'Lone Ranger': What's Next

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Disney's $250 million Western appears doomed amid a frantic effort to save the project.

Will the Lone Ranger cry "Hi-ho Silver!" or ride into the sunset? Disney shocked Hollywood by pulling the plug Aug. 12 on the $250 million-budgeted Western, which was scheduled to enter production in the fall with Johnny Depp starring as Tonto. While the studio is giving director Gore Verbinski a week to rework the script and bring costs down significantly, many associated with the project believe the budget pressures are too drastic to salvage the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie as it was conceived and developed.

A source close to the dealmaking says studio chief Rich Ross believes the "substantial budget gap" can only be bridged by Verbinski reimagining some of the bigger sequences and a few "give-backs" from the talent -- moves that those working on the film have been uninterested in making.

"It all starts with [Verbinski]," says a source. "If there is any saving this version of the movie, he'll have to find substantial savings. If he can, maybe we can hold this together."

Verbinski is said to have brought the budget down to $242 million to $244 million via nips and tucks, but the source says it needs to get to $215 million to $220 million -- or less. Verbinski and Bruckheimer are said to have given up a total of $10 million from their fees, but it appears unlikely that the filmmakers will reduce the budget further.

Even at the cost Disney has targeted, the film would have to gross about $800 million worldwide to be profitable when marketing and rich backends to Depp, Verbinski and Bruckheimer are factored in. That's a tough task for a non-sequel, notwithstanding Depp's appeal and older audiences' familiarity with the Lone Ranger character.

The underperformance of the Western Cowboys & Aliens this summer also has added to Disney's skittishness, as has its $300 million commitment to John Carter, the 2012 adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs book by first-time live-action director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E).

One thing that is unfathomable to many is how a Western can cost $250 million.

The original script included werewolves and other supernatural creatures from Native American myths. Those bells and whistles have been jettisoned, but according to sources who have read recent drafts, three massive action set pieces involving trains remain, including one described as the biggest train sequence in film history.

Verbinski earned a reputation for budget-busting on the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. He frequently clashed with then-physical production head Bruce Hendricks to the point that after the third Pirates -- whose budget had ballooned more than $300 million, according to sources -- the studio was no longer interested in working with the director.

If Ranger doesn't ride, it won't be the first time Verbinski loses a project because of budget reasons. He was to have directed an adaptation of the video game BioShock, but Universal put the project on hold in 2009. Verbinski is said to have called cast and crew this week to say he is trying to salvage Ranger.

Replacing Verbinski and reimagining the script would be risky, but Depp -- who also stars in Disney's Pirates and Alice in Wonderland franchises -- might stay since he's been with the project since 2008.

Proceeding at a reduced budget might please Disney CEO Robert Iger, who recently said: "It's our intention to take a careful look at what films cost, 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."