Who is that masked man? And is he worth $250m? That’s the big question in Hollywood this week, as the top dogs at Disney meet to work out whether to proceed with a high-profile reboot of The Lone Ranger.
Work on the movie, which is to star Johnny Depp, was abruptly suspended last month amid growing concerns that its cost was soaring out of control. Reuters says that a decision on whether to kill it off or proceed with a dramatically reduced budget is expected in the coming days.
The verdict will have implications that will be felt across the film industry. Production on The Lone Ranger would have created several hundred jobs – 60 people were already building the set in New Mexico – and Disney’s sudden effort to rein in spending reflects a broader anxiety over the ballooning costs of blockbusters.
Cinema attendance fell to near-record lows in the US this summer, continuing a long-term trend. Although box-office revenues remained flat, thanks to increased ticket-prices, several “tentpole” productions with budgets north of $200m failed to turn a profit. Studios have duly grown increasingly cost-conscious, and wary of big gambles.
Sources at Disney say it remains committed – in principle – to The Lone Ranger, a reworking of the 1950s TV series, in which Armie Hammer – last seen as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network – was to play the title role and Depp his sidekick, Tonto. But they will give the production the green light only if overheads can be reduced to around $200m (£125m), from their current projected level of $250m.
The film’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, and director Gore Verbinski spent the weekend in talks with the studio. The trade press reported that they had agreed to lower their salaries and eliminate several expensive computer-generated scenes.
Overshadowing the talks is Disney’s wish not to tarnish its relations with Depp, one of the most sought-after men in Hollywood and a central figure in its lucrative Pirates of the Carribbean franchise. He also starred in Alice in Wonderland, one of its most successful films of 2010.
He last week offered the Los Angeles Times a somewhat cryptic comment on The Lone Ranger’s prospects: “I think everything will work out as it should.”