You can’t catch lightning in a bottle, no matter what elementary school history says about Benjamin Franklin, a kite, and a thunderstorm. The same applies to movies. It’s impossible to repeat a billion dollar success, even when you bring back all the pieces that made the original effort such a hit. Indeed, the various situations and circumstances that lead to such a triumph can never be wholly recreated, and even if they could be, time and temperament also play a part in audiences’ expectations and willingness to part with their pocket money. When The Blair Witch Project played its “is it real?” genre card in combination with its then original found footage format, it made millions. Since then, every Tom, Dick, and Hack Harry has tried to repeat its phenom status, to little legitimate result.
Hollywood, by its very nature, is a gamble. One day, the world adores some secondary cast member from Saturday Night Live, the next, he or she is a forgotten funny business face. Sometimes, it’s merely cyclical. Horror movies make their way into the mainstream every few years, only to fade away like their ultimately dated fear factors. Similarly, comedies can go from sophisticated to sophomoric to scatological, sometimes in the same storyline. Indeed, as the studios try to figure out what will make each demo cough up the cash, they’ve believe in a few flawed absolutes: almost every family film, especially one’s created via CG animation, make major bank at the box office; certain stars, no matter their status on our shores, can claim huge returns overseas; and just when they think they have it all figured out, something comes along to question all their marketing research and focus group reports.
The great screenwriter William Goldman said it best: “Nobody Knows Anything.” To extrapolate a bit further from a cinephile’s perspective, it’s clear that, within the realm of Tinseltown’s think tanks, there are no original ideas. Everything is a recycled recreation of a past perceived achievement, with the various factors that made such a success (novelty, artistry, era, etc.) removed less they cause concern. No, clearly in the case of something like The Lone Ranger (which we loved but many are calling “an unmitigated disaster”), the House of Mouse powers that be thought, “Johnny Depp…? Gore Verbinski…? Jerry Bruckheimer…? The guys behind the billion dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise? SOLD!” Even when their initial money throw their way was retracted to bring the elephantine budget ($250 million, by most reports) into line with other Summer spectacles, they believed they had a winner on their hands.
And why not? Depp is nearly undefeated internationally. He can take crap like Pirates 4: On Stranger Tides and turn it into a billion dollar baby. Even more impressive, more than 80% of the take came from overseas ($804 million vs. $260 million in the US). The same can be said for all the films finding nine digit returns. We’ve discussed this to death – the world is now Hollywood’s target, not the teens hanging out at the Mall of America. Even a bomb like Dark Shadows (which we kind of liked as well) managed to make $250 million when combined with other territories. So by walking into a decidedly Western genre (see what we did there) and offering up a “just like POTC” vibe, The Lone Ranger could connect with the non-English speaking member of movie fandom.
Granted, like Shadows, this is a title with very little international appeal. Who, in Indonesia or India is wondering to themselves “when will Hollywood make a big budget film out of a flimsy radio series that few outside the ’50s remember?” Instead, Disney is using the untried and untrue theory that what worked once (Depp/Verbinski/Bruckheimer’s original Pirates brought in $2.7 billion in receipts) will work again. They are trying to duplicate the unduplicatable. They are praying for a payday to match the ones worked out on the backs of a forgotten thriller subgenre (the swashbuckling action adventure) and the power of its idiosyncratic star and he’s equally odd director. Don’t believe Verbinski is a commercial David Lynch? Just look over his oeuvre. Scholars are still trying to figure out what period Mouse Hunt presents (the ’40s? the ’50s? some Billy Pilgrim combination of the two, or something else?) and The Ring is the only horror film to make people afraid of a movie montage.
In the end, of course, it’s all about the final effort put on the screen. No matter the combination of guarantees, if the movie stinks, no one is going to see it. Word of mouth will be as lethal as an ex-New England Patriots tight end (allegedly) and no amount of contrarian concern will alleviate the stink of failure. Of course, in recent interviews, studio execs have argued that none of this matters to the rest of the planet. The U.S. has long since stopped being the tastemakers for the rest of the moviegoing public, so the current Lone Ranger backlash should mean nothing in the end. Heck, Pirates 4 earned a mediocre 33% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and still banked a billion. The 25% and holding for Lone may seem like a long shot, but stranger things have happened.
For those who are happy the film is failing, the only conclusion can be that The Lone Ranger was (and is, and forever will be) a bad movie rightfully rejected by a far more savvy entertainment public. For those who liked it, there’s always the hope for a home video reevaluation (like what is currently happening with Cloud Atlas, or what occurred with Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween). In the end, pundits will turns pages and bylines into their own version of “told you so” while Depp will continue to cash his checks while Verbinski polishes his Oscar (for the equally eccentric kid flick, Rango).
Maybe if the movie had been released next year, or two years ago, it would have caught on. Maybe the original idea of The Lone Ranger fighting werewolves would have worked (shows you how desperate Disney was at one time). Perhaps no version of the character would resonate with today’s jaded demo – and let’s not even address the whole ‘white man as Native American’ complaint. Indeed, if The Lone Ranger goes down as one of 2013’s biggest bombs, it won’t be for lack of trying. Instead, the failure will rest solely on the unimaginative backs of those who thought they could repeat a previous success by simply mimicking its questionable formula. That kind of lightning can’t be recaptured. Instead, it’s destined to strike, do its damage, and then disappear.