As cinematic collaborators go, there are few in Hollywood who can match the storytelling cred and box-office clout of Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski. The duo has delivered a trifecta of “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, taking the property from hokey amusement-park ride to multibillion-dollar franchise juggernaut.
Last fall, well before their kooky, captivating animated adventure “Rango” opened to $38.1 million domestically, Depp and Verbinski announced their next live-action collaboration would be “The Lone Ranger,” a project Depp and Disney had been trying to get off the ground for years.
Now, quite surprisingly, Disney has shut down the production amidst concerns about a Western-themed film with a budget north of $200 million. Deadline reported the development on Friday, and the Los Angeles Times followed up on Monday (August 15) with further details about the stoppage. The Times reports the “Lone Ranger” budget could have ballooned to $250 million at a time when studios are looking to keep costs under control, even as a heavily reliance on CG effects drives those costs up.
“It’s our intention to take a very careful look at what films cost,” Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger said on a conference call with analysts on Tuesday, according to the Times. “And if we can’t get them to a level that we’re comfortable with, we think that we’re better off actually reducing the size of our slate than making films that are bigger and increasingly more risky.”
But there’s also little doubt that Disney was influenced by the performance of “Cowboys & Aliens,” a Western that faltered at the box office this summer despite A-list talent in front of and behind the camera. After the expensive, Harrison Ford-starring action flick opened to just $36.2 million during its first weekend, industry insiders fully anticipated that studios would shy away from the genre. “There is no getting around the fact that the Western-sci-fi genre mashup has been a terrible failure in Hollywood,” Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, told MTV News at the time. “Expect studios to stay far away from this genre in the near future.”
Not even Depp and Verbinski — and their long-standing relationship with Disney — were immune to Hollywood’s growing understanding that big-budget Westerns just aren’t resonating with moviegoers. The move means that unless a new approach (and a new budget) can be worked out, Depp won’t get to bring Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s dutiful sidekick, to the screen, despite years of involvement with the project. Armie Hammer, of “Social Network” fame, was set to play the Lone Ranger himself.
“This is the origin of Lone Ranger,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer told MTV News in March 2010, “so you’re gonna see how the Lone Ranger became the Lone Ranger. He was a Texas Ranger, and how he became the Lone Ranger.”
Are the chances that audiences get to see that origin story in theaters totally dead? The Times floats an optimistic note, citing other projects shut down because of high costs, like Denzel Washington’s “Unstoppable,” that were resurrected at the last minute. For now, though, it seems more likely Depp would reprise his “Pirates” role of Jack Sparrow than step into Tonto’s boots — though even a fifth seafaring adventure is uncertain at this point.
“It boils down to story, script and filmmaker,” Depp said earlier this year about “Pirates 5.” “It’s not something where I would say, ‘Let’s shoot it next month to get it out by Christmas 2012.’ We should hold off for a bit. They should be special, just like they are special to me.”