As Martin Scorsese embarks on filming the $200m Western, Killers Of The Flower Moon, we revisit the recent history of mega-budget 21st-century Westerns.

For a genre that’s often said to be in decline, Westerns have grossed more at the worldwide box office in the last decade than any other time in the history of the genre. Did you know that seven of the ten highest-grossing Westerns in worldwide box-office history were made in the last decade or so? That’s not bad going for a genre that arguably peaked in popularity in the 1950s.

Of course, as box-office receipts have gone up, so too have budgets, so almost as many of the ten highest-grossing Westerns also lost money. For more than 20 years, 1990’s Dances With Wolves was the biggest earner in the genre, with a $424 million worldwide gross from a $22m budget. Even when you adjust that for inflation, it’s the cheapest Western in the top ten, (just next to 2010’s True Grit remake) and thus the most profitable.

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And so, while the Western has enjoyed revivals through reinventions and deconstructions by different generations of filmmakers over time, it’s never truly been a tentpole-friendly genre. The more you spend on a film these days, the further it has to travel with international audiences to make its money back, and this original American genre, steeped in frontier mythology and allegory, isn’t always going to play with audiences worldwide.

On the other hand, with the genre’s capacity to explore and interrogate American masculinity, we’re surprised it’s taken this long for Martin Scorsese to get around to making one. We’ve been thinking about mega-budget Westerns because Scorsese’s next film, Killers Of The Flower Moon, is a 1920s-set Western comes with a budget that’s north of $200m.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro and Jesse Plemons, the film is based on the non-fiction book by David Grann and has been set up as a co-production between Paramount Pictures and Apple TV, after the former reportedly balked at the high price-tag.

Similar to Scorsese’s last film, The Irishman, a simultaneous cinema and VOD release is on the cards, but even so, this remains the most expensive Western that’s been greenlit in a long while. In part, this speaks to inflation and the rising cost of making the movies, not to mention paying stars.

One modestly-priced Western production that had trouble with budget was James Mangold’s cracking remake of 3:10 To Yuma, starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. During construction of a $2m set in the drought-stricken desert location, a freak storm left the town of Contention covered in two feet of snow. The budget was stretched by clearing the snow and covering it with dirt, and in this case, the script had to be rewritten to explain that the town was still under construction.

However, given the reputed cost-effectiveness of the genre, we’re covering Westerns that cost more than $100m here, (3:10 To Yuma came in around $55m) and some of those have done well too…

The good

On box office alone, DiCaprio’s casting might bode well for Killers Of The Flower Moon, as he’s appeared in the two most recent all-time highest-grossing Westerns almost back to back – Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained toppled Dances With Wolves with a worldwide gross of $449m in 2012, and then The Revenant (“Hello, I’m Leonardo DiCaprio, and for your consideration, welcome to Jackass…”) surpassed that again with its $532m haul in 2015.

However, this hardly makes Leo the new John Wayne, and his later Tarantino role as Rick Dalton in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood almost seems to send up any notion of him as a modern Western star. Both costing more than $100m, the two revisionist epics were hotly tipped for their respective awards seasons at the time of their release, and their peak Christmas release dates helped power them to box-office success around the world.

By the end of the season, both films had picked up a few Oscars apiece and a smattering of other gongs. Together with the global success of less expensive fare like Dances With Wolves and True Grit, this would seem to suggest that modern, big-budget Westerns have been most commercially successful as prestige fare, targeted at the older audience.

Of course, another big hit with Western stylings came from director Gore Verbinski and his Pirates Of The Caribbean star Johnny Depp. Surely, I could only be talking about Rango, a weird and wonderful CG-animated comedy (and another Oscar winner, for Best Animated Feature!) that we’ve previously covered on an episode of the Film Stories podcast…

We’ll get onto other bids at a four-quadrant Western in due course, but there’s another that just squeaked into the top ten. With a budget estimated at just over $100m, Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven was a reasonably sized hit that maximised the potential of redoing a known property with a more diverse cast, including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier.

But the fact that 2016’s The Magnificent Seven was the 23rd highest-grossing Western of all time within just one weekend speaks to the limited number of mega-hits the genre has yielded over time. Conventional wisdom states that after the cost of production and promotion and revenues for exhibitors, a Hollywood tentpole has to make around two-and-a-half times its total negative cost to be a hit.

Hollywood executives are painted as risk-averse, but that doesn’t seem to add up with some of the Westerns of the last 20 years. Doing the maths, if Dances With Wolves topped out at $424m and was unsurpassed for decades, isn’t it a bit of a gamble to spend upwards of $100m on a Western?

The bad

We’ve covered what the biggest Western hits were before the turn of the century, but there were a couple of big bombs pre-2000 too. The most notorious of these was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, the 1980 flop that has been blamed in many quarters for finishing United Artists as an independent studio and bringing about the demise of New Hollywood’s director-led filmmaking. It’s apparently not very good either.

But just on the cusp of the 21st century, 1999’s Wild Wild West, the type of Western flop that seems most instructive to the tentpoles that toppled after it. Reuniting Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld after 1997’s Men In Black, Warner Bros’ high-concept reboot was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, and it was considered a major commercial disappointment at the time.

By the early 2010s, studios had long since started making bigger bets on fewer films, usually backed by a high-concept premise and at least one Will Smith-sized star. As the comic-book movie scramble began in earnest, the 2006 graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens paved the way for a 2011 sci-fi western directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Steven Spielberg. Headlined by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, the film had a mixed reception and wound up earning $174m worldwide on a $163m budget.

It wasn’t a historic bomb, but it came at a key point in the development of the definitive mega-budget Western flop of recent times. When Universal’s film hit cinemas, The Lone Ranger was already underway at Disney with Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp (them again!) on board to try and work the Pirates Of The Caribbean magic on the Western genre.

The project had been in development since before Disney acquired Marvel in 2009 and was at that time seen as a potential left-field spin on a superhero franchise, with cross-generic elements and legacy characters. We’ve covered this one on the Film Stories podcast too…

In August 2011, a few months after Cowboys & Aliens flopped, Disney CEO Bob Iger and chairman Rich Ross put The Lone Ranger on pause to try and bring down the whopping $260m budget to a more manageable level. Verbinski, Depp, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer changed their plans, which originally involved a supernatural sub-plot with digitally-created coyotes and gave up percentages of their salary to shave $45m off the budget.

Although the budget overran again during its troubled production, it can be argued that the very public reporting of the film’s financial woes is the sort of negative press that unfairly stacked the odds against The Lone Ranger long before it arrived in cinemas in 2013. But for my money, that argument alone doesn’t hold up when you watch The Lone Ranger, an overblown, overlong Western that’s beset by gruesome tedium and inadvertent racism on its way to a blessedly spectacular train-chase finale. (I’d happily argue it’s still a better film than The Revenant.)

Keeping the earlier 2.5 multiplier maths in mind, The New York Times estimated that the film would need to gross $650m around the world to break even for Disney. The film we got may have its fans, but it was never going to hit that mark in a competitive summer. As if to illustrate the folly of making expensive Western tentpoles, its eventual $260m gross is higher than Rango’s final tally, but then The Lone Ranger cost almost twice as much as Rango, and stands as one of the biggest box-office bombs ever made.

The future?

Naturally, Martin Scorsese is not going to spend $200m on making a film like The Lone Ranger. It remains to be seen whether some of that budget will be going on expensive VFX like those seen in The Irishman, but going by screenwriter Eric Roth’s recent comments to Collider, Killers Of The Flower Moon might similarly have come to bury the big-budget Western as Scorsese’s last film did for gangster movies.

According to Roth: “I know Marty’s trying to make a movie that’s probably the last Western that would be made like this, and yet, with this incredible social document underneath it, and the violence and the environment. I think it’ll be like nothing we’ve ever seen, in a way. And so, this one is, to me, one for the ages.”

The Apple co-production deal will offset the financial side of things and irrespective of where Scorsese leaves the mega-budget Western, this would seem to point the way for any future projects too, whether they’re in the more mature prestige camp or chasing the same saturation appeal as some of the recent misses. The former will invariably use a $200m budget differently than, say, the Chris Pratt-fronted comic-book adaptation Cowboy Ninja Viking, an at-least-33% Western-inflected comedy that’s currently languishing in development hell at Universal.

Scorsese’s recent partners at Netflix have also carried the torch for bigger Westerns during the post-Lone Ranger period, whether it’s the Adam Sandler spoof The Ridiculous 6 or the Coen brothers’ acclaimed anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs.

This year has also seen the streamer release neo-Western Concrete Cowboy and pick up the international distribution rights to Universal’s News Of The World, which is exactly the sort of mid-budget Western that likely would have drawn audiences in that plum Christmas release spot it was intended to have before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Read more: News Of The World review – Hanks and Greengrass’ western drama lands on Netflix

For the same reason, two more Warner Bros-backed Westerns will be on HBO Max simultaneously with their theatrical releases – Taylor Sheridan’s latest, Those Who Wish Me Dead, starring Angelina Jolie and Nicholas Hoult, and Clint Eastwood’s roundabout return to the genre, Cry Macho, a neo-Western about a rodeo star and his young charge crossing from Mexico to Texas in the 1970s. Neither is breaking the bank, but they show that studios will still greenlight mid-range Westerns from the usual suspects.

While independent filmmakers continue to experiment with Westerns and American mythology to progressive, if not mega-profitable effect, this most nostalgic of genres can be seen as less bankable in an industry that’s now built on movies of the scale of a Lone Ranger or Wild Wild West rather than a Dances With Wolves. At this stage, your best bet of Disney ever going near a big-budget Western again is if Marvel Studios turns around and announces a Kid Colt movie. (Probably any day, now I’ve said it…)

Still, the genre that was once renowned as the most cost-effective is still an integral part of American filmmaking culture. Whether it’s in the development of sci-fi as a cinematic genre or the revival of old tropes to tell new genre-bending stories, the popularity of Westerns has been cyclical since the 1950s and will probably come back around again before long.

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