Disney Chief Wants 'Lone Ranger' To Ride; Will Gore Verbinski Be In The Saddle?

Speculation continues as to whether Disney will or won't bankroll a $200m Lone Ranger from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp. The studio canned the film just over a week ago thanks to budgetary concerns (it was running north of $250m) but various sources within Disney have indicated the project remains a possibility. Johnny Depp, after all, has been part of some of the studio's biggest movies in the past decade — the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Alice in Wonderland — and is seen as one of the last bankable movie stars. (Tell that to the producers of The Rum Diary and The Tourist.)

The latest word on Lone Ranger comes from Disney executive Rich Ross, who said during the studio's D23 Expo this weekend that he still very much wants to make the film. But he evidently omitted Gore Verbinski's name when talking about the project, leading to even more rampant speculation that the studio wants to make a cheaper version of the movie with a different director.

Deadline talked to Ross, who said,

I'm hoping to do it. I'm certainly hoping. I think it's a compelling story and no one wants to work with Jerry and Johnny more than me, so we'll see how it works.

The absence of Verbinski's name in that comment led Deadline to think that, despite the director and Jerry Bruckheimer cutting their fees for the film, Disney might be starting to think about using a different director. The site indicates that tweaks to Justin Haythe's script and the fee cuts are pushing the budget down towards a Disney-approved $215m, but wonders whether Verbinski would be able to deliver a film at that budget that will have the right combination of whiz-bang action and effects to earn enough to make the endeavor worthwhile.

There are several considerations here: first, Verbinski and Depp are essentially a pair, after having made the first three Pirates movies and Rango together. Would Depp do the movie for a different director? And could another director have the luck that Rob Marshall did with the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film? Which, truth be told, only had to be steered in vaguely the proper direction to make a mint — audiences went with brand recognition when buying Pirates tickets.

The bankability of the western is also a concern — it's just not a blockbuster genre, with very few exceptions. (It's been a long, long time since the mega-success of Dances With Wolves, for instance, against which the very good box office take of last year's True Grit seems modest.) Even with Johnny Depp, Lone Ranger seems like a reach for a very distant brass ring. And if Disney is really going to spend more than $200m on the film there's no way to argue that Lone Ranger is anything other than a bet for commercial success.

Losing Johnny Depp, whose fee likely accounts for a huge percentage of that budget, would cut costs considerably. But then Disney would have a $150m western anomaly that is almost guaranteed to fall short of recouping. Can we just scratch this one altogether and move on?