Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Deadline told you a week ago that things were looking up for The Lone Ranger for the first time since we broke the shocking news on Aug. 12 that Disney had pulled the plug over budget. I’m hearing that the studio is likely to have everything resolved by next week, and can start rehiring crew so that the picture will be ready to begin production in January or February. How that late start impacts the Dec. 21, 2012 release date remains to be seen, but Johnny Depp will get to play Tonto (Disney wouldn’t make the movie without him), and Armie Hammer will be back in as the title character. Ruth Wilson, the scene-stealing killer from Idris Elba’s British cop series Luther, is also expected back as the female lead.

Disney has gotten to this point after a painful overhaul of the movie by producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski to bring to $215 million a budget the studio feared could reach $250 or more. Verbinski’s struggle has been to reach that number while retaining enough of the spectacle that made them say yes in the first place. The cutting process has included the reworking of deals for Depp, Verbinski and Bruckheimer, and trimming the production budget and the long shoot. That would enable Depp, Gore and Bruckheimer to re-team after making the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films together. The Lone Ranger is one of several huge-budget films that Disney’s Rich Ross and Sean Bailey are managing. The others include John Carter, the Andrew Stanton-directed adaptation of John Carter of Mars with Friday Night Lights‘ Taylor Kitsch in the lead role, which has a budget around $250 million; and The Great and Powerful Oz, the Sam Raimi-directed James Franco-starrer, which is hovering around $200 million.

The Lone Ranger is on the verge of serving as an example where a film comes through the budget scrutiny process with a construct that can actually make Disney its money back. More than those other big Disney bets, I think the timing of the plug pull had everything to do with the dismal results of another ambitious Western, Cowboys & Aliens, a film that is going to lose a fortune for DreamWorks and its partners. Having a studio waffle isn’t fatal, however. While the architects of At the Mountains of Madness, The Dark Tower and Ouija struggle to regain footing after Universal dropped them for various reasons, worthy movies tend to find their way. That proved to be the case with American Gangster, and with Moneyball, which opens today.

Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal took the painful and radical step of pulling the plug on that film a weekend before the start of production because a Steven Soderbergh rewrite so veered from the picture she had greenlighted. We’ll see how that film does in a brutally competitive weekend, but the Bennett Miller-directed film got a rousing ovation in its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival two weeks ago. And Soderbergh moved on and recently topped the box office with his viral thriller Contagion. Some of Hollywood’s biggest names are in the middle of these greenlight struggles, and this trend will become more common because the stakes are so high.