EXCLUSIVE: This is the kind of Maalox moment that explains why studio moguls get paid the big bucks. Because Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross now has a very public decision to make about whether to go forward with The Lone Ranger. We’ve learned that producer Jerry Bruckheimer and attached director Gore Verbinski are jointly presenting a new budget “in the $215M range” to Ross after weeks of trimming it from the previously proposed $275M which caused Disney to balk and halt production. That’s still not the $200M number that the studio really wanted, but is lower than the $220M at which Disney indicated to all concerned it might compromise. Now here’s the other complicating factor: Insiders tell us that Johnny Depp, who’s attached to play Tonto, really wants to make The Lone Ranger but won’t do it without Verbinski directing. Depp has shown unusual loyalty to his favorite helmers like Tim Burton and made not just 3 successful Pirates of the Caribbean pics with Gore but also starred in Verbinski’s Rango, which is an Oscar frontrunner for Best Animated Picture this year. And Depp right now is the biggest box office star in the world with two recent billion-dollar worldwide hits (Alice in Wonderland and Pirates of the Caribbean 4). That leaves Disney no choice but to keep on Verbinski if the studio wants to retain Depp – which of course it does. Disney is counting on Depp to make The Lone Ranger – which began on the radio in 1933, then became a TV series that ran from 1949-1957 — relevant with a comedic twist. So that means the studio and Gore must agree on the budget number. Insiders tell us that Verbinski has made it clear to Disney he “won’t take the budget down to a certain point where it’s not the same movie that he started out to make”. And Verbinski could walk if the studio pushes him too far and then Depp is out as well. So that’s why Ross is in the midst of a dilemma right now.

As an insider tells us: “This isn’t about a specific number we’re trying to hit. At this point it’s about the vision of the movie and what is the price for that vision.” Disney privately admits it won’t make The Lone Ranger without Depp but didn’t know Johnny’s POV vis a vis Verbinski until very recently that the actor wouldn’t do the film without Gore. That made it all the more crucial for the studio and the director, with Bruckheimer, to see what they could do to lower the budget by examining every scene and discussing options. But there’s also another wrinkle: the release date. “Shooting wasn’t starting for quite a few more weeks, so Disney didn’t think a definitive answer was is necessary on that just yet. But it’s harder to get a good release date than it is to move it,” an insider tells us. The Lone Ranger was scheduled to be released Dec. 21, 2012, smack up against The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opens Dec. 14, and the Brad Pitt-starrer World War Z, which was just slated for Dec. 21.

Disney has made it clear it’s “still in the Jerry Bruckheimer business and the Johnny Depp business”. And in an exclusive interview with Deadline’s Pete Hammond during Disney’s D23 Expo, Rich Ross made his first comment on The Lone Ranger confirming he was still keen on the project: “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.” But he didn’t mention Gore. That’s because, as an insider explained to us, ”Spending $275 million on a Western no matter who the fuck it is starring in it means you’ve got to make so much money to get it back. And Gore Verbinski is notorious for budgets.” For all his success, Verbinski has a rep for spending big and holding his ground when studios want cuts, and that’s just not popular right now. The Lone Ranger already is a giant risk in the first place because Westerns don’t traditionally  perform well internationally. In a DVD-collapsed world, a $275M film needs to gross 3 times its budget to earn out, and that can’t be done without a big foreign reward.

Which is why Verbinski and Bruckheimer have been working hard to tone down or lose some of the budget-busting spectacular scenes in Justin Haythe’s script. At the same time, Bruckheimer as well as reps for Depp and Verbinski have been discussing ways to defer big chunks of their upfront paydays. Salary among all three likely accounts for $30 million or more. And if the trio’s backend deals weren’t at cash break before, they likely will be now if the film moves forward. Because simply adjusting above-the-line salaries isn’t enough to bring down the budget gap. The major question all along is whether Verbinski not only can deliver at that $215M number but also retain enough spectacle “wow” factor to give The Lone Ranger a shot at a big overseas gross and sequels. As we’ve written before, the deeper story behind this production stoppage was how movies are costing too much, studios are giving major pushback, and the backdrop of a down economy.