What killed Johnny Depp’s ‘Lone Ranger’?

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LOS ANGELES — The news Friday that Disney was hitting
the stop button on a planned reboot of “Lone Ranger” with Johnny Depp
was greeted by a chorus of surprised reactions around Hollywood,
followed by tentative explanations.

In Depp, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry
Bruckheimer, Disney had a team that had collaborated on three “Pirates
of the Caribbean” movies. And they had a title that was immediately
identifiable to an older generation, expanding an audience for a film
that could already play well to the youth crowd. In the era of
big-budget filmmaking, this was the form par excellence, from the studio
that practiced it as often and as well as anyone else.

And yet Disney had decided, at least for now, to halt the movie in its tracks.

The consensus feeling in Hollywood is that, whatever
the other doubts (“Lone Ranger’s” appeal to an international audience,
the viability of the Western, Bruckheimer’s mixed recent record), the
main concern was a matter of dollars and cents. The movie could cost as
much as $250 million, and the studio and filmmakers couldn’t see eye to
eye on making that figure work, not with the other doubts looming.

Film budgets have evolved to a strange point. On the
one hand, the scale of studio moviemaking has ballooned in recent years
as the sheer technical possibilities have expanded. That, coming at
roughly the same time as studios’ belief that movies need to be
splashier to distinguish themselves from other forms of entertainment,
has taken budgets through the roof. The result is an inevitable
backlash, at least for anyone not named James Cameron.

But there’s also a second, more subtle factor that
may be working against these mega-budget productions. Technology has
allowed filmmakers to do things they’ve never done before, at budgets
their predecessors would have thought inconceivable. Filmmakers today
don’t just whip up some effects magic; they can make some budgetary
magic. Effects that would have cost tens of millions now cost a fraction
of that.

While that’s a boon for lower-budget filmmakers
looking to make movies that play bigger (last year’s “Skyline 3D” offers
a good test case), this development has done something else: created an
expectation on the part of some studio heads that movies that look
expensive should cost less. Sure, those executives will publicly say
they understand all the resources an A-list director needs to make a big
summer or holiday release. But quietly, some have started to wonder how
a class of upstart, tech-savvy filmmakers (check out a tandem known as
the Purchase Bros. for a good example) can spend so little and make
their movie look so good. At the very least, they want to use those
examples to put pressure on the A-listers to bring down their expenses.

There’s yet a chance that “Lone Ranger” could get
back on track. Other productions riven by budget disagreements — Denzel
Washington’s “Unstoppable” comes to mind — often see an 11th-hour
resolution. Like Washington’s debate over budgets, there’s brinksmanship
and finger-pointing, but eventually everyone grumblingly gets on board
because the alternative is even less palatable. Studios want to make
movies, and when they’re done sending a message, they come around.

Even if that happens, though, the case of the “Lone
Ranger” demonstrates a paradoxical truth of modern Hollywood: Budgets
may need to get smaller even as movies get bigger.

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(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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