Monday Mouse Watch: Why Disney is counting on the international release of "The Lone Ranger" to bring in significant silver

Written by at July 8, 2013

If you look around the Web today, you're going to see some pretty extreme “Lone Ranger” -related headlines. Take — for example — the one that Roger Friedman placed atop his after-actions article about this new Jerry Bruckheimer production over at Showbiz 411:

“Lone Ranger” Financial Disaster: Will Disney Heads Roll Again?

Yet over at Deadline.com, Nikki Finke (who is infamous for her take-no-prisoners, no-BS take on Tinsel Town) showed remarkable restraint while writing about this Walt Disney Pictures release. While she obviously didn't sugarcoat her coverage of how “The Lone Ranger” has been doing domestically (The headline that Ms. Finke affixed to her Sunday morning story about how various movies did over the long Fourth of July weekend deliberately talks about ” … 'Lone Ranger' Disastrous $47 M” box office take), Nikki did also make a point of mentioning that …


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… [Johnny] Depp's worldwide popularity may, repeat may, help overseas where oaters usually don't excel. Lone Ranger opened day and date in 30% of the foreign landscape but only 4 big markets: Italy and Russia (releasing July 2) and Australia and Korea (July 4).

And why is that worth mentioning? Because — as Lynda Obst points out in her terrific new book, “Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the NEW ABNORMAL in the Movie Business ” (Simon & Schuster, June 2013) — …

If a studio spends $200 million or more on a movie these days, that's because that studio is hoping that this film will be a success internationally, rather than a domestic blockbuster.


Copyright 2013 Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved

Welcome to — as Ms. Obst describes it — the NEW ABNORMAL (“Why the NEW ABNORMAL?,” you ask. Because things were never normal in Hollywood to begin with). Where, thanks to the collapse of the DVD & Blu-ray sales back in 2008 …

… These huge tentpoles, $200-million-fueled missiles, are lined up on the studio distribution pads with “must-have” famous names and launched like international thermonuclear devices toward foreign capitals … International [box office] has come to be 70 percent of our total revenues in [modern day Hollywood]. When [Obst began in the business back in the 1980s] it was 20 percent.

Lynda was the perfect person to pen this 284-page industry expos. Given that she's been in the business for 30+ years at this point (Her credits include being the associate producer of “Flashdance ,” the producer of “The Fisher King ,” and the executive producer of “Sleepless in Seattle ” & “Contact “), Obst is close friends with some of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Which is how Lynda was able to get someone like Jim Gianopulos, the Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, to talk frankly about the growing influence that the international market has been having on the types of movies that Hollywood has been making for the past five years or so.


(L to R) George Lucas and Jim Gianopulos, CEO and
Chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment

As Gianopulos explained in his interview with Obst:

“Those of us who have been in the [film] business for a while see it as a fundamental fact. We [the United States] are five percent of the world market. Ninety-five percent of the ticket buyers are out there. It does not take a lot of math to tell you that's where the future and the opportunities are. [Which is why] more and more time and focus has been devoted to how we engage [foreign filmgoers], how we make sure our product travels.”

And right from the get-go, there were some concerns at Disney about whether “The Lone Ranger” would actually appeal to international audiences. Why For? Well, it wasn't for the reason that you might think (i.e. that the Company was trying to build a $200 million tentpole picture around a set of characters that had last been considered genuinely popular with the public back in the late 1950s), but rather (as Lynda points out in “Sleepless in Hollywood') …


(L to R) Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels

[In modern Hollywood, it's considered] a rule of thumb that movies with what movie people called “dust” — i.e., westerns, or movies in the dusty hinterlands — never work abroad. Why this is, we don't really know. In the old studio days, we exported our classic westerns. But in the modern movie business, the mere presence of either “dust” or cowboy hats — or horses, for that matter — is thought to make a movie dead on arrival, even if it isn't a western.

This is why — even though Disney announced with great fanfare (with the USC Marching Band parading down the aisles of Hollywood's Kodak Theatre playing the William Tell Overture) back in September of 2008 that it would be producing a brand-new big screen version of “The Lone Ranger” starring Johnny Depp as Tonto — it would still be another 3 1/2 years before production would actually begin in New Mexico.

And why did it take 'til February of 2012 before filming finally began? To be blunt, both Disney & Bruckheimer were looking for some additional international insurance. They were hoping to persuade another big name performer to pair with Depp's Tonto. With the hope that two world famous film stars might then be enough to overcome the fact that westerns don't actually play all that well overseas.


George Clooney and Brad Pitt

And just who was on Bruckheimer & Disney's dream list when it came to casting the Man with the Mask? As Johnny himself explained in an December 2010 interview that he did while working on “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ” :

“There's so many interesting possibilities out there. Brad [Pitt] would be great. [George] Clooney would be great. Don't know who it's going to be just yet.”

But in the end, a decision was made to go with Armie Hammer as this film's title character because … Well, as you may recall, the Studio initially put a lot of pressure on director Gore Verbinski to keep “The Lone Ranger” 's production costs down. They even went so far as to shut production of this Jerry Bruckheimer film down back in August of 2011. Then-head of Disney studio Rich Ross wanted Gore & Jerry to shave at least $50 million off of this film's proposed production budget so that “The Lone Ranger” would then cost $210 million or less to shoot. When Verbinski refused to compromise in regards to his creative vision for this film, Ross publicly pulled the plug. And it would take another two solid months of behind-the-scenes wrangling before the Studio would then finally agree to allow production of “The Lone Ranger” to go forward.


Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski talking up “The Lone Ranger” at CinemaCon 2013

Of course, the downside of this very public fight over this film's financials is that the start of production on “The Lone Ranger” had to then be pushed back from Fall of 2011 to March of 2012. Which meant that this Jerry Bruckheimer production had to sacrifice its original release date — which was December 21, 2012 — and go with July 3, 2013 instead.

Which brings up an interesting question: If “The Lone Ranger” had actually been able to make it into theaters on December 21, 2012 (when the films that this Walt Disney Pictures release would have been opening up against would have been “This is 40,” “Jack Reacher” and “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D“), would this Jerry Bruckheimer production have done any better at the box office? Based on what studio insiders have been telling me over the past few days, they now believe that it was a grave mistake to have “The Lone Ranger” go head-to-head with “Despicable Me 2.” Given that the family audience which was out there over the long Fourth of July weekend was undoubtedly going to chose Gru & his girls over going to see Kemosabe & Tonto.

One other interesting side note: “The Lone Ranger” wasn't the only high profile motion picture that was forced to give up its originally announced December 21, 2012 release date. Paramount Pictures initially announced that it would be releasing “World War Z” on this exact same date. But when that studio opted to reshoot the third act of this Marc Forster film, the release date of this Brad Pitt pic then got pushed back 'til June 21, 2013.


Copyright 2013 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved

Anyway … Getting back to “The Lone Ranger” : Another factor in Disney's decision to go forward with production of this Gore Verbinski film with Armie Hammer in the title role was how well Johnny Depp's movies typically perform internationally.

Take a gander at how the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films did overseas:

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” $305.4 million domestic $348.8 million foreign $654.2 million total
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest” $423.3 million domestic $642.8 million foreign $1.06 billion total
Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End” $309.4 million domestic $654 million foreign $963.4 million total
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” $241 million domestic $802 million foreign $1.04 billion total


Copyright 2003 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Did you pick up on the pattern there? While the last three “Pirates” movies have done less & less well domestically, foreign ticket sales for these films have continued to rise. And that's largely because of Mr. Depp's stardom overseas.

Even movies that Johnny has made that weren't all that successful in the States …

Dark Shadows” $79.9 million domestic $165 million foreign
The Tourist” $67.7 million domestic $210.7 million foreign


Copyright 2012 Warner Bros. All rights reserved

… have still managed to sell two & three times the tickets they sold stateside overseas.

Now couple this with the fact that even Jerry Bruckheimer movies that seem to under-perform in the U.S. market …

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” $90.7 million domestic $244.3 million foreign
The Sorcerer's Apprentice” $63.1 million domestic $152.1 million foreign


Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

… still obviously appeal to foreign film-goers.

And then when you factor in that the very last project that Johnny Depp & Gore Verbinski collaborated on …

Rango” $123.4 million domestic $121.8 million foreign


Copyright 2011 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved

… did a quarter of a billion dollars at the worldwide box office (Which is pretty impressive for Paramount Pictures' initial foray into producing original feature-length animated films), in the end, what Disney thought they had with “The Lone Ranger” (as Lynda Obst so aptly describes in her book, “Sleepless in Hollywood “) was the sort of super-sized tentpole that the studios just crave these days.

By that I mean: It was a project which had pre-awareness [meaning that would-be moviegoers were already familiar with this title & set of characters and/or readily understood the key creative concept behind this motion picture] with a star who had international appeal attached. Which is why Disney Studio executives seemed so surprised when “The Lone Ranger” stumbled at the domestic box office over the long Fourth of July weekend.

So though there's bound to be all sorts of talk in the Trades today about whether the Mouse (just as they had to do with “John Carter“) will soon be taking a write-down on “The Lone Ranger,” execs at Disney Studios are already crying “Whoa!” They're insisting that this new Jerry Bruckheimer production can't honestly be considered a flop until they see how much box office silver can be hauled in from important new international movie markets like Russia and India.


Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer at the Russian premiere of
Disney's “The Lone Ranger”

This is actually why Depp, Hammer, Verbinski and Bruckheimer journeyed to Mother Russia last month and then walked the red carpet at the Moscow International Film Festival. They were there to help raise awareness about “The Lone Ranger” among Russian filmgoers. Lend a little star power to the international promotion of this production.

And speaking of promotion: A similar publicity tour to an equally important international market — China — was abruptly postponed this past Friday. All because Chinese film officials have yet to set a release date for “The Lone Ranger” in that country.

Which obviously has to be a point of frustration for Disney Studio officials. But given that China is now the world's second largest film market, Mouse House officials chose their words very carefully when they publicly discussed this abruptly cancelled promotional tour. In a statement that was released to TheWrap last Friday, an unnamed Disney Studio was quoted as saying:


Johnny Depp, Jerry Bruckheimer and Bob Iger smile for the cameras
at last month's ceremony when Bruckheimer was recognized with
his very own Star on Hollywood Boulevard.

“As part of their promotional activities for 'The Lone Ranger,' Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer plan to visit China in early September closer to an expected release date.”

And in the meantime, The Walt Disney Company will continue to move forward with its long-in-the-works plans to promote & support “The Lone Ranger.” Treating this new motion picture as a valuable asset that can then be leveraged across multiple platforms.

Case in point: The “Long Ranger” Play Set that will be part of the official launch of Disney INFINITY next month. A Disney Interactive official that I spoke with last month at Disney Consumer Products' annual Holiday Preview Party insisted that — no matter how this Walt Disney Pictures release did at the box office in July — the Lone Ranger & Tonto were still going to be a vital part of the Disney INFINITY universe.


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“They're great characters. And the Wild West world that Disney & Jerry Bruckheimer have created for the 'Lone Ranger' movie is just the sort of environment that little kids are going to love playing in and exploring,” this unnamed official explained. “So no matter what happens with the 'Lone Ranger' movie, the 'Lone Ranger' Play Set is still going forward.”

So how many of you got out to your multiplex over the long Fourth of July weekend and saw Disney's “The Lone Ranger” ? Did you (like me) find this Gore Verbinski film to be a great old-fashioned summer blockbuster loaded with colorful characters, great gags and amazing action sequences? Or were you among the millions who opted to go to “Despicable Me 2” instead?

If that was the case, what exactly was it about Disney's “The Lone Ranger” that turned you off? Was it the way that this motion picture was promoted? Its cast? Or was it that you just weren't in the mood for a western?


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

More to the point, if it had been George Clooney or Brad Pitt as the Lone Ranger (rather than relative newcomer Armie Hammer as the Man in the Mask), would that have made a difference?

Your thoughts?

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Monday Mouse Watch: Why Disney is counting on the international release of "The Lone Ranger" to bring in significant silver

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