(SIDENOTE: This week is my one-year Blogversary! WordPress informed me on July 1 that I have had this blog for one year, but that was the day I signed up for a blog. My first blog post appeared on July 8, 2012. Thanks to all who have stopped by over the past year!)
What does it mean to “shelve” a movie? That’s Hollywood-speak for a project that’s put aside, usually for good, at some point in the development stage. The Lone Ranger, which opened this week, was almost shelved because of its projected $250 million budget. The studio was convinced to keep it in development, with a much, much, much (cough!) tinier budget of $225 million. The movie is now tanking, in fact, it is being steamrollered by the animated flick Despicable Me 2.
The sad part of this? There were SO many indications that this was a mega-flop waiting to happen. For instance:
1. Westerns do not do well outside of the U.S. I love Westerns, but the hard, cold fact is they are currently only somewhat popular here in the U.S. and not at all popular outside the U.S. International box office is the bread and butter of expensive blockbuster movies. Even movies that flop in the U.S., like last year’s John Carter, can manage to make money overseas. A recent Western that did excellent business in the U.S., 2010’s True Grit, only made about 30% of its money overseas. Non-Western domestic flops like Battleship and John Carter made around 75 – 80% of their money overseas.
2. So in order to make a profitable Western, the budget has to fit the potential audience. True Grit only cost $38 million to make. Of course, you have to add on marketing costs. The general rule of thumb is a movie costs twice its production budget. So True Grit theoretically cost $76 million to produce and market. It made around $250 million world-wide—excellent profitability. But in the case of The Lone Ranger, it would have to gross $450 million world-wide. Even if it pulls in a Battleship/John Carter-type $200-240 million overseas gross, it will probably still end up in the red.
3. On what planet is it a good idea to cast your STAR as the supporting character? I’ll get to the inappropriate whitewashing of the character of Tonto in a minute, but I, and about a bazillion other movie fans, were completely stunned by the news that Johnny Depp—one of the most reliable box-office draws in the world right now—was going to play the sidekick. Unless Robert Downey, Jr. is playing the Lone Ranger, this makes absolutely no sense. (Of course, then the movie would have cost $275 million to make, so it still doesn’t really make sense.)
4. About that whitewashing thing. Yes, I know—he’s an actor playing a role. Yes, he claims he has Cherokee or Creek blood or some such thing. Whatever. The truth is, there are several Native American actors (hello, Adam Beach?) who could have played Tonto in support of an actor with proven box-office draw as the Lone Ranger. THAT would have made sense.
A Native American actor could have also told them the whole dead bird on the head/constantly wearing war paint makeup thing has nothing to do with any of the many Native American cultures of this continent. Or any of the cultures of any continent.
5. Hollywood has just turned Armie Hammer into this year’s Taylor Kitsch. You bastards. I like Armie. He has a lot of potential and could be nursed into a big star with the right roles. He was one of the top choices of Hunger Games fans to play Finnick in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He was interested in the role, in fact, his wife even encouraged him to consider it.
The reason he couldn’t do it? HE WAS MAKING THE LONE RANGER. I’m certain Sam Claflin, who was ultimately cast as Finnick, will do a stellar job. But there will always be an element of “what might have been” because Armie was making an almost guaranteed flop instead of an almost guaranteed blockbuster hit.
Good going, guys.
6. It’s not like a Lone Ranger project ever flopped before. Oh, wait a minute—yes it has. The 1981 version, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, was such a notorious flop the actor cast as the Lone Ranger sank into total obscurity about five minutes after the movie debuted. Klinton Spilsbury—remember that name? Yeah, nobody else does, either.
Hey, Hollywood—I have a sure-fire success for you! Make a Flash Gordon movie! Like the incredibly unsuccessful one you made back in the 1980s!
Not a good idea, you say?
That’s my point.
(Silly me–while I was adding the above link to the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, I discovered on the IMDB that there is a Flash Gordon movie currently in development. Oh, Hollywood, you slay me!)
7. Apparently, it’s not just on concept and casting that the movie stumbled. I haven’t seen the movie, but Charlie Jane Anders at i09 did a great take-down of the movie’s mishandling of the Lone Ranger’s origin story. I also want to give Charlie Jane a lot of credit for NOT blaming the failure of the movie solely on the fact that it’s a Western. (I took exception to an article she wrote a while back about the supposed death of the genre.)
8. Demographics were always against this movie. The Holy Grail of summer blockbusters is what is known as the “four quadrant” movie. This means that it attracts people from all four demographic quadrants: young, old, male and female. Predictably, The Lone Ranger attracted mostly older males. Parents were probably repelled because of warnings by critics about the violence, so they didn’t take their older kids, in spite of the PG-13 rating. Without kids, young adult males (who are often repeat viewers) and females (who are needed to put blockbusters in the mega-successful range) the movie had little chance of recouping its budget.
Is it possible to make a successful blockbuster Western? Maybe. The same team who worked on The Lone Ranger (director Gore Verbinski, writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) made the mega-successful Pirates of the Caribbean movies. So with that behind-the-scene talent and the star of those movies, Johnny Depp, there was probably a belief that lightning would strike again, and a not-very-popular genre would again turn into box office gold. But they’re not an infallible group, and there were so many glaring missteps it’s hard to see how this could have succeeded.
Many (myself included) want to see Hollywood take more risks, but the next time there are so many neon signs flashing “FLOP FLOP FLOP” maybe they should pay attention. They could have made a really good—and profitable—Western with a fraction of that money, and still had plenty left over for a good summer blockbuster.