'Lone Ranger's' weak box-office debut likely to make Disney more cautious

Los Angeles TimesJuly 11, 2013 

As Walt Disney Studio's "The Lone Ranger" limps off into the sunset after a bruising box-office encounter with the minions of "Despicable Me 2," it could be years before the studio gambles on a character unfamiliar to young moviegoers.

The new take on the masked lawman and his sidekick Tonto, which cost Disney more than $225 million to produce, brought in just $48.7 million at the box office over the five-day holiday weekend and could result in a write-down of $100-$190 million for the studio, according to analysts.

Though it is hardly the first expensive star-driven film to bomb this moviegoing season -- Will Smith's "After Earth" and Channing Tatum's "White House Down" both preceded it down that path -- the Johnny Depp Western offers a cautionary tale about what happens when costs rise as an audience's interest wanes.

Less risk

As with other studios, Disney's failure is likely to reinforce its resolve to double down on less risky sequels and lower its spending on original live-action films.

"They will think not twice, but maybe five times, before they do another $225-million picture," said longtime entertainment industry analyst Harold Vogel of Vogel Capital Management. "This is going to make it a lot tougher for any other budding auteur to come in and say, 'I want to do this $225-million extravaganza.' It's not going to happen any time soon at Disney."

Disney declined to comment for this story. But in interviews Monday, Hollywood veterans privately said they see the movie, which was widely panned by critics, as having far-reaching implications for many of its principals.

The flop, which comes a year after a similar debacle with the sci-fi epic "John Carter," for which Disney took a $200-million write-down, will likely bolster Disney's strategy of lavishing resources on movies featuring recognizable characters.

Many of the upcoming big-budget movies on the company's slate -- including J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars" sequel, a new "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, a new "Muppets" film, an "Avengers" sequel from Marvel Entertainment and a "Finding Nemo" sequel from Pixar Animation Studios -- rely on brands and names familiar to theatergoers younger than 30.

Some exceptions

There are a few notable exceptions to the safe formula. For example, next summer's big-budget "Maleficent," starring Angelina Jolie, is an unknown title, though it drafts off a popular fairy tale, "Sleeping Beauty."

"Lone Ranger" was put into production by former studio chief Rich Ross, who was ousted following the "John Carter" bomb after less than three years on the job. He was succeeded by former Warner Bros. Entertainment President Alan Horn, who showed a penchant for original stories from bankable filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan. Horn is likely to continue that tradition at Disney, though with a sharp eye on production costs, said one Hollywood veteran who has worked with Disney but asked not to be identified because of the confidential nature of discussions.

Indeed, the studio has several original films planned for release in the coming 18 months, including the fact-based Walt Disney story "Saving Mr. Banks" starring Tom Hanks, an adaptation of the children's book "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" and the crosscultural sports story "Million Dollar Arm." None of the movies are expected to have a budget over $75 million.

Simply greenlighting sequels, while appealing to Wall Street investors and analysts, does not fuel franchises down the road, or, in the case of Disney, yield new theme park attractions.

Disney held such hopes for "The Lone Ranger," whose weak theatrical performance could strain producer Jerry Bruckheimer's relationship with the studio. The veteran producer, whose "Pirates of the Caribbean" films have grossed a combined $3.73 billion worldwide, has failed to achieve the same box-office kismet with other recent releases, including "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," "G-Force" and "Confessions of a Shopaholic."

"Domestically, Mr. Bruckheimer's pictures, outside of his 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies, have not been blockbusters," said box-office analyst Brandon Gray. "I don't know if it's fair to say a person's taste is out of sync with the public, but I would argue the choices made here have not been the most universally appealing ones."

A spokesman for Bruckheimer declined to comment.

The studio seems to be strengthening its ties to another prominent producer, Joe Roth, who not only was behind the hits "Alice in Wonderland" in 2010 and "Oz the Great and Powerful," but is also making "Maleficent" and "Million Dollar Arm" with Disney. Roth did not comment for this story.

The "Lone Ranger's" stumble also thrusts Gore Verbinski in an odd place. Verbinski hasn't made a live-action film since the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" picture in 2007, and this has dealt a blow to his career. And Depp, after the failure of "Lone Ranger" as well as "Dark Shadows" in 2012, will soon see his popularity tested again with moviegoers. He next stars in "Transcendence," the secretive directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister, and reprises his role as Capt. Jack Sparrow in the fifth "Pirates" film.

"The Lone Ranger" faced high hurdles as a Western -- a genre that is a tough sell for modern moviegoers. Only eight Westerns have cracked the $100-million threshold in the U.S., including "Dances With Wolves," "True Grit" and "Django Unchained," according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division of Hollywood.com. Such films typically attract a narrower audience than, say, an effects-driven superhero film or animated release.

"A Western appeals to a more male-dominated audience," said Dergarabedian.

Disney will still look to foreign territories to help cushion the blow on "Lone Ranger," though global audiences are generally cool to the genre, noted Dergarabedian.

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