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The Secret Story Behind Cowboys And Aliens

The Secret Story Behind Cowboys And AliensSo, is this movie based on a comic book? Not a bit of it.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, (the mid nineties) Scott Rosenberg had just sold Malibu to Marvel and as Platinum Studios, he was flush with cash. With Ervin Rustemagić, founder of Strip Art Features in Sarajevo, he gotten hold of the rights to the Italian comic book Tex, a western comic book that was basically… a really good Western. His people were having trouble selling it as a movie, because, that's basically what it was. A good Western. Why extra pay for the rights to a good Western when you could just make… a good Western?

So Greg Noveck (later to work for DC on films like Red, and now at Syfy Films) suggested a title. Cowboys And Aliens. And was asked to work it up.

With Paul Benjamin, the pair created five drawings and a bunch of character designs and details. With William Morris representing them, they got a cover image in Variety, the image of a cowboy on his horse with a large space ship overhead. The story in the magazine reported that this was an upcoming comic-turning-into-a-movie, but there was never any comic. That was just part of the pitch.

Other images included a cowboy posing with sunglasses and a raygun, a little like some of the current movie publicity. There was a wagon train on top of a mesa, with a space ship sticking out. And a Native American camp with teepees, with alien technology integrated into their lives.

And they found themselves in a bidding war. With their Men In Black project ramping up, this was a good time to be Rosenberg and Rustemagić.

Universal/DreamWorks, Fox Family Films, Columbia, Disney and Paramount were all interested, although Warners passed, as they were already knee deep in Wild Wild West.

Dreamworks/Universal won, paying half a million for the rights there and then, a million if the film got made, with Steve Oedekerk of Ace Ventura lined up to write and direct.  Rosenberg was to produce, Rustemagić,and Noveck were to co-produce. Of course that was before Rustemagić sued Rosenberg and Noveck left for greener pastures.

Fox would later try and make a rival film, Ghost Riders In The Sky in retaliation, even blocking areas in Arizona for filming to prevent Cowboys And Aliens using them.

And then the delays came. Ostensibly, it was all about tone. The first screenplay by Oedekerk was said to be too light. Drafts from other writers, too dour. And then people involved moved on. And the years passed.

Rosenberg needed to get things moving again. So he actually got round to publishing a "graphic novel". But he wasn't done with his schemes yet. He didn't just want a graphic novel, he wanted the number one graphic novel in the country.

Now, getting a bestselling graphic novel was easier than the best selling comic. In the mid noughties when he published, comic books like Civil War could still sell for up to 400,000. Way too risky to solicit a comic against possible blockbusters from Marvel or DC. But graphic novels had a longer shelf live, sold in the low tens of thousands and the schedules were more predictable.

So he got Fred Van Lente and others to create a 144 page graphic novel based on Platinum notes and screenplay drafts. Usually priced at $10-$15, he priced the book at $4.99, guaranteed to sell.

But there was a problem. Diamond Comics Distribution, whose sales chart he wished to be at the top of, defined a graphic novel as costing $9.99 or more. So he did a deal with Top Cow, part of Image, to list the graphic novel alongside theirs in Diamond's catalogue. Image, as one of the four brokered publishing partners of Diamond, could alter the terms of what did or did not count as a graphic novel.

But maybe this was not enough. So Rosenberg contacted a number of prominent stores on the East and West coasts and arranged to give them a cheque to cover the cost of ordering five figures worth of the graphic novel for their stores. And they did – selling the comic when it arrived for 50 cents, or giving them away free with any purchase, eventually giving them away free to anyone who walked in and then just throwing them away in a dumpster. But they all counted towards that Diamond chart.

Until I came in, reporting the story, and how Platinum Studios and Scott Rosenberg were trying to game the system for their ends. Diamond caught on and declared those over ordered copies null and void, relegating Cowboys And Aliens to twelfth place in the graphic novel charts.

However Entertainment Weekly reported the sales chart of just one store, Midtown Comics, which had taken the Cowboys And Aliens cheque. And for that week, made Cowboys And Aliens the best selling graphic novel of the month. That was enough, it worked and Platinum were able to get things moving again.

And now, a few years later, we finally have the new film, starring Daniel Craig, directed by John Favreau. And that graphic novel, thrown away by many stores rather than take up space, now regularly sells for $30-$40. It's been a long journey, built on whiffle dust, but it finally worked out.

So… anyone want to make a film about Tex?

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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