
That’s the surprising thing and why the “death” of the Western may be exaggerated. It’s entirely possible THE KID was a total financial success because its theatrical release provided sufficient advertising for its video-on-demand release. This is the new normal for the Western in 2019.
The star power of the relatively low-budgeted (exact figures are hard to come by, but D’Onofrio has spoken candidly about the low-budget nature of the film in podcast interviews, notably with Marc Maron) THE KID isn’t an anomaly. This is another tool for the writer to capitalize on.
Actors love being in Westerns. That’s why you can find Kurt Russell in BONE TOMAHAWK, Ethan Hawke and John Travolta IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, Liam Hemsworth and Woody Harrelson in THE DUEL, and so on.
Economics realistically dictate that Westerns are primarily a domestic (US & Canada, not overseas) video-on-demand (non-theatrical) endeavor. Knowing this, the smart writer can design their Western spec around those limitations.
Write a great Western that can be produced for a modest budget, with several huge star roles, which ideally pivots around a famous Western historical figure or bit of mythology, and you may be able to find traction in what’s considered a “dead” genre.
Do you think the Western is dead?