Johnny Depp was cast as Tonto in "The Lone Ranger." (Jas Lehal / Reuters )
Walt Disney Co.'s decision to suspend the planned production of "The Lone Ranger" because of budgetary concerns — even though the reinvention of the classic western would star the world's most bankable actor, Johnny Depp — reflects Hollywood's continued fixation on curbing costs.
The movie, to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, the team behind the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, still could end up in theaters for its scheduled Christmas 2012 opening. Negotiations between Disney and the filmmakers continued Monday, according to several people familiar with the situation, with Disney trying to bring the estimated price tag of $250 million closer to $210 million.
Nonetheless, work was suspended on sets under construction in New Mexico and most of the 60 workers hired were laid off. The studio remains interested in making the film, which reportedly introduces supernatural elements, including werewolves, to the familiar characters first introduced to radio listeners in the 1930s and later featured in a popular television series.
Depp was cast as Tonto, the Native American companion to the title character, portrayed by Armie Hammer. But in this retelling, the masked man's traditional sidekick would assume the central role.
Some in Hollywood question whether the Disney's game of budget brinkmanship risks damaging the studio's relationship with Depp and Bruckheimer, whose four "Pirates of the Caribbean" films have racked up more than $3.7 billion in global ticket sales since 2003.
None of those directly involved in the production would comment publicly Monday.
Disney's budget crackdown follows on the heels of a failed attempt by DreamWorks and Universal Pictures to revive the classic western, albeit with a modern, genre-bending twist, with "Cowboys & Aliens." The costly movie has brought in a dismal $88.7-million worldwide since its July 29 debut, even though it boasted two A-list actors (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) and was made by Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau.
"Cowboys & Aliens made them [Disney executives] start quaking in their boots over big budgets," said Brandon Gray, creator and president of BoxOfficeMojo.com, a website that tracks worldwide ticket sales. "It was high noon at Buena Vista."
At a time when overseas ticket sales account for nearly 70% of Hollywood's box office, Gray notes that westerns don't connect well with foreign audiences. "True Grit," last December's acclaimed remake of the John Wayne film starring Jeff Bridges, was among the second-highest- grossing westerns of all time, he said. It brought in $251 million in the theaters, but only about one-third of ticket sales came from international audiences.
"Eighty million dollars overseas is great for a western," Gray said. "But typically for a big event movie, a studio is looking to far exceed its domestic gross overseas, not simply have a fraction of it."
Of course, the same was true for pirate epics before 2003, when "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" swashbuckled its way into theaters — and spawned a powerful film franchise for Disney.
If Disney and Bruckheimer fail to come to terms on the budget, the cancellation of "Lone Ranger" could call into question Depp's willingness to star in another "Pirates" movie. The most recent installment grossed over $1 billion worldwide as did Depp's other high-profile Disney hit, "Alice in Wonderland."
Bruckheimer, who has delivered a number of blockbusters during his 17 years with Disney, has had a more strained relationship with the studio lately as some of his costly movies underperformed, including last summer's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and 2009's "G-Force."
Battles between studios and filmmakers over budgets are not uncommon and have intensified in recent years as studios have clamped down on costs to make up for declining DVD sales.
This is not the first time Verbinski has feuded with Disney. After the budget of 2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" exceeded $300 million, he was replaced by "Chicago" director Rob Marshall on this year's sequel, subtitled "On Stranger Tides." Disney spent about $200 million on the production.
Verbinski's next project after "At World's End" was to be an adaptation of the video game "Bioshock," but it was canceled when Universal Pictures balked at the estimated price tag of $160 million, according to Variety.
Other high-profile projects that were killed because of budget concerns include a sequel to the Will Ferrell comedy "Anchorman," the Jim Carrey-Ben Stiller comedy "Used Guys," and an adaptation of the hit video game "Halo" that was to be produced by Peter Jackson.