The bellyflop of "The Lone Ranger" at the box office has left some in the movie industry questioning whether star Johnny Depp is still worth his $20 million-plus salary.
Audiences roundly rejected the movie and with it Depp's eccentric Tonto: The Western grossed a mere $48.9 million over the extended Fourth of July weekend. With a reported production budget of $215 million before marketing, the film is a "John Carter"-size dud for Walt Disney Studios with little chance of recouping its costs, even when international box office is added to the till.
Speculation has already begun how much of a write-down the studio may have to take on the movie, an adaptation of a classic radio serial unfamiliar to many of key moviegoing age.
But "The Lone Ranger" is just the latest in a series of misfires starring Depp, who has proven a dicey money-making proposition outside "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Alice in Wonderland." "Dark Shadows," "The Rum Diary" and "The Tourist" are a few of his underwhelming projects starring the quirky actor in recent years.
"Pirates" and "Alice" have given Depp the clout to get projects like "The Lone Ranger" and "Dark Shadows" made, but also the latitude to indulge in increasingly idiosyncratic projects, complete with eyecatching getups. Producers and distributors privately grouse that his performances have grown ever more rococo and that has alienated fans and subsequently dimmed his star power.
"What is he without extreme makeup?" one international film distributor asked. "Is he an actor or is he somebody who's consistently doing a Keith Richards imitation?"
A representative for Depp did not respond to requests for comment. The producers, distributors and executives quoted in this article requested anonymity because they feared damaging their relationships with the studio or the star.
For its part, Disney said it hopes to continue working with Depp and praised both his talent and his track record.
"Johnny Depp is one of the most iconic and successful actors in the world in part because of his ability to choose unique roles and turn them into something utterly unexpected," a studio spokesman said in a statement to TheWrap. "We are incredibly proud of our long collaboration with him, which includes three billion-dollar films, and look forward to working with him for years to come."
The studio has a fifth "Pirates of the Caribbean" in the works with the actor.
Other studio executives acknowledge that Depp's bankability has taken a shellacking, but caution against writing off the Oscar-nominated actor. They argue that his mystique remains potent even after "The Lone Ranger" was gunned down by audiences and critics.
"Sadly enough there isn't a major studio in town who if Johnny Depp came to them and said, 'I want to do a PG-13 action thriller in which I play a quirky character and, oh by the way it's going to cost $150 million,' would turn him down," a studio executive told TheWrap.
The four "Pirates" films have generated more than $3.7 billion, while "Alice in Wonderland" has grossed more than $1 billion. The picture isn't nearly as pretty for other recent Depp films.
>>"Dark Shadows," featuring Depp as a fey bloodsucker, grossed a lackluster $245 million globally on a $150 million budget.
>>"The Rum Diary," with the actor channeling Hunter S. Thompson, eked out $23.9 million worldwide on a $45 million budget.
>>"The Tourist" -- notable mostly for the Hollywood Foreign Press' inexplicable decision to nominate it for a Golden Globe Award -- recouped its $100 million cost only because of strong foreign sales. Its global total stood at $278.3 million, but domestically it stumbled to a $67.6 million gross.
Early on Disney pulled the plug on "The Lone Ranger," only to resuscitate it when the budget was reduced from $250 million.
"Disney knew it was a mistake, they knew it was a risk," said Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. But the lure of Depp's past success with producer Jerry Bruckheimer prevailed.
Depp isn't the only A-list star to fall to earth at the box office this summer: Will Smith and Channing Tatum tripped on the big-budget disasters "After Earth" and "White House Down," leading to a new round of questions about the wisdom of banking on a star when a man in a cape and a mask will do.
The international distributor said that Depp's recent decision to exit Cross Creek and Exclusive Media's biopic of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger over a salary dispute was short-sighted, because the role could have reminded audiences that he is more than the sum of his mascara.
The actor, nominated for "Sweeney Todd," "Finding Neverland" and the first "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," has the science fiction film "Transcendence" and a role as the wolf in the musical "Into the Woods" in the works.
In an interview with Rolling Stone last month, Depp joked that he wanted to make a film version of the '80s television show "ALF," which seems funny except when you consider that he has previously used his weight to bring movies based on a cult Gothic soap opera and a radio show about a silver bullet shooting vigilante to the multiplex. In that light, a Gore Verbinski-directed "ALF" doesn't seem so far-fetched.
And guess what: it would still be a very bad idea, no matter whose name was above the title.