It may be considered old news since it happened a whole week ago, but Disney passing on The Lone Ranger is a remarkably good sign. It’s noteworthy for more than the average news of the day because it hints at a crack in the current foundation of studio thinking. It’s barely ever publicized, since a studio refusing to make a film is hardly newsworthy, but a project this high-profile, featuring talent like Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, that’s been reported on so thoroughly used to be a done deal. Now, that’s not the case.

It’s not like this is the end of the story crisis or anything, but it’s the Hollywood equivalent of a crack addict putting down the pipe, and it should be celebrated.

None of this is to say that The Lone Ranger would have been a bad movie. Hell, it could have been a ridiculous adventure where Johnny Depp tossed on war paint and battled werewolves. Audiences could have laughed and laughed and had a great time. Benjamin Netanyahu and and Mahmoud Abbas might have watched it and decided to stop all the silly fighting between Israel and Palestine. Who knows.

In all of those ways, it’s cancellation is a downer (since Disney could have ended the Israeli/Palestinian conflict), but in just about every other way, it represents a true benchmark where a film not being made is perhaps more significant than one being greenlit.

In short order, Disney just refused:

  1. A remake/reboot of a known entity that would be given the massive budget treatment.
  2. A giant budget for a film that doesn’t necessarily require it.
  3. A budget bloated by talent payments.
  4. An In Name Only reboot.

Gore Verbinski, the man who grossed $2.6b and launched a franchise that just grossed more for The Mouse, pitched essentially the same package, and Disney politely showed him the door. This scenario would have been unimaginable a few years ago. After all, this is The Formula. Dollar signs would have flashed, people would have seen the one-sheet, and Burger King would already be on the phone. So what’s changed?

Steven Zeitchik asserts that it’s 1) the budget and 2) the way studio executives are thinking about money these days. That’s absolutely the root cause. The reported breakdown claimed that The Lone Ranger (with its $250m budget) would need to make $800m to make a profit, which, as anyone studying Second Grade Mathematics can explain, is ridiculous. Granted, this kind of math is an anomaly, but it’s also one sign of how broken the system is. Either that, or tray inserts at fast food places have gotten insanely expensive. Those numbers are most likely correct given the split, advertising, prints and the other slices of pie scraps given to theaters that show the damned thing – meaning that it’s not the math that’s crazy, but the methods in place.

That Middle East Peace claim might be off the beam, but the comment about werewolves wasn’t. Verbinski’s treatment was heavy on the Tonto as well as the Native American werewolf spirits plot. Needlessly to say, it seems to have been less than faithful to the original subject matter. Still, the budget is still a mystery, because even though a supernatural component might inflate the numbers, it still doesn’t boost a movie up to $250m by itself.

For some context, a $250m budget would tie The Lone Ranger with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as the fourth most expensive films ever made. Unsurprisingly, it’s Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer (and Disney) that hold the record with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End clocking in at an even $300m. For more context, there are only 23 films that break the $200m budget barrier (adjusted for inflation) and 18 of them were released after 2004. This is truly the era of gigantic movies (especially if that remake of Cleopatra tries to outpace its predecessor). The Lone Ranger might be the first victim of a backlash against it.

After all, there’s no reason that a Western should cost that amount of money; True Grit cost $38m and didn’t have any werewolves in it. In fact, with as effects-heavy as Transformers: Dark of the Moon is, its budget still came in under $200m. Appropriately, Verbinski and Bruckheimer aren’t that kind of filmmaker. They shove padding into budgets. When you can shave $10m off your own fees and still be pleased as punch to make the film, it’s a sign that you’ve overestimated your bid. That’s not even mentioning what Depp’s fee might be in a post-movie star era.

On one hand, a major studio just turned down a proven creative talent using a name property to create an event movie that has international appeal, a budget comparable to his other like films and one of the most recognizable actors on the planet (who happened to be in the last giantly successful franchise).

So why is it a great thing that it got dumped?

Because on the other hand, we live in a world where fan response can be typically stereotyped as anti-unoriginalism, growing tired of movies parading as large commercial enterprises, and tight with their own money. Thus, it’s refreshing to see a studio slap a gift horse in the mouth. They’ve just denied a bloated film concept that abuses the name it trades off of while spelling massive pay days for its director, producer and star.

If they said no to that, what will Disney say yes to? If The Formula was finally refused, will Disney look to replace it with something else? If so, what would that be?

No matter what, this move has called into question the supremacy of the gargantuan blockbuster, the inevitability of its creation, and the naturalism of its dominance. The lack of box office success for less expensive (read: $170m budgeted) movies like Tron Legacy was a message, and it looks as though at least one studio has heard it loudly and clearly, and is making an effort to wean itself from the addiction.

Any chance they’ll replace it with an original concept and a sensible budget?

Yeah, I didn’t think so either.


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