Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE UPDATE: I’m hearing that Disney has set The Lone Ranger to start production February 6, 2012. That re-establishes one of the most intriguing examples of a star-driven film that was unplugged because of high budget and put back together in a way that gives the studio a chance to recoup its costs. Though The Lone Ranger has arguably the world’s most bankable movie star in Johnny Depp, it also is a Western, which (as evidenced by the lackluster performance of Cowboys & Aliens), doesn’t as a genre do strong business overseas. I expect this to be formalized by tomorrow.

EARLIER EXCLUSIVE, October 11, 4:38 PM: Well, it took a week longer than I thought it would, but Disney has finally reached a meeting of the minds on The Lone Ranger with director Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The studio is expected to formalize a new start date imminently and announce it is moving forward and putting Depp back in the saddle as Tonto, with Armie Hammer as the title character. It looked like the studio was going to announce last week when the picture brightened for the film, but it will be this week’s business instead. I don’t think Disney was able to salvage its December 21 release date because production won’t start in New Mexico until early next year.

The original plan was to begin shooting this fall. That was until, as Deadline revealed on August 12, the studio shockingly pulled the plug on a project it feared could come in at between $250 million-$275 million. The risk of such a figure on a Western became more glaring after Cowboys & Aliens had just turned in a severely disappointing domestic gross, to be followed by an even worse offshore performance, proving the adage that most Westerns don’t travel well. Cowboys & Aliens will be a costly money-loser, 50% shouldered by DreamWorks and the other half split between Universal and Relativity Media. On Lone Ranger, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes drama as the three principal players made concessions in their deals, and worked on the script to salvage the spectacle that made the movie worth making in the first place while bringing the budget down to a more manageable figure in the $215 million range. It wasn’t pleasant, but Disney now has its original team behind the first three Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters back together for a movie that’s expensive but at least will allow production chiefs Sean Bailey and Rich Ross the opportunity to sleep at night. Developing…

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