Potsy Ponciroli didn’t intend to make a gritty Western. What Ponciroli — whose biggest screen credit to that point was co-creating CMT comedy series Still the King — did intend to do was direct his first feature film.
It was while scouting for a different project that he came across a remote, over-century-old Tennessee farmhouse surrounded by ambling hills. As he explored the property, it began to get dark. “And I started wondering, what if I do [a story] where someone comes over that hill,” remembers the director.
This simple concept became the foundation for Old Henry, a Western drama that stars Tim Blake Nelson as an unassuming farmer with a secret past who must protect his son from interloping outlaws. And while many have likely never heard of the film, it has nevertheless made a big impact.
Old Henry, with a production budget sitting at approximately $1.5 million, traveled to the Venice Film Festival and after made its way to the No. 1 spot on iTunes movies chart in the U.S., where it stayed in the top 10 for eight weeks. The National Board of Review named it one of its Top Ten Independent Films of 2021, and former President Barack Obama named it as one of his favorite movies of 2021.
While the movie did receive a limited theatrical run via its co-producer Shout! Factory at 35 theaters, it was the film’s prominence on the iTunes chart, sitting alongside Marvel superheroes and James Bond, that caught the industry’s attention. “After the TV show, I thought I made it to Hollywood,” says Ponciroli, who is based in Nashville. “But that wasn’t the case. With Old Henry, I’m finally having conversations I’ve always wanted to have.”
Like rom-coms, sports dramas, and other genres that had become dormant at the pre-pandemic box office in the age of thinning margins for IP-less theatrical titles, Westerns are seeing traction outside of the multiplex, now claiming the top spots across premium video-on-demand and streaming services.
The Western is an integral part of Hollywood history, invoking images of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and scores of Ennio Morricone. But as of late, the genre hasn’t been a quick draw at the box office. The 2016 star-studded remake of Magnificent Seven grossed $162 million worldwide on a nearly nine-figure production budget, while Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight fell flat with a global gross of $155 million, the director’s lowest showing of the 2010s. In 2018, Annapurna’s adaption of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers earned $13 million on a high-$30 millions budget. The middling-to-downright-bad box office returns were enough to put trigger-shy studio executives off the genre. (Even 2016’s Taylor Sheridan-scripted Hell or High Water, which received an Oscar best picture nomination, only grossed $37 million globally at the box office.)
Like American comedies, Westerns have long been seen by Hollywood as being too culturally specific to travel overseas. The rise of foreign box office as an integral part of a movie’s overall financial health had a negative effect on the genre. Whether true or not, it is seen as a genre that is not well-suited for global theatrical audiences, note industry insiders. “Every single filmmaker has a Western in them,” says an agency partner about the genre’s continued popularity among the creative classes. “But in general, there is no international on them. But now I’m wondering if distributors will be more open to them.”
For nearly a decade, Jeymes Samuel tried to push his Western, The Harder They Fall, through the studio system. Talking to The Hollywood Reporter about his movie, which features Idris Elba, Regina King, and an all Black cast playing fictionalized versions of famous Black figures of the American West, Samuel remembers multiple studio lot rejections: “They were like, ‘You will never get this film made.’” The widely held industry belief that movies with Black casts don’t fare well internationally, Samuel notes, also prevented the movie from being made independently, with indie financiers scared off by the potential lack of overseas presales.
Eventually teaming with producer James Lassiter and Jay-Z, Samuel found a home for The Harder They Fall at Netflix. The film, which debuted on Nov. 3 on the streamer, was No. 1 on Nielsen’s top 10 streaming video-on-demand chart, racking up almost 1.2 billion minutes of streaming views for the week of Nov. 1-7. The service is also behind Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s ranch-set novel The Power of the Dog. According to the company, subscribers spent 27.2 million hours watching the Benedict Cumberbatch starrer in its first four days on the service.
And on television, which has a long and sustaining history of Westerns from Bonanza to Deadwood, the genre is proving a dominant force largely thanks to Taylor Sheridan’s runaway hit Yellowstone. In November, the Kevin Costner-fronted series’ season premiere drew 12.7 million total viewers across Paramount Network and simulcasts, according to Nielsen live-plus-3 ratings, making it the season’s top premiere across broadcast, cable and premium networks.
And on Dec. 19, Yellowstone prequel series 1883 debuted on Paramount+, with ViacomCBS noting that it was the streaming service’s most watched series premiere to date and more than doubled the previous record. (The company does not release streaming numbers.) A third series from the Yellowstone universe, entitled 6666, was added to Paramount+’s streaming slate in February. Elsewhere in streaming, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter is developing hourlong Western series The Abandons for Netflix.
As for Ponciroli, he and his camp are now watching Hollywood come stampeding over that yonder hill. Producers and executives have been reaching out to ask for meetings and, invariably, one of their first questions is if he’s making another Western.
“I will do another Western down the road,” he says. “Just not as my next movie.”