Disney isn’t denying that its $225 million western The Lone Ranger tanked on opening weekend. The film earned a disastrous $47.9 million during its five-day debut, a total that has led some analysts to predict that Disney will take a $190 million write-down as a result.
“It’s disappointing,” admits Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive VP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution. “The frustrating thing for us is that it felt like the ingredients were there.” The exec says that, on paper, the combination of “the most successful producer in history [Jerry Bruckheimer]; an award-winning, commercially successful director [Gore Verbinski]; and the biggest movie star in the world [Johnny Depp],” seemed destined to yield “great results” on par with the Pirates of the Cariibbean franchise. But that just didn’t happen.
Hollis doesn’t blame Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, or any of the filmmakers for the weak box office performance. He thinks it was a lack of familiarity with the titular masked character that did the Lone Ranger in. “The heritage and legacy of the Lone Ranger story,” says Hollis, “didn’t connect as well with the younger audience. It wasn’t something that was known, and it didn’t draw their interest as much as we’d hoped.” He’s got that right. A full 68 percent of the opening weekend audience was over the age of 25 – and a whopping 25 percent were over 50.
Despite the expensive fallout of The Lone Ranger (which was greenlit by former Walt Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross, who was already ousted in 2012 following the disastrous release of John Carter), Disney has no plans to stray from its current strategy of releasing only high-profile spectacles – and just a few of them each year. “This branded tentpole strategy of ours, it’s 100 percent what we’re looking to do and what we want to be,” says Hollis, who says the company plans to leverage the “variety of banners that sit inside Walt Disney Studios” for years to come. “Between Disney and Marvel and Pixar and Lucasfilm and our relationship with DreamWorks live-action, we will have branded tentpoles that come out over the course of the calendar,” he says.
Disney points to the success of Iron Man 3, Oz the Great and Powerful, and Monsters University as signs that their glossy blockbusters can – and often do – connect. “Three of the four big movies that we put out this year opened to over $75 million on a non-holiday weekend,” says Hollis. “We’ve got more than $2 billion worth of worldwide business in just four months.” Plus, the reality is that Disney is such a gigantic company, with such a diversified income portfolio, that even a bomb like The Lone Ranger won’t cripple it. In fact, The Walt Disney Company’s stock actually increased by more than a dollar in the two days that followed The Lone Ranger’s awful opening.
In the end, Disney understands that it’s fostering a high-risk, high-reward environment for itself – but the studio is confident that future Star Wars movies, Marvel movies, Pixar movies, and even occasional big-budget adventures like Lone Ranger are smart risks to take. “It sets the bar higher because we have bigger ambitions,” says Hollis, “[and] it makes openings like this that much more disappointing, but we believe in this branded tentpole strategy.”