Today in The Continuing Adventures of Disney’s Lone Ranger, that film production cliffhanger that I’m not certain actually has people on pins and needles to discover what happens next, we’ve got budget cuts and stalwart friendship. One of those things is, at least, a core value of the Lone Ranger.

What we’ve known so far is that producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski, star Johnny Depp and screenwriter Justin Haythe handed Disney a script that was going to cost well over $250m — closer to $275m — and the studio rightly balked. So for the past couple weeks there has been a very public back and forth over the film, with Disney exec Rich Ross saying he wants to make it, but only for a much lower price. Script changes are being made; supernatural elements are being (thankfully) cut; and there was even discussion about whether the film might get made with a director other than Gore Verbinski.

So what’s happening now? The budget is lower, but perhaps not low enough, and Disney is looking at ponying up more than seems reasonable for a Western, or not making the movie at all. Read on…

Deadline says that Bruckheimer and Verbinski have trimmed the script and budget to the tune of a new $215m budget, which isn’t quite low enough, but might do. Both men had cut their fees as part of that budget trim.

The position now is that Verbinski reportedly has the budget as low as he’s willing to go — any lower and it won’t be the same movie he intended to make, says an anonymous insider. Johnny Depp wants to make the movie, but only with Verbinski. So Disney can accept the budget as-is, or continue to balk and risk losing the director, at which point they also likely lose Depp. Then they don’t have a movie. (That might not be so bad.)

Beyond that, there are two more financial factors. Verbinski is a notorious over-spender. Even if he and Disney agree to do this for $215m, can he? And then there’s the simple fact of making a $215m western, which to me still seems completely absurd. That core idea of doing the film — that Depp’s Tonto would be the core character, and the film would be a bit like Don Quixote told from the point of view of Sancho Panza — is a good one. But inflate it with huge train setpieces and other action, and does that interesting character and narrative angle just go away?

Finally, can Disney count on this being a billion-dollar-plus moneymaker worldwide? Between the budget and marketing and the fact of DVD no longer being a money tree, Lone Ranger might have to take in over $1b worldwide to break even. And that seems very unlikely.

So take that core idea. Embellish it with comedy rather than action and it can work for $100m and be certain to make money. But that’s obviously not the approach anyone here is willing to take. All that taken into account, canning the movie still seems like the best move Disney has made with it so far.

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