By R.T. Watson | Photographs by Tailyr Irvine for The Wall Street Journal
Cue the Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Hollywood is returning to
its Western roots.
Stories with flinty-eyed protagonists set in wide-open spaces
are gaining in popularity among audiences yearning for armchair
travel and a break from computer-graphics and superhero films.
Studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on several
high-profile projects while lower-budget film productions take
advantage of the cost efficiencies of shooting a Western.
The latest push into Westerns includes plans for dozens of new
series and films, many shot on location, boosting business for
horse wranglers and local economies. ViacomCBS Inc. plans to build
on the success of a top-rated cable show, "Yellowstone," which
stars Kevin Costner. Netflix Inc.'s platform has two cowboy-theme
movies with the English actor Idris Elba, one of which, "The Harder
They Fall," was shot in New Mexico. Angelina Jolie stars in "Those
Who Wish Me Dead" from AT&T Inc.'s Warner Bros., a thriller set
against the backdrop of the Montana wilderness, out in May.
The Golden Globes win for "Nomadland," which features images of
an empty Nevada desert and a lonely pilgrimage on roads through
Western states, also evokes the genre. The film's director, Chloé
Zhao, recently announced she would make a futuristic vampire
Western for Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures.
"The Western is American as apple pie...this timeless battle of
good versus evil," said Chris McCarthy, president of ViacomCBS's
MTV Entertainment Group, which includes the Paramount Network, the
channel broadcasting "Yellowstone."
Crews trained in horse wrangling and cattle herding have seen
work pick up. Veteran wrangler Stan Schultz, 66 years old, who
worked on the Oscar winner "Dances With Wolves," said his business
with Hollywood tapered off in the 1990s, but added that "there's a
resurgence on the way" as states attract producers keen on making
Last fall Mr. Schultz and his son Nick hauled more than a dozen
"movie horses" and a bundle of 19th-century replica saddles from
South Dakota to the mountains near Livingston, Mont., to work on
"The Last Son," with Sam Worthington and Thomas Jane. The film is
expected to be released later this year.
The revival has been gaining in momentum. Between 2010 and 2019,
Hollywood released 49 films domestically classified as Westerns,
modern Westerns (also known as neo-Westerns) or as sci-fi, fantasy
Westerns, compared with 23 between 2000 and 2009, according to
Comscore box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Comscore only
counted films that reported ticket sales.
ViacomCBS commissioned "Yellowstone" co-creator Taylor Sheridan
to produce three additional Western-theme series exclusively for
its streaming service: "Y: 1883," a prequel to "Yellowstone"; "Land
Man," based on an oil town; and "6666," the working title of show
that explores the history of a famous cattle ranch. He is also
producing a series for the service called "Mayor of Kingstown," set
in Michigan. Los Angeles-based 101 Studios is producing the
Mr. McCarthy of ViacomCBS calls the deal with Mr. Sheridan
important to the future of its Paramount+ streaming service.
In total, ViacomCBS will pay Mr. Sheridan about $200 million to
produce shows over multiple years, according to people familiar
with the matter. Mr. Sheridan, a Texas cowboy who relocated to
Hollywood in the 1990s, also produces a reality rodeo competition
show for the company called "The Last Cowboy."
"We're witnessing audiences' resurgent demand for the genre,"
said "The Last Son" producer Courtney Lauren Penn. "Perhaps as
a...reaction to our own uncertain world."
Some of Hollywood's biggest names are participating in the
Western's revival. The director Quentin Tarantino leaned into the
genre in his latest films, including "Once Upon a Time...in
Hollywood," while Tom Hanks starred in the recently released "News
of the World." Walt Disney Co.'s Star Wars spinoff "The
Mandalorian," a hit streaming series, plays like a homage to the
director Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, including
"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," which stars Clint Eastwood.
"The Western myth of rugged individualism...has regained an odd
popularity in 2020 during the pandemic," said the author and
screenwriter Larry McMurtry. The Texas author won the Pulitzer
Prize for "Lonesome Dove," a Western opus made into a CBS
Mr. McMurtry, who shared a screenwriting Oscar with Diana Ossana
for "Brokeback Mountain," said he is thinking about writing a
Western television series with her.
Entrepreneurs and rural economies in states including New
Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Montana stand to benefit.
Around the time the Schultzes rolled into Montana last October,
the land developer Carter Boehm was putting the finishing touches
on an authentic Wild West boomtown and permanent film and TV set he
and his partners built in the Livingston area.
Mr. Boehm said he is investing $10 million in the 26-building
set, christened the Yellowstone Film Ranch, which will eventually
include a train station and locomotive. To create a production lot
as authentic as possible, his construction crew installed a style
of wallpaper that was available in the 1880s.
After watching many recent films set in Montana but filmed
elsewhere, Mr. Boehm said he lobbied for years for the tax film
credit Montana enacted in 2019. Now, with his town more or less
finished, he has three Westerns slated to shoot at the ranch later
this year, beginning with a film he is producing titled "Murder at
"Westerns are the future," said Mr. Boehm.
The Montana tax incentive helped persuade the producers of
"Yellowstone" to shoot the fourth season there, according to a
person familiar with the matter. Previously the show was filmed
mostly in Utah. The show doesn't film at Mr. Boehm's ranch.
The rise in Western-style productions has also buoyed local
The cast and crew of Mr. Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight"
purchased more than $100,000 of snow tires from a supplier in
Telluride, according to the Colorado film commissioner, Donald
Zuckerman. When productions come to a town, "all the restaurants
are busy, the hotels are full, and they frequently come during the
offseason," said Mr. Zuckerman.
New Mexico's film commission said Western-theme content has
generated more than $1 billion in economic activity since 2000, due
in large part to the state becoming an important production hub for
Hollywood, particularly Netflix, which owns a studio in
Netflix recently announced it planned to invest another $1
billion in New Mexico on top of the initial $1 billion the company
said in 2018 it planned to spend over a decade. The increased
investment will include adding 300 acres to its existing production
Making a Western can be an effective way to trim production
costs, making it easier to afford big movie stars, said Thomas
Bezucha, director of Universal Pictures' neo-Western from last
year, "Let Him Go, " starring Diane Lane and Mr. Costner.
"The mountains are free," said Mr. Bezucha.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 06, 2021 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.