After a protracted production period, a series of cancellations and restarts, and a lengthy conversation over racism and representation, Disney’s big-budget, big-screen adaptation of The Lone Ranger landed in theaters over the holiday weekend, and the results weren’t pretty. Its five-day domestic gross was a mere $48.9 million (with just under $30 million more coming in from foreign markets), meaning that the Mouse House is going to take a real bath on the picture — its budget was somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million, and that’s before its substantial marketing and distribution costs. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, that means we’re only halfway into summer movie season, but we’ve already seen three very high-profile belly flops. What’s going wrong?
In retrospect, it’s easy to wonder what the hell Disney was thinking, blowing that kind of coin on a proposition as risky as this one. But director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and star Johnny Depp had turned Pirates of the Caribbean from a theme park ride into one of the studio’s most lucrative franchises, and though it may have balked at the beginning, Disney was ultimately willing to write them a blank check.
This stumble falls hard on the heels of two big-budget busts over at Sony: White House Down, the Die-Hard-at-the-White-House action flick from director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) and stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, and After Earth, the M. Night Shyamalan-helmed sci-fi picture starring Will Smith and son Jaden. So, what can we take away from these three high-profile failures?
1. You can’t bank on movie stars anymore.
This isn’t exactly a new revelation; we’ve spent the entire year watching movies like Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand, and Jim Carrey’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone eat it at the box office. These were the guys who commanded giant paychecks in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and while that gravy train couldn’t chug on forever, it seemed like eventually someone was going to replace them as commercial sure things. That hasn’t happened — Depp and Smith were among the last presumed “safe bets,” and neither of them will come out of this summer with that rep intact (unless they’re making more Pirates and Men in Black sequels, which they probably will). Tatum and Foxx have, at various points, been floated as their successors, but White House Down’s tumbling puts that notion into doubt as well.
So, if we can’t be sure audiences will show up for their favorite actors, we have to find other familiar elements for them to latch onto, right? Wrong.
2. Just because you’ve heard of something, doesn’t mean it should be a movie.
Here’s a tidbit from THR: “Lone Ranger suffered in appealing mostly to older moviegoers, with 58 percent of the audience over the age of 35, including 24 percent over the age of 50. Moviegoers under the age of 18 only made up 16 percent of the audience, while males made up 57 percent.” So a movie based on a character known from a 1930s radio serial and 1950s television show didn’t appeal to younger moviegoers — imagine that. Now, the fact that a film has to appeal to that demographic is a whole other conversation, though if that’s the game they’re playing, you’d think they’d know the rules.
But this is the problem with the “branding” element of tentpole moviemaking: all the sequels and remakes and reboots and adaptations, and the total fear of anything that’s not already pre-marketed to some degree, hasn’t just made studios reluctant to greenlight original stories. It’s also got them turning anything anyone has ever done before into a movie, and that’s just as toxic. Take a look at last year’s two biggest flops: Battleship, a movie based on a strategic board game (a notion so fundamentally silly that people never stopped laughing at the movie long enough to go see it), and John Carter, a movie based on a series of sci-fi novels that began in 1911. Does that mean they shouldn’t have been made? Not necessarily! (Okay, in the case of Battleship, yes.) But it does mean that the studios funding them might have been wise to calmly consider the possibility of those particular projects recouping the considerable budgets they were laying out for them.
But this was all sort of bound to happen anyway, since if you make your industry completely reliant on recycling the works of the past, you’re eventually going to run out of things to recycle.
3. The summer is over-crowded.
This is the kind of resolution that would require the sort of coordination and cooperation that is presumably impossible in Hollywood, but consider this: they’re just putting out too many big summer blockbusters. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a full summer slate. The problem is that they’re just putting out the same damn movie week after week, with every Friday (or Wednesday, or Thursday at 10pm) offering up yet another big-budget series of wisecracks and explosions. Simply put, it feels like audiences may be coming down with a case of blockbuster fatigue; witness the robust shelf life of Now You See Me, the oldest movie in the top 10, which made more money last weekend than both Star Trek Into Darkness and Fast & Furious 6. It’s not that Now You See Me is a great movie; it’s that it’s a different movie, a twisty little con flick that’s standing out in a sea of shit blowing up.
What’s more, the “blockbuster of the week” mentality also means that a movie only has those seven days (the three of the weekend, really) to make some noise; studios are no longer playing the long game, in which good movies have the time and room to find an audience. If that audience isn’t there the first weekend, the flick is shit outta luck — teenagers with disposable income drive box office, so a movie that might appeal to older moviegoers, like The Lone Ranger, is sunk before the older crowds that might enjoy it have time to seek it out. Thus, all of the hype and energy is focused on that opening weekend, leading to a weird phenomenon where movies we spent months anticipating are all but forgotten within weeks of their release. Iron Man 3 was #17 last week, behind 20 Feet from Stardom, grossing half a mil. It’s only been out ten weeks. And it’s one of the good ones!
So, where does that leave us? Reading about the spectacular, costly failure of The Lone Ranger, it’s hard not to recall Steven Spielberg’s recent warning about the industry’s reliance on these efforts: “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even half a dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm again.” Sure, the source may be sketchy, but it’s a legitimate point: it seems Hollywood would rather gamble on a handful of bloated, high-dollar event movies than a fuller compliment of medium-budget pictures with some space for experimentation. So the question is, how many more Lone Rangers will it take for that paradigm shift to occur? And is it okay to be excited about it?