Johnny Depp's next is up in the air

Actor has several potential projects but no go pictures

Johnny Depp is coming off an acclaimed role in "Public Enemies" and has one on the most anticipated movies of this weekend's Comic-Con with "Alice in Wonderland."

But the Mad Hatter is facing an unusual situation: Like the character he plays in "Alice," he soon could be killing time.

Depp is attached to a number of high-profile development properties but is facing a landscape devoid of go pictures. Instead, there are a dizzying number of possibilities and schedule permutations, none of which seems likely to result in a produced movie for him anytime soon.

Producers have been interested in Depp, whose deal is at Warner Bros., for the title role in the studio's "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," Kevin Lima's remake that would continue a whimsical if slightly less drama-intensive streak for the actor. He has not signed on, however, and in any event the pic would not go into production until next year.

Meanwhile, the fourth installment of the actor's tentpole "Pirates of the Caribbean" remains a priority for Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer. At some point it was going to be Depp's next pic, but with Gore Verbinski no longer directing the franchise, the ship has slowed.

Disney is seeking a new director, a process that could take time. Although the studio is believed to want an established franchise and action helmer, it has put the word out to agents it would be open to younger directors and new ideas, potentially prolonging the process. That could mean as much as a four- or five-year hiatus since the 2007 release of the previous picture, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

(Disney also would like to scale back the size and budget of the next movie compared with previous installments; for that reason, it likely won't bring back relatively pricey Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.)

Because of the "Pirates" lag, a Depp project that was supposed to go into production after the Sparrow-fest, "The Lone Ranger," could end up getting pushed back further, though there's also a possibility it could shoot ahead of the nautical tale.

For the moment, though, "Ranger" also remains locked in the stable. "Pirates" writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have written a script for the Disney-Bruckheimer update, but the studio could wind up commissioning a polish or another draft. There's also no director, and Depp is attached to play Tonto, leaving a lead that needs to be cast.

Finally, Warners' feature update of the ghoulish TV series "Dark Shadows" -- a Depp-Tim Burton combo that might have shot later this year or early next year -- also might be back-burnered. Burton still has work to do on "Alice," which opens in March, and tends to spend a lot of time on prep work.

What the possibilities boil down to, besides head spinning, is there are projects with momentum that Depp has not signed for, and projects he has signed for that don't have a lot of momentum.

In other words, it's a very 2009 phenomenon brought on by a star's choosiness on one hand and studios' increasing caution on the other. (In what might be an emerging mini-trend, Will Smith and Brad Pitt happen to find themselves in similar situations.)

The result is that Depp could face a year or longer without appearing on the big screen.

That might not sound like a major departure, but for moviegoers, it will seem like a shift. Depp has been in one of the most fertile periods of his career: The actor also stars in the Hunter S. Thompson adaptation "The Rum Diary" and had a supporting role in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," which hasn't been released in the U.S. In the past nine years, Depp has not had more than two movies come out in any 18-month period; if "Imaginarium" gets a release by the end of 2010, he'll have had four.

Then again, the absence of a new role might mean a respite from his breakneck schedule. Even a pirate needs some time off.