In Depth

The Lone Ranger is a huge flop - but Disney will shrug it off

Hi-Yo silver lining! Studio set to lose $190m on new movie, but its share price rises. What's going on?

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THE best thing critics can say about The Lone Ranger, the $215 million movie that limps into British cinemas on 9 August after a mauling at the US box office, is that it's not as bad as you might expect.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Robbie Collin admits the film – which features Armand Hammer as the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as his American Indian sidekick Tonto – has "some serious problems". But it's also a "strange and fascinating and often thrilling movie artefact."

It's weird, in other words. And the problem with weird is that it doesn't shift tickets, popcorn and merchandise the way big summer blockbusters are supposed to.

Disney says it's too early to say how much money it will lose on the project, but admits the box office takings are "softer than expected". Others are less reticent. Wall Street analysts interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter estimate the studio may take a hit of up to $190 million. "Hi-Yo, Silver. Away!" as the Lone Ranger might say.

Disney has been here before, of course. The studio's baffling 2012 sci-fi epic John Carter bombed so badly at the box office it triggered a $200 million write-down and forced the resignation of Rich Ross, the studio chief who gave it the green light.

His replacement, Alan Horn – the studio executive who oversaw the phenomenally successful Harry Potter franchise at Warners - declared he would be a "stabilising force".

"All I want to do is be helpful and keep the waters as calm as they can be," Horn told film website The Wrap shortly after his appointment.

Today, the waters look distinctly choppy and Horn has "a flop of legendary proportions" on his hands. It would be easy to assume Disney hasn't learned its lesson and Horn will soon follow Ross out of the studio's Burbank headquarters.

But guess what? Horn's job is safe, Disney's accountants have already "shrugged off" the Lone Ranger debacle and the company's shares have risen 1.4 per cent in recent days.

Here's why...

Today, with hindsight, it's easy to see why The Lone Ranger is a critical and commercial failure and plenty of critics are lining up to kick its bloodied corpse. But wind the clock back a few years and things would have looked very different.

The Lone Ranger's director, Gore Verbinski, gave Disney its billion dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. And Johnny Depp made the loveable pirate Jack Sparrow the series' most indelible character. In short, Verbinski and Depp were hit-makers and their involvement in a film about the Lone Ranger – an American pop culture icon – must have looked like a sure-fire thing.

But movies are complicated beasts, each one a matrix comprising hundreds, perhaps thousands of creative and commercial decisions. The Lone Ranger's failure will sting Disney, but it's a midge, not a hornet. Three of the studio's other films - Iron Man 3, Oz the Great and Powerful and Pixar's Monsters University - are among the year's biggest earners. Monsters University opened just three weeks ago and has already grossed $400 million worldwide.

Horn won't be sacked because he only started at the studio "halfway" through the production of The Lone Ranger and successfully argued its budget down from $250 million to $215 million. Shareholders have "great confidence" in the direction the Disney film division is heading since its acquisition of Marvel, Pixar and (most recently) LucasFilm, the company that made Star Wars.

And there's one more thing. The reason Disney takes gambles on big films like John Carter and The Lone Ranger is that it can afford to. As Bloomberg points out, movies made up only 13 per cent of Disney's revenue last quarter and less than five per cent of its operating income. Most of its cash now comes from TV - including an 80 per cent stake in ESPN – as well as its theme parks and holiday resorts.

The Lone Ranger may not ride again – not on Disney's dollar at least – but the studio isn't about to circle the wagons and stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on movies that either soar like an arrow or crash to earth like a badly-wounded buffalo.

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