Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Lone Ranger Flops

Last month I suggested that, where box office gambles are concerned, The Lone Ranger was this summer's story to watch.

Well, the movie's come--and now it's rapidly going, clearly the commercial failure the idea's detractors suspected. The movie opened over the Independence Day holiday weekend with a mere $29 million take for the Friday-to-Sunday period, and $48 million for the five days--a far cry from the $150 million-plus openings now expected of comparable event films. And interest has faded fast, so that the BoxOfficeGuru web site recently predicted a final North American gross under $100 million.

In short, Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer's reteaming of director Gore Verbinski with actor Johnny Depp has not yielded another Pirates of the Caribbean-like success, a reminder of just what a gamble the first Pirates movie was. After all, it was a film based on a theme park ride. And pirate movies had not done well in decades.1 Indeed, aquatically-themed films have had a pattern of costly failure. James Cameron scored big with Titanic, but Waterworld, Cutthroat Island and Speed 2 were more typical.2 And while Johnny Depp had his fan base, he had not been well known for headlining blockbusters--and the studio apparently unsure of him, given that his quirky take on the character almost got him fired from the production. Of course, that time around the longshot paid off big, with a four-film series that grossed $3.7 billion globally in theaters, but (differences in quality between the first Pirates film and The Long Ranger aside) the point is that longshots by definition rarely succeed. One can only regret that on this rare occasion when the studios decided to take what even the most dim-witted Suit must have recognized as a risk, they did it so pointlessly.

1. As usual, Japanese pop culture was ahead of the curve. Years before the world ever heard of Jack Sparrow, One Piece was well on its way to becoming one of the most popular manga and anime of all time.
2. Compared with the other two films Waterworld actually did not do very badly, earning $264 million at the box office (a reasonable $404 million in today's terms), and making a profit during its home video release, despite the huge cost overruns. Nonetheless, the flop image stuck, and it is inarguable that shooting so much of the film on the water contributed to the explosion of the budget, as when a hurricane sank an expensive floating set.

A Summer Box Office Update: The Would-Be Blockbusters

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