Can Kevin Costner’s Horizon, Debuting at Cannes, Help Western Movies?

By Taaza Facts

Published on:

The world premiere of Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1 at the Cannes Film Festival in an out-of-competition slot on May 19 will test the appetite for a film genre that has never lost its appeal among directors and critics but has proven one of the most challenging to make work at the global box office. 

Warner Bros. is betting big on Horizon, releasing the first entry in Costner’s multi-film frontier epic June  28 across North America, and Chapter 2 on Aug. 16. The marketing team behind Barbie clearly believes, for the domestic market, that two $100  million Westerns from the star of Yellowstone are as good as money in the bank. 

At first glance, international buyers seem to agree. The first two Horizon films are expected to sell out worldwide before Chapter 1 hits the Croisette. 

“There’s a lack of big, $100  million projects on the independent market, and with fewer studio releases this summer because of the strike, [international] distributors are excited to have not one but two movies of this size available,” says Daniel Baur of K5 International, which is handling global sales on Horizon Chapter 1 and 2

But for audiences in many foreign territories, the Old West can be a tough sell. With the very big exception of Costner’s Dances With Wolves — which earned some $424 million globally, more than half of it outside North America — the international box office performance for traditional Westerns is rarely good, often bad, and frequently ugly. 

Dances With Wolves aside, the last Hollywood Western that can be termed an unqualified global hit was Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), a $100  million movie that took in close to $450 million worldwide back in 2012, about two-thirds of that from outside North America. The Coen brothers’ True Grit remake in 2010 was a domestic success ($171 million) but grossed a comparatively disappointing $81 million internationally. Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 The Magnificent Seven remake earned $162  million for Sony worldwide, a moderate success given its $90 million-plus budget, not considering marketing and P&A costs, but barely 40 percent of its gross came from international. Even Costner’s well received Open Range (2003), a midbudget, $22 million Western that earned a respectable $58 million domestically for Disney, took in just $10 million internationally. 

Hybrid Westerns like Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013) or Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens (2011) — the former a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque action adventure, the later a Wild West, sci-fi mashup — have fared better on the international market. Ranger earned $171  million outside of North America, versus a disastrous $89 million domestic gross. Cowboys took in $75 million internationally against $100 million domestically. 

“The best thing you can do when selling Westerns to a non-American audience is to disguise them as something else,” notes one European-based studio marketing exec. “The new Tarantino or Coen brothers’ film, or an action-thriller that just happens to have cowboys.” 

The conventional thinking has often seen Westerns as being too specifically American to easily translate overseas, making it hard to secure independent financing, which is usually dependent on overseas presales. Many of the highest-profile Westerns of recent years — Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Power of the Dog, Jeymes Samuel’s star-studded The Harder They Fall and the Coen brothers’ Western omnibus The Battle of Buster Scruggs — were all commissioned by Netflix, which also took international rights on Paul Greengrass’ Tom Hanks starrer News of the World, a Universal release stateside. 

When it comes to Horizon, Netflix might actually help the film’s global theatrical play. Earlier this year, the streamer rolled out Yellowstone, the series that kicked off the Western revival in the U.S. and helped reestablish Costner’s frontier-man image, across multiple international territories, including Germany and Brazil. Baur says watching Yellowstone could prime demand among international audiences for a Costner-led Western epic, comparing it to the release of the Ghibli Studios back catalog on the streamer, which he argues helped prepare the way for the global box office success of The Boy and the Heron this year. 

But Baur admits that he isn’t pitching Horizon as “the return of the Western” as much as “the return of Kevin Costner,” banking on the appeal of a new Wild West epic from the director and star of Dances With Wolves

“You can’t compare a Costner Western to any other Western,” says Baur. “It’s a genre on its own, like a James Cameron Avatar film.” 

International distributors certainly won’t have the option of trying to disguise Horizon as anything other than a Western. Costner doesn’t do hybrids or genre deconstructions. His frontier movies may have a modern sensibility — particularly in their treatment of Native characters and issues of white settler colonialism — but at their heart, they are old-school cowboy epics. 

That could play in their favor. Tom Cruise brought Top Gun: Maverick — another nostalgic, staunchly non-ironic, and proudly American blockbuster — to Cannes two years ago. Audiences, U.S. and global, roared their approval. 

Taaza Facts

I am a multifaceted content creator with expertise in blogging, Finance, and Cryptocurrency reviews. My creative journey involves weaving captivating stories in blogs, designing aesthetically pleasing and functional websites, and dissecting the nuances of cinema. We are dedicated to sharing our passion and insights with a global audience.

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