I didn’t expect it to be good—and it wasn’t—but I did think that Johnny Depp’s name combined with the audience-pleasing connection to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies would translate into good box office anyway. Boy was I wrong. Over a generous five-day 4th of July weekend, it couldn’t crack $50 million. Against a reported budget of $215 million (but that likely ran closer to $250 million), it’s the equivalent of throwing a cherry bomb in a toilet. The Lone Ranger bombed so hard it exploded sh*t everywhere.
So what does it mean? First and foremost, it means Johnny Depp’s bankability is now significantly devalued. He couldn’t sell The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows ate it last summer, and even the last Pirates movie showed some wear and tear from the previous entries in the franchise. Depp has officially worn out his welcome and, if he intends to remain a top dollar Movie Star, will have to rejuvenate his reputation with audiences. Maybe try not dressing up? People seem tired of that.
But it also means Disney should give serious consideration to that sixth Pirates movie. Perhaps it’s time to retire that franchise before it’s run entirely into the ground, but if it does go forward, the budget has got to be brought under control. Even with the in-house mint that is Marvel to offset losses, Disney cannot keep making these $200+ million blockbusters that tank, one right after the other (see also: Prince of Persia, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms).
In fact, no one can keep making these movies. Paramount will be lucky to break even with its own disastrously-produced World War Z, which isn’t showing the kind of legs or wild international box office it needs, and even Warner Brothers is sweating it out with Man of Steel thanks to a massive $225 million dollar budget (they’ve got to be nervous about Pacific Rim). The middle (movies with budgets between $25-$80 million) has been disappearing for years as studios rely more and more on gargantuan success from one or two movies, instead of moderate success from a dozen, to carry them. But this blockbuster business model? It isn’t working.
Or, it won’t work forever. They’ve still got just enough gas left in the tank to ignore the death-rattle coming from the engine. Despite The Lone Ranger taking a hugely expensive sh*t, Disney is making so much off Iron Man 3 they can absorb the loss. And while Warner Brothers sweats it out with Man of Steel thanks to a colossal $225 million budget, they should break even and then they have another Hobbit, a guaranteed billion-dollar earner, to sweeten the pot. Catching Fire is sure to be big business for Lionsgate/Summit, and Paramount, despite a rough year so far, still has three potential blockbusters on its slate.
You don’t have to look any further than Paramount to see the weakness in the business model. Their most lucrative movie to date this year is Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which is like…I don’t have a clever analogy for how embarrassing that is. Their next big earner is Star Trek Into Darkness which is another case of “cost too much/lucky to break even”. Studios are constantly issuing press releases that say “yay, box office is up!”, but so is their spending. That’s pretty much exactly the formula that bankrupted the world in 2008.
Disney was able to brush off the John Carter losses because of The Avengers, and this year Iron Man 3 will absolve them of any responsibility toward The Lone Ranger’s balance sheet. God help them when Marvel finally unleashes a bomb.