In Walt Disney Studios' remake of "The Lone Ranger," the masked lawman and his loopy sidekick, Tonto, stop a runaway train, are beaten by bad guys and besieged by scorpions, and blow up a massive bridge with dynamite — all while trying to avenge the death of the Lone Ranger's brother and save his wife and child.
The stakes for the studio might be even higher. Disney is making a big bet on a character that is largely unfamiliar to the young moviegoers who are the key demographic for big summer movies.
Released wide Wednesday, "The Lone Ranger" is an expensive reworking of the once-beloved western saga, which dates to a 1930s radio show and spawned a hit 1950s television series that only older baby boomers may remember watching.
Although the film is an action extravaganza, it is still a western — a genre that hasn't produced many recent hits and could have limited appeal overseas.
Box-office projections indicate that "The Lone Ranger," which has a production budget estimated at $225 million and cost tens of millions more to market, is likely to finish No. 2 over the Fourth of July weekend, well behind Universal Pictures' far less expensive "Despicable Me 2."
"The stakes are huge for Disney with this movie," said box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com. "The amount of money that has been devoted to this production before the release shows you how strongly and profoundly invested they are in the film. [It] has a potential ripple effect down the line that is pretty incredible. The flip side to that is you have to have a hit movie."
Disney does have a hit movie team. The PG-13 adventure picture was produced by action maestro Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by his "Pirates of the Caribbean" partner Gore Verbinski and costars "Pirates" veteran Johnny Depp as Tonto.
If successful, the film could launch a new franchise for Disney, lead to valuable ancillary revenue streams in areas such as merchandise and inspire features for the company's theme parks.
According to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys, "The Lone Ranger" could open with a domestic take in the range of $65 million to $70 million over the five-day holiday period. That would be a solid start, but well behind recent Disney blockbusters "Oz the Great and Powerful" and "Iron Man 3."
Although Sean Bailey, the studio's head of production, wouldn't discuss future "Lone Ranger" plans in detail, he said the company has weighed the project's viability as the cornerstone of a franchise.
"We try to be pretty diligent in terms of not getting ahead of ourselves," Bailey said. "But there is thought to [the question]: Are these characters and an environment that can live across the Walt Disney Co. in success?"
One of Disney's recent attempts at launching a franchise sputtered. While production of "The Lone Ranger" was underway in New Mexico, Disney released "John Carter," a costly sci-fi adventure movie that was also adapted from decades-old intellectual property — a 1917 novel by "Tarzan" creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. It tanked at the box office.
Although there may appear to be parallels between the two films, they are largely dissimilar. Chief among the differences is "The Lone Ranger" team of Bruckheimer, Verbinski and Depp. Their four "Pirates of the Caribbean" pictures have grossed a combined $3.73 billion worldwide.
Then there is "The Lone Ranger's" place in pop culture lore. The TV series, which for much of its run starred Clayton Moore as the masked ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, ran for 221 episodes on ABC. (A 1981 film, "The Legend of the Lone Ranger," bombed.)
Pre-release audience surveys indicate that men over the age of 25 make up the adult demographic most interested in "The Lone Ranger." But Verbinski, who also directed the successful animated western "Rango," has turned out a picture that playfully pokes fun at its heritage while also supplying over-the-top action sequences designed to attract younger moviegoers.
Depp's Tonto uses pop culture expressions like "Not so much" and mocks Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger for his use of the signature phrase "Hi-yo, Silver!" The stirring "William Tell Overture," forever linked to the TV show, isn't fully unleashed until the movie's climactic train sequence.
Those tweaks to the original design of the characters and premise may help this version perform more like the big summer "tentpole" movies that have to appeal across age and gender ranges.
"They try to get as broad interest as possible in any of these big, expensive tentpoles," said Disney analyst Harold Vogel, president of Vogel Capital Management.
The project, years in the planning, made headlines in August 2011 when it was halted because of concerns about its budget, originally reported to be in the range of $250 million.
The budget was pared to an estimated $225 million and production resumed in February 2012, although multiple reports have said that costs again crept up toward $250 million.
Key to film's prospective profitability will be how it fares in important foreign territories such as China, now the second-largest movie market in the world. This weekend, the film is premiering in Italy, Russia, Australia and South Korea and will debut elsewhere over the next several months.
A Disney spokesman confirmed that "The Lone Ranger" would be shown in China, but said a release date has not be set.
Bailey acknowledged that some foreign territories are not so familiar with the western genre.
"But this isn't a western in a traditional sense," he said. "These guys set out to re-imagine the genre."
Besides, Bailey noted, there's also Depp's international star power. His last seagoing venture, 2011's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," took in $803 million of its $1.04-billion global gross outside the domestic market.
Disney was able to trim the budget on "The Lone Ranger" by cutting back on expensive action sequences, and after Depp, Bruckheimer and Verbinski and others cut their fees, according to several reports.
The studio is betting that the trio can once again deliver, replicating their "Pirates" success.
"'Pirates' was always talked about as a target for this movie," Bailey said. "That was a movie that people didn't anticipate — pirate movies were not really out there. Now it would be really difficult for one of our competitors to do a tentpole pirate movie. That is something we talked about."
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