The news Friday that Disney was hitting the stop button on a planned reboot of "Lone Ranger" with Johnny Depp was greeted by a chorus of surprised reactions around Hollywood, followed by tentative explanations.
In Depp, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Disney had a team that had collaborated on three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. And they had a title that was immediately identifiable to an older generation, expanding an audience for a film that could already play well to the youth crowd. In the era of big-budget filmmaking, this was the form par excellence, from the studio that practiced it as often and as well as anyone else.
And yet Disney had decided, at least for now, to halt the movie in its tracks.
The consensus feeling in Hollywood is that, whatever the other doubts ("Lone Ranger's" appeal to an international audience, the viability of the Western, Bruckheimer's mixed recent record), the main concern was a matter of dollars and cents. The movie could cost as much as $250 million, and the studio and filmmakers couldn't see eye to eye on making that figure work, not with the other doubts looming.
Film budgets have evolved to a strange point. On the one hand, the scale of studio moviemaking has ballooned in recent years as the sheer technical possibilities have expanded. That, coming at roughly the same time as studios' belief that movies need to be splashier to distinguish themselves from other forms of entertainment, has taken budgets through the roof. The result is an inevitable backlash, at least for anyone not named James Cameron.
But there's also a second, more subtle factor that may be working against these mega-budget productions. Technology has allowed filmmakers to do things they've never done before, at budgets their predecessors would have thought inconceivable. Filmmakers today don't just whip up some effects magic; they can make some budgetary magic. Effects that would have cost tens of millions now cost a fraction of that.
While that's a boon for lower-budget filmmakers looking to make movies that play bigger (last year's "Skyline 3D" offers a good test case), this development has done something else: created an expectation on the part of some studio heads that movies that look expensive should cost less. Sure, those executives will publicly say they understand all the resources an A-list director needs to make a big summer or holiday release. But quietly, some have started to wonder how a class of upstart, tech-savvy filmmakers (check out a tandem known as the Purchase Bros. for a good example) can spend so little and make their movie look so good.
There's yet a chance that "Lone Ranger" could get back on track. Other productions riven by budget disagreements -- Denzel Washington's "Unstoppable" comes to mind -- often see an 11th-hour resolution. Like Washington's debate over budgets, there's brinksmanship and finger-pointing, but eventually everyone grumblingly gets on board because the alternative is even less palatable. Studios want to make movies, and when they're done sending a message, they come around.