It seems clear that there are several other issues at play here, but one of the basic ones is: no one seems to have a handle on what audiences want to see in a Western -- or even if they want to see Westerns at all.
Or maybe the problem was the werewolves. (More on that below.)
One issue is almost surely the failure of Universal's 'Cowboys & Aliens.' The genre hybrid, which cost a reported $163 million to make, has earned back just $82 million in three weekends of release. The thinking seems to be: If even a well-marketed Western with a perfectly descriptive title, shot by the director of the 'Iron Man' movies, starring James Bond and Indiana Jones, couldn't succeed, then what Western could? After all, the Western hasn't been a popular genre for 40 years. Its law-and-order theme has been supplanted by cop films, and its theme of frontier exploration has been superseded by sci-fi sagas. Whole generations have grown up not watching Westerns, and they're not about to start now.
But 'Cowboys & Aliens' doesn't necessarily prove that nothing will drag contemporary viewers to see a Western, only that nothing will make them see a disappointing Western. Does no one remember a movie a few months ago called 'True Grit'? That was a really good Western, with top-notch writing, directing and acting. It made $171 million here and another $79 million abroad. That's not the kind of money Disney was hoping for from a Johnny Depp movie -- his last two for Disney, 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,' both made more than $1 billion worldwide -- but when your movie cost just $38 million to make, a $250 million gross is pretty awesome.
When your movie costs $250 million, however, that's another story. That's how much producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and Depp wanted to spend on 'The Lone Ranger,' according to Deadline. Now, why on earth would a Western that doesn't have aliens in it cost that much? One reason, no doubt, was the participation of Bruckheimer, Verbinski and Depp, the team that made the first three 'Pirates' movies for Disney (Verbinski didn't direct the fourth). If all three of them earned their standard fees, that's tens of millions of dollars spent before a single frame of film is shot.
Still, you'd think that trio would be worth spending that kind of money, given the billions the 'Pirates' movies have earned. But aside from 'Pirates,' Bruckheimer's movies for Disney have been pretty spotty lately. 2010's 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' and 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time' are both widely perceived as flops, since neither earned more than $100 million in North America, though both movies did much better overseas. Nonetheless, it seems like the only sure bet with Bruckheimer would be another 'Pirates' movie.
Bruckheimer does seem to have a handle on how to appeal to moviegoers overseas, where 'Sorcerer' made $152 million, 'Persia' made $244 million and even the widely derided cartoon 'G-Force' made $173 million. International audiences are increasingly the force that determines big decisions in Hollywood, with the domestic market almost an afterthought. And foreign viewers, the logic goes, are especially uninterested in Westerns or any other movie so heavily steeped in Americana.
That's where the the werewolves come in. According to Hollywood Elsewhere, werewolves were prominent in an early draft of the 'Lone Ranger' script. Good thing the Lone Ranger uses silver bullets, right?
Why werewolves? Well, for one thing, this 'Lone Ranger' is Depp's pet project. In homage to his own heritage (which he says includes possible Cherokee or Creek ancestry), as well as to his late pal Marlon Brando's well-known advocacy for Indian issues, Depp wanted to star as Tonto and make him the focus of the film. (The Lone Ranger was to be played by 'The Social Network' co-star Armie Hammer, a far less famous actor who's unlikely to steal Depp's spotlight.) Playing up the Indian aspect of the story apparently led to Native American folklore and mythology, in which werewolves (or shapeshifters or skinwalkers, call them what you will) play a prominent role, as fans of 'Twilight' and 'True Blood' know.
That explains Bruckheimer's contribution as well, since he's known for movies that are long on lavish supernatural spectacle (and often short on story). That also explains why the movie was going to cost $250 million. Plus, Depp and Verbinski have already made a trippy Western together, this year's animated hit 'Rango.'
Sure, purists will argue that werewolves really don't belong in a Lone Ranger movie. All you really need are the two heroes and some outlaw adversaries. That's it. But this movie wasn't being made for purists, if they even still exist. Few people alive remember the old radio and TV series, and the last serious attempt at a movie reboot was the 1981 flop 'The Legend of the Lone Ranger.' People remember the character a little, but mostly, it's just an established brand, a way to provide some familiarity and reassurance, both to Disney suits who were going to risk hundreds of millions on the project and to audiences who were apparently going to be presented with a story about an Indian sidekick who upstages his cowboy partner while they confront werewolves.
Variety and Deadline are both reporting that there still might be a chance to save 'The Lone Ranger' from the development Boot Hill if the filmmakers can figure out a way to rein in the costs. The obvious way to do it would be to emulate 'True Grit' and eliminate everything that doesn't belong in a traditional Western. But that's not the way the system operates; it's too invested in spending a lot on big visuals that play well in any language (and not spending a lot on story and dialogue that are harder to translate). It's used to opening its wallet and saying, "Hi-yo, Silver! Away!"
What elements would you want to see in a reboot of 'The Lone Ranger,' or in any other new Western?
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.