Why Disney Might Make 'Lone Ranger' -- Reluctantly (Analysis)

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Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski may be calling Disney's bluff by agreeing to a rigid $215 million budget.

It appears that the Disney studio may be getting cornered into pulling the trigger on The Lone Ranger.

When word surfaced a couple of weeks ago that Disney was demanding budget reductions on the costly and risky Johnny Depp movie, some in the industry assumed the worst. "The Lone Ranger is going to die," a leading agent declared flatly at the time. Indeed, it looked like the studio was going through the motions before pulling the plug.

Now it seems producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski may be calling Disney’s bluff by agreeing to what a source involved with the project describes as a rigid $215 million budget set by the studio. This source allows that Disney has "a bit of ambivalence" about going forward but adds, "They’re going to live with what they said. They’re not going to renege."

STORY: The 'Lone Ranger' Shut Down by Disney

With key players at Disney away for the holiday (and unavailable for comment), it appears the project’s fate will be decided in the week after Labor Day

Some observers believe the studio hardly expected Verbinksi to step up when they offered him a brief window to bring the budget down from about $240 million. Some said the director could not re-imagine the film in time, even if he were so inclined. Getting to the stipulated budget requires the triumvirate associated with the project to make steep concessions, yielding rich upfront fees and trimming a major effects sequences. But some believe that if these powerful players -- backed by powerful talent representatives -- make those concessions and hit the $215 million target, Disney will indeed move ahead.

"If that’s the number, they’ll make it," predicts one prominent producer. "Johnny Depp won’t get $20 million, Gore Verbinski won’t get $10 million, Jerry won’t get his fee and they won’t get first-dollar gross. But if the movie works, they’ll make even more money than they would have."

STORY: 'Lone Ranger' Director, Producer Offer to Trim Fees

Still, this observer thinks the price of the film is "way too much."

If Disney were to pull the plug, Lone Ranger would hardly be the first high-profile project to die by budget fiat. In June, word surfaced that Universal wanted to cut the Dark Tower project that Ron Howard was to direct and Brian Grazer was to produce, based on a series of Stephen King novels. Despite the parties’ insistence at the time that the project wasn’t dead, ultimately it was. (The producers are now looking for other financing.)

In other cases, the terms of the deal have changed. For example, on Flight, Paramount required director Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington to jump into a pool, meaning that they had to waive big upfront fees in exchange for a potentially bigger slice of pie in success. These days, says the producer, "the outside investor is the talent."

The studio has reason to stay close to Depp, star of the studio's billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland franchises. It’s a fair guess that the suits are less concerned about Verbinski, who has a well-established reputation for being spendy, or Bruckheimer, who has bobbled a bit recently with Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Prince of Persia. But for now, Depp appears to be standing with the team that launched the Pirates franchise with him.

While a player involved with the film tried to cast the budget battle as an ordinary negotiation, a prominent industry veteran says Disney’s move is part of a broader "re-evaluation of the economic parameters that are appropriate" for a big-spectacle film.
During a call with analysts on August 16, Disney CEO Robert Iger declared the company’s "intention to take a very 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."

Disney already has a couple of big, risky from-scratch films in the works, including Oz the Great and Powerful and John Carter (with a first-time live-action director and a lack of proven stars). Disney admits the space fantasy, set for release in March, is costing $250 million, but sources say the budget is higher.