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Despite Big Expectations, 'Lone Ranger' No Silver Bullet


Last weekend, Disney unleashed its great summer hope: a July 4th movie extravaganza in a theater near you.


SIEGEL: A blast from TV past, this new film version of "The Lone Ranger" stars Johnny Depp. It was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, the team behind three of the hugely successful "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. But despite big expectations and an even bigger $225 million budget, "The Lone Ranger" proved to be no silver bullet. It was a box office flop. Over its first five days, it earned $48 million, and it was panned by critics. This week, Hollywood is looking at "The Lone Ranger" train wreck as a cautionary tale for any aspiring blockbuster. To talk to us about what went wrong and what it means for the future of this kind of big budget summer film, joining us is Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times. Welcome once again.

STEVEN ZEITCHIK: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And, first, what were the expectations going into a remake of an old TV show that most younger audiences don't even know, which was in itself a remake of an older radio show?

ZEITCHIK: That's right. It's not exactly a spanking new or fresh idea or brand. On the other hand, you had Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, who as you note, are responsible for three of the four "Pirates" films, grossing well over several billion dollars for the Walt Disney Company, which also released this film. So, all of that contributed to the sense that this could be a very profitable blockbuster film. And in the days leading up to the release, we saw that it was going to go in a very different direction.

SIEGEL: But isn't the idea behind these big action films that - is that once they're dubbed into Chinese, once they go global, they make back their losses because the audiences are vast and nobody cares how dumb the script is?

ZEITCHIK: Well, that pretty much does sum up Hollywood circa 2013. And certainly for a lot of films that is the case. And the ratio between foreign box office and domestic box office is increasing or, rather, the balance is shifting. All that said, I think "Lone Ranger" has its work cut out for it, in part, because the budget is extremely high and it's a very costly film. But more important, I think Westerns traditionally do not do well overseas. You know, yes, Johnny Depp is something of a star. It's already, you know, done a little bit of business in some of the major markets but not enough to make a difference.

SIEGEL: Recently, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted the implosion of the current Hollywood studio system and they predict the inevitable failure of enough of these $200-million movies will change the studio system in a fundamental way. Do people see "The Lone Ranger" experience as a landmark along that road to dissolution?

ZEITCHIK: I think they do. And I think landmark is a great word to use because this is obviously not the first film of significant means to flop as it did, and it's probably not the last. But it kind of epitomizes everything that's happening with Hollywood now that I think Spielberg was trying to sum up there, which is that you have movies whose budgets have just gotten really out of control and returns that are not justified. Nor, for that matter, as you point out, are these films necessarily very good. Not that that's always the relevant factor but certainly it can be. And I think kind of as we move forward and as studios reevaluate what they want to do, they will be sort of one of the, if not the only, certainly one of the biggest signs of how things need to change. And this summer, we're seeing that in spades.

SIEGEL: Yes. There is an alternative theory to all of this, voiced 200 years ago by Samuel Johnson when he was writing of some low-quality Shakespeare. He said: from mere inferiority, nothing can be inferred. That is: make a bad movie, it'll do badly. Make a good blockbuster; maybe it'll succeed.

ZEITCHIK: Yeah. And, look, there's - no one went broke underestimating how movies of a certain middle-brow quality can do with an audience this coming week. We have a movie named "Grown-Ups 2," which probably not going to be a critic's favorite but is going to win the box office easily, probably make more than "Lone Ranger" did. So, I think that's certainly true. That said, you need at least a certain commercial formula. "Lone Ranger," "After Earth," the Will Smith film earlier in the season - these are movies that don't even seem to have that going for them.

SIEGEL: "John Carter"?

ZEITCHIK: Another big bomb Disney film from last year. And that's sort of the thing - I think when you talk about the landmark on this road, there are a lot more landmarks in the last year or two. You've got that film. You've got "Mars Needs Moms," another sci-fi movie didn't do well.

SIEGEL: "Mars Needs Moms"?

ZEITCHIK: The title says it all, doesn't it? But we're in a period of a lot of movies that seem good in some studio executive office; doesn't do that well at the box office.

SIEGEL: Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times. Thank you for talking with us.

ZEITCHIK: Thanks, Robert. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.