By now we all know that The Lone Ranger flopped, big time. While it once would have sounded insane to say that a movie that made $50 million in its opening weekend (albeit a long holiday one) is a bomb, when you're spending upwards of $225 million on a movie, as Disney did with The Lone Ranger, a $50 million holiday weekend haul is indeed an epic disaster. With a write-down that could reach $190 million, Disney has some thinking to do about what went wrong. Where do they go from here? Well, as Dawn C. Chmielewski and Steven Zeitchik lay out in an interesting Los Angeles Times article, a few things might be changing around the studio. Some things for the better, some for the worse.
In the article, a entertainment industry analyst is quoted as saying, "They will think not twice, but maybe five times, before they do another $225 million picture." That has to be a good thing, right? Recently, intended blockbusters have become bloated affairs, overly cluttered with set pieces meant to up the ante to appeal to increasingly jaded moviegoers. When a movie like The Avengers makes a billion dollars, the temptation, and we have to assume the pressure, to recreate that kind of sensation again and again is likely great. Thus we have the studios throwing ungodly sums of money at these movies, which have to rely on as much senseless spectacle as possible to reel people in with eye-popping trailers. Sometimes that formula works despite itself, provided the right creative team is behind it. Joss Whedon's Avengers deftly married scale with, if not substance, certainly style, creating a big movie that never felt lumbering. It was even intimate in parts, despite its orgy of superheros and the epic destruction of Manhattan. (Poor, poor Manhattan.) But too often these movies are ceaseless and unfocused bores, all crash and rumble and little else. They may do well at the box office, but that doesn't make them good.
So that a studio as powerful and culture-dictating as Disney (with its formidable stable of subsidiaries like Pixar and Marvel) could potentially be scared off of creating these huge-budget monstrosities, and returning to more modestly budgeted films (and more of them), then maybe other studios would too? Which isn't to say that we'd want to the blockbuster to go away, of course not. But a more modest budget can create invention — lately these movies have suffered under the weight of their own fantastic possibility. If not everything is available to a filmmaker, one hopes that would hone the editing process, maybe even foster a little restraint. It would also mean that studio risk wouldn't be as high, and thus more chances might be taken. If you stand to lose $190 million on a movie, you're going to be very cautious about making it, market testing it to within an inch of its life. (Maybe Disney should have trusted its first instincts with Lone Ranger — they pulled the plug before ultimately putting it back in production.) But when the financial risk is significantly lower, I don't know, wouldn't it stand to reason that you might be a bit more daring, quality-wise? That might be pie-in-the-sky optimism about a cynical, bottom-line industry, but it's possible, isn't it? Sigh, maybe not. Which brings us to the downsides of the Lone Ranger debacle.
Here's another, less hopeful, quote from the Los Angeles Times article: "it could be years before the studio gambles on a character unfamiliar to young moviegoers." Oof. What does that mean? Well, sequels of course. Franchises. More superheroes, more tweaks on familiar properties — you thought Oz the Great and Powerful was bad, wait til you see Gerard Butler as the Beast and Anne Hathaway as Belle. You know, more of the stuff that keeps clogging up multiplexes with their remote, airless 3D flickering. True originality has long been a rarity in mainstream studio filmmaking, and there was certainly nothing original about The Lone Ranger, but if its failure solidifies the convictions of Disney, and other studios, that only familiar things will sell, that's bad news for moviegoers. Unless you want more sequels? Do you want more sequels? What about reboots? Hungry for a fresh take on Iron Man? It can't be too far away.
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Of course, as Chmielewski and Zeitchik point out, Disney will have to develop new franchises before the existing ones inevitably dry up. They're working on Guardians of the Galaxy at the moment (some are working harder than others), another property that's borderline "known." Marvel fans care about the space-traveling superheroes, but does anyone else? That remains to be seen. Beyond that we have some cause for worry. In an age when studios are buying film rights to the View-Master toy, what properties could Disney be hoping to sink its teeth into? If they're looking for familiar, for safe, that means they're undoubtedly going to snap up something we all know and love, or at least know, and mangle it for IMAX-sized profit. That's not good. At least The Lone Ranger hadn't been around for years. You can say that about the movie, at least.
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Had the movie done well, would we be whining about different things? Bemoaning reboot culture? Possibly. (Probably.) But, it didn't, so these are the issues we're faced with. Or, movie studios are faced with, anyway. No matter what happens, I think we can all agree that one sobering fact has come out of all of this: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were right.