Johnny Depp, Disney, and Film Economics

How much is the Disney Corporation indebted to Johnny Depp for his portrayal of the pirate captain Jack Sparrow in its four part (and doubtlessly continuing) movie series Pirates of the Caribbean?

It’s impossible to know with precision, of course, how much of the films’ worldwide gross ticket revenues can be attributed to Mr. Depp’s acting talent and global popularity. Nevertheless, the films have collectively earned more than $3.7 billion as of today, with over two-thirds of the total received from audiences based outside of the United States. Mr. Depp’s personal popularity in Europe and other global markets undoubtedly contributed mightily to those earnings.

That didn’t stop Disney from halting production on Depp’s next project, though, a film to which the actor lent a significant amount of personal support. Because of Disney’s decision, the Lone Ranger will not be riding into our theaters any time soon.

An American Legend

The Lone Ranger dominated American pop culture for much of the 20th century. First appearing as a radio series in the Great Depression year of 1933, the character later gravitated to the movies in 1938 and then on to television in 1949.

The Lone Ranger himself has always been portrayed as a vigilante crime fighter who joins with his Native American (i.e. “Indian”) sidekick Tonto to dispense justice across lawless regions of the Old West. In one form or another, the plot has since been emulated numerous times, including in stories as diverse as Batman & Robin (i.e. the Dynamic Duo) and Agent J & Agent K (i.e. Tommy Lee Jones & Will Smith in Men In Black).

A film starring the versatile Mr. Depp as the Lone Ranger would seem to offer universal appeal to many different market segments; however, the project was marked by some questionable decisions from the start. For instance, Mr. Depp — in order to honor his own Native American heritage — insisted on playing Tonto in a scripted plot that would focus on the supporting character. And the $250 million film budget struck some as being absurdly extravagant, given the nature of the Western genre and its dearth of expensive special effects.

Last week, Disney shelved the project, attributing its decision primarily to the bloated production cost. It is possible, though, that the disappointing reception accorded to the recently released film Cowboys and Aliens, as well as lingering memories of the disastrous performance of 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger, also influenced Disney’s decision.

Hollywood Economics

It is tempting to jump to the hasty conclusion that a pair of screen characters who date to the Great Depression could not possibly become sufficiently popular with contemporary American audiences to justify a $250 million budget. Nevertheless, popularity aside, it is equally possible that modern Hollywood economics doomed the new Lone Ranger to failure well before Disney acquired the screen rights.

That is because most Hollywood action blockbusters today can only earn profitable returns on their production and distribution investments by appealing to a global audience, by cross-generating sales of toys and other merchandise, and by spinning off multi-film series of sequel movies. The Harry Potter series did so, for instance, through its British locales, its literary, theme park, and video game platforms, and its eight serial films.

Mr. Depp’s own Pirates series, likewise, met all of these business goals; for instance, characters of his films are still being added to the themed Pirate rides in the American, Tokyo, and Parisian Disney parks. Nevertheless, it must have been difficult for studio executives to envision foreign audiences cheering for a classic American hero like the Lone Ranger, or to imagine children in the United States nagging their parents to purchase cowboy themed toys.

An Alternative Approach

If the economics of the Hollywood blockbuster film industry are preventing Disney from producing the movie, Mr. Depp may choose to follow an alternative approach to “get it made,” one that has been employed by his fellow thespians on their own pet projects. Namely, he may opt to raise the funds to produce it himself.

Far fetched? Not at all; in fact, Mr. Depp may even be lauded by his peers for doing so. Kevin Costner, for instance, personally purchased the script and managed the process that resulted in Dances With Wolves, the 1990 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Clint Eastwood won dual Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director on a pair of projects, 1992’s Unforgiven and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. And George Clooney was the executive producer of 2005’s Syriana, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film as well.

In other words, if Mr. Depp wishes to recast the tale of the Lone Ranger from Tonto’s perspective, he may need to take a bold leap and become the film’s producer. His alter-ego Captain Jack Sparrow, accustomed to such deeds of derring-do, would certainly approve of such a plan!