Walt Disney Co.'s decision to suspend the planned production of "The Lone Ranger" because of budgetary concerns — even though the reinvention of the classic western would star the world's most bankable actor, Johnny Depp — reflects Hollywood's continued fixation on curbing costs.
The movie, to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, the team behind the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, still could end up in theaters for its scheduled Christmas 2012 opening. Negotiations between Disney and the filmmakers continued Monday, according to several people familiar with the situation, with Disney trying to bring the estimated price tag of $250 million closer to $210 million.
Nonetheless, work was suspended on sets under construction in New Mexico and most of the 60 workers hired were laid off. The studio remains interested in making the film, which reportedly introduces supernatural elements, including werewolves, to the familiar characters first introduced to radio listeners in the 1930s and later featured in a popular television series.
Depp was cast as Tonto, the Native American companion to the title character, portrayed by Armie Hammer. But in this retelling, the masked man's traditional sidekick would assume the central role.
Some in Hollywood question whether the Disney's game of budget brinkmanship risks damaging the studio's relationship with Depp and Bruckheimer, whose four "Pirates of the Caribbean" films have racked up more than $3.7 billion in global ticket sales since 2003.
None of those directly involved in the production would comment publicly Monday.
Disney's budget crackdown follows on the heels of a failed attempt by DreamWorks and Universal Pictures to revive the classic western, albeit with a modern, genre-bending twist, with "Cowboys & Aliens." The costly movie has brought in a dismal $88.7-million worldwide since its July 29 debut, even though it boasted two A-list actors (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) and was made by Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau.
"Cowboys & Aliens made them [Disney executives] start quaking in their boots over big budgets," said Brandon Gray, creator and president of BoxOfficeMojo.com, a website that tracks worldwide ticket sales. "It was high noon at Buena Vista."
At a time when overseas ticket sales account for nearly 70% of Hollywood's box office, Gray notes that westerns don't connect well with foreign audiences. "True Grit," last December's acclaimed remake of the John Wayne film starring Jeff Bridges, was among the second-highest- grossing westerns of all time, he said. It brought in $251 million in the theaters, but only about one-third of ticket sales came from international audiences.
"Eighty million dollars overseas is great for a western," Gray said. "But typically for a big event movie, a studio is looking to far exceed its domestic gross overseas, not simply have a fraction of it."
Of course, the same was true for pirate epics before 2003, when "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" swashbuckled its way into theaters — and spawned a powerful film franchise for Disney.
If Disney and Bruckheimer fail to come to terms on the budget, the cancellation of "Lone Ranger" could call into question Depp's willingness to star in another "Pirates" movie. The most recent installment grossed over $1 billion worldwide as did Depp's other high-profile Disney hit, "Alice in Wonderland."
Bruckheimer, who has delivered a number of blockbusters during his 17 years with Disney, has had a more strained relationship with the studio lately as some of his costly movies underperformed, including last summer's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and 2009's "G-Force."
Battles between studios and filmmakers over budgets are not uncommon and have intensified in recent years as studios have clamped down on costs to make up for declining DVD sales.
This is not the first time Verbinski has feuded with Disney. After the budget of 2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" exceeded $300 million, he was replaced by "Chicago" director Rob Marshall on this year's sequel, subtitled "On Stranger Tides." Disney spent about $200 million on the production.
Verbinski's next project after "At World's End" was to be an adaptation of the video game "Bioshock," but it was canceled when Universal Pictures balked at the estimated price tag of $160 million, according to Variety.
Other high-profile projects that were killed because of budget concerns include a sequel to the Will Ferrell comedy "Anchorman," the Jim Carrey-Ben Stiller comedy "Used Guys," and an adaptation of the hit video game "Halo" that was to be produced by Peter Jackson.
Just as frequently, studios rework budgets in order to put themselves within closer range of making a profit. The baseball drama "Moneyball," which opens in September, was put on hold in 2009 when Sony Pictures wouldn't agree to then-director Steven Soderbergh's proposed cost of $57 million. Universal pulled the plug on "American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, a few weeks before filming was to begin in 2004. It restarted in 2005 with a different director and a lower budget.
This is the second time Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross has moved to halt a high-profile movie. He torpedoed a reboot of Disney's 1954 submarine epic "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" shortly after he assumed the studio reins in 2009.
Disney and Bruckheimer have been talking about a Lone Ranger film for years and in 2008 the studio announced with great fanfare that Depp would star. In a series of interviews with The Times earlier this year, Verbinski and Depp described a film that would have subversive humor to it and a grand scale.
Depp said there's "a big story to tell on a big canvas, it's not a straightforward western" and he hinted that there would be supernatural element, as well, which might explain the size of the budget. In one early version of the script, the Lone Ranger's trademark silver bullets would be used to slay Old West werewolves. The Disney update would venture into metaphysical adventure not unlike Verbinski's animated western "Rango," which also starred Depp.
Film industry officials in New Mexico remained hopeful that the budget dispute would be resolved.
"I hope that Disney gets its act together and brings the picture back here," said Jon Hendry, business agent for Local 480 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents crew members in New Mexico.
News of the halt in production of "The Lone Ranger" sent shock waves through the below-the-line community in New Mexico, where only three weeks ago building had begun on a western town set near Silver City. Last week, construction on the set stopped and dozens of workers were laid off, except for a few who stayed behind to tear down the town's newly erected walls, said a person familiar with the project.
The set was one of five New Mexico locations Disney planned to film during a 100-day shoot that was expected to begin in mid-October. The studio had put a hold on several soundstages at the sprawling Albuquerque Studios for several months, which has been hosting Disney's Marvel Entertainment movie, "The Avengers."
Disney had planned to use as many as six of the studio's eight soundstages, said Wayne Rauschenberger, chief operating officer for Albuquerque Studios. "We got a call late Friday night saying they had put a hold on production," Rauschenberger said. "I was surprised because we were getting ready to sign the paperwork."
Staff writers Geoff Boucher and Ben Fritz contributed to this report.