By Brooks Barnes
c.2013 New York Times News Service
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Tumbleweeds blew through theaters playing “The Lone Ranger” over the weekend, calling into question Johnny Depp's star power, extending Jerry Bruckheimer's troubled box-office run and probably leading to a write down of $100 million or more at Disney's film studio.
Even more humiliating for Disney: “Despicable Me 2,” a relatively inexpensive cartoon from Universal — a new force in animation, the art form that Walt Disney perfected for the masses — was an immediate smash hit.
“Despicable Me 2” took in about $142.1 million between Wednesday and Sunday, while “The Lone Ranger” had ticket sales of about $48.9 million over the same period.
Together they offer a striking portrait of modern Hollywood. Studios like Disney, searching for global audiences, are making fewer movies but spending more on the ones they do release.
This raises the stakes to almost impossible levels; “The Lone Ranger,” which cost at least $375 million to make and market, will need to take in an estimated $800 million worldwide to break even, after accounting for revenue splits with theater owners.
“Despicable Me 2” represents Hollywood's safety net — sequels, particularly animated ones that appeal to families looking for a guaranteed experience.
The film also underscores an effort by studios not known for animation to dive into the field in a cost-effective way. Universal's Illumination Entertainment made “Despicable Me 2” for $76 million; major Pixar and DreamWorks Animation movies can cost twice as much.
“With animation in particular, you can clearly control costs while not diminishing the audience's pleasure,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president for distribution. “Did we expect a blockbuster? Yes. Did we expect one of this size? No.”
“Despicable Me 2,” which received largely positive reviews, has already taken in about $151.1 million overseas.
Early worldwide results give the film a berth among some of the biggest animation franchises in Hollywood history, including “Shrek.” Universal has a follow-up movie planned for December 2014.
As Universal was celebrating, Disney was trying to figure out how “The Lone Ranger” came up so lame — “the kind of bomb that people discuss for years to come,” as Phil Contrino, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com put it.
Westerns are difficult to sell to modern audiences. “The Lone Ranger,” directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Mr. Bruckheimer, follows “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Jonah Hex” as recent Old West flops.
But “The Lone Ranger,” starring Mr. Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer in the title role, was troubled from the start, with Disney scrambling to spend less on production than the planned $250 million. (The studio succeeded by a smidge.)
When Disney decided to move forward with “The Lone Ranger” in 2011 — the project had been gestating at the studio since 2007 — the hope was for another franchise in the vein of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Despite the western's cost, Disney was given comfort by the fact that many members of the original “Pirates” creative team were on board, including Mr. Depp, Mr. Bruckheimer, Mr. Verbinski and the writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.
But “The Lone Ranger,” which received terrible reviews, suffered from tonal problems. Was it a campy comedy or a serious action film? Trailers seemed to play it both ways, said Doug Creutz, a media analyst with Cowen & Company.
Last week, Mr. Creutz predicted that Disney would eventually have to write off $100 million if “The Lone Ranger” did as poorly as prerelease surveys suggested. It actually performed worse; analysts had been bracing for as little as $65 million in ticket sales from the film's first five days in North American theaters.
Aside from “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” in 2011, Mr. Bruckheimer's track record of late has been dismal, with duds including “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.”
But Mr. Depp may have a bigger problem. Are audiences tiring of his oddball characters? “Dark Shadows,” in which he played a vampire, was also a disappointment last summer.
“We are obviously disappointed,” said Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice president for distribution. “The frustrating thing for us is that it felt like the ingredients were there. We are holding out hope that word of mouth will propel ticket sales, particularly among older consumers, who remember the property fondly and don't have a lot of movies aimed at them in the weeks ahead.”
Hopes for “The Lone Ranger” now rest on its overseas performance. Mr. Hollis said that the movie's continued foreign rollout would be staggered over the next two months and noted that Mr. Depp's movies have tended to overperform internationally.
So far, however, interest has been soft; the movie opened in 30 percent of the foreign marketplace over the last week and took in about $24.3 million.
Disney's last two releases, Pixar's “Monsters University” and Marvel's “Iron Man 3,” are both huge hits, together delivering more than $1.6 billion in ticket sales and still counting.
But as Mr. Creutz said, “A bomb from 'Lone Ranger' could offset a lot of these benefits and sustain the perception that Disney's film studio has some serious problems away from the Marvel-Pixar axis.”