The Lone Ranger, Critics and the Box Office

I really hadn’t planned on writing any more about The Lone Ranger, but a series of news articles and quotes that have been floating around this week, along with countless commentary, have me feeling like I should weigh in.  First, Disney has projected that it will lose $160-190 million on The Lone Ranger.  At the same time, or possibly in response to this, several people behind the film have piped up to blame the critics for the box office failure of their film.

Johnny Depp:

I think the reviews were written seven-to-eight months before we released the film.  I think the reviews were written when they heard that [director] Gore [Verbinski] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and me were going to do The Lone Ranger. They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do.

Armie Hammer:

They’ve been gunning for out movie since it was shut down the first time.  That’s when most of the critics wrote their initial reviews. If you go back and read the negative reviews, most of them aren’t about the content of the movie, but more what’s behind it.  While we were making it we knew people were gunning for it. I think it was the popular thing when the movie hit rocky terrain they just jumped on the bandwagon to try and bash it. They tried to do the same with to World War Z and it didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.

Jerry Bruckheimer:

I think they were reviewing the budget, not reviewing the movie.  The audience doesn’t care what the budget it – they pay the same amount of money if it costs a dollar or $20m.  It’s unfortunate because the movie is a terrific movie, it’s a great epic film. It has lots of humour. It’s one of those movies that whatever critics missed in it this time, they’ll review it in a few years and see that they made a mistake.

I think the gist of their argument is pretty clear.  They feel that the critics were unfair towards the movie and that is the reason for the poor box office numbers.  The first half of that sentiment is, I feel, a reasonable complaint.  In fact, when the reviews started coming out and their trend became clear I wrote an article on this blog complaining about several aspects of the critic industry.  I won’t repeat it all here, but I think there are some valid points to be made.

It’s tough to deny that there is a tendency towards groupthink among critics, which when coupled with the laziness of some writers creates a bad combination.  There is also a side of human nature that likes to root for underdogs while revelling in seeing the mighty knocked down a peg.  In an age where many works of pop culture are considered “critic-proof”, there can be a desire to attempt to affect the fate of a film (or book; I feel like this happened to The Casual Vacancy).  Many critics will, rightfully, say that they don’t have the power to bring down a movie, yet I imagine many would like that power.  I know I would.  I’m not arguing there’s some vast conspiracy where critics are colluding in order to bring down (or bump up) certain movies, but I do honestly feel that in certain situations there is an agenda, whether subconscious or intentional.  And I think The Lone Ranger is a good example.  The Pirates of the Caribbean saga has made billions of dollars despite some harsh criticism of the later movies, and I think there are critics who are happy to see Disney, Depp, Verbinski and Bruckheimer have a bomb.  I don’t know about whether the filmmakers wrote their reviews months before the film came out (though I think some might have already made up their minds at that time), but I’ve read enough reviews in my life where it was obvious that the reviewer had not seen the film to completely discount the notion.

It should be noted that I loved The Lone Ranger.  To me it was considerably more enjoyable than many of the more widely praised summer blockbusters, and I definitely think it had some interesting things to say.  It’s also clearly unlike anything else being offered this year.  I would have loved to see it succeed, for many reasons, but at this point it’s safe to call it a box office failure.  Which brings us to part two of the filmmakers’ argument, that the critical reception is responsible for the film’s epic flop.  While I understand their frustration, there’s no way the critics are responsible for this outcome.  It’s true they played a role, but if anything it was merely the last straw for the film.

Bruckheimer, Depp and Hammer all bring up some valid points regarding the reviews.  Many of them focused on the behind-the-scenes struggles of the film.  However, I don’t feel like the critics are to blame for this.  Much of the early press for the movie discussed at length both the film’s budget and its numerous false starts.  In fact, that’s all we heard about the film for the longest time.  Disney did a poor job of managing its early press.  It was so eager to announce this new film that it jumped the gun, and when things didn’t pan out they had to offer explanations.

Then there was the budget.  $225 million is a lot of money, though it’s the same cost as Man of Steel.  However, people expect a huge budget with a science fiction based, computer animation intensive film.  The general reaction to a $225 million budget for a Western was shock and indignation.  Most people envision a Western as the cheapest of action movies, so I think the assumption was that there was both a lot of waste in the film along with exorbitant salaries for Depp and others.  Despite the fact that the filmmakers believed in the project enough to reportedly take a 20% pay cut in order to help it along (though no one knows at what amount they started), the number still seemed far too high.  Of course, watching it makes the scale of the production clear, and the money seems to have been well spent on the elaborate train setup required for the impressive stunts, but the price tag still looms over the head of the film.

All of that is to say that while the filmmakers would have preferred the film to be judged on its own merits without influence from the other press about the film, the simple fact is that no movie exists in a vacuum.  These days, between the official press and the unofficial reports and rumors, almost nothing is a secret.  Look at the revelation of Khan as the villain in Star Trek Into Darkness.  The public was very aware of the backstory of the film’s production, and critics felt the need (justifiable or not) to address that in their reviews.  Ideally every film should be judged on its own qualities and faults, and I feel like that is what Bruckheimer meant when he said that reviewers would change their minds eventually.  I feel like, in time, people will come to think better of The Lone Ranger, once the memories of the story surrounding the movie fade until all that’s left is the movie itself.

However, the critics were just one small part of the larger picture with The Lone Ranger.  The budget and the production woes were widely reported to the public.  When you combine that with Johnny Depp portraying Tonto, the overall public opinion was extremely negative.  I’ve written a lot about his performance, so I won’t go into that, but it’s impossible to deny the outrage and confusion about the casting choice amongst the public.  People could accept Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger, but many expected to see him as the masked hero, not the Native American sidekick.  This, of course, was Depp’s idea/decision, but that was never sufficiently explained to the public.  Instead we got a virtual unknown in the “lead” role with Depp supporting.  Disney did a poor job selling this idea to the public.

The marketing in general was poor.  Early reviews focused on the violence of the film, which seemed at odds with the family-friendly nature of the trailers.  If anything, the trailers for The Lone Ranger made it seem lighter and more family-friendly than the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, when it is actually the opposite.  I don’t fault Disney for aiming for the widest audience, but it clearly backfired on them.  But the marketing mistakes don’t stop there.  The tone presented to the public was that of “Pirates of the Caribbean in the old west”, which felt odd to many people.  When combined with Depp’s “Jack Sparrow on a horse” performance, the film felt familiar enough to audiences that it lost its potential for excitement.  On the other hand, it wasn’t familiar enough to draw people out the way sequels do.  Instead it was in a no man’s land, unable to cash in on the feeling of the new or rely on nostalgia for the familiar.  This, for my money, is what doomed the film the most.

On top of all that is the public reception of Westerns.  Gone are the days when Westerns were one of the most popular genres.  The highest grossing Western of recent years is Django Unchained, which is hardly a traditional Western.  It made its money by cashing in on the reputation of Quentin Tarantino and its modern and hip spin on the genre.  It’s almost unfair to compare it to The Lone Ranger, as they have little in common other than time period and (partial) location.  In fact, the closest film to The Lone Ranger was Rango, which was made by many of the people involved with The Lone Ranger and was a critical and commercial success.  I can completely understand Disney’s confidence in taking that team and developing a live action Western adaptation of a beloved character.  After all, they single handedly revived the pirate genre, which had suffered a far worse public shaming than the Western ever had.  There was so much to be positive about for Disney, with a beloved character, a popular cast and crew, a unique idea among a summer of sequels and superheroes, and a classic style that’s been much missing from Hollywood lately.  They were of course right and wrong about all of that.  It’s all correct, but none of it was accepted by potential audiences.  If anything, The Lone Ranger is sure to kill the Western for the foreseeable future, relegating it to indies and offbeat spins for years.  It’s a shame for us Western fans out there.

So when you have a film that’s been poorly marketed, whose press has been dominated by its budget and behind-the-scenes troubles, which falls in a no man’s land where novelty and familiarity cancel each other out, set in a genre with a recent history of underperforming, all produced by a company and a group of filmmakers who are seen by some as too successful, that film is more vulnerable than most to the critics.  I feel like when there’s that much doubt about a movie before its release, people are much more likely to turn to and listen to the critics.  It’s the opposite of a “critic proof” movie.  So I do think the critics had a role to play, and I do feel that they were generally unfair to the movie (in some cases intentionally so, I believe).  But for Bruckheimer, Hammer and Depp to point the fingers at them is equally unfair.

Everyone behind this film is to blame for the film arriving at that point, for driving it to the edge of the cliff.  And if the critics were the especially heavy feather that tipped the scales, that’s unfortunately the way the system works.  As much as I see why Disney could have been optimistic about the film, I also can’t imagine that anything that happened was particularly unexpected by the time the film was finally released.  I’m sure they were all very proud of the film they created (and I personally think they should be), but you’d have to have the worlds strongest rose-colored glasses to ignore the grumblings that accompanied the film since its inception.

To me it’s very telling that the people I know who saw the movie all enjoyed it to varying levels.  It has a B+ Cinemascore rating from audience polling, which is not fantastic, but certainly not horrible.  But even if it had perfect word-of-mouth, I don’t think it could ever have climbed out of the hole it dug itself into.  With the prejudices, the bad blood, the media circus, the budget, the presentation and audience fatigue, it was inevitable.  The critics were certainly a problem for it, but they were the least of its problems.  And while I agree with Bruckheimer that years down the road opinions of the film will change, for the foreseeable future it will be known as a colossal failure.  At this point, pointing fingers at the critics will only make it worse.

What do you think?  Why did The Lone Ranger bomb so badly?  (It can’t simply be because “it’s a horrible film” because plenty of “horrible films” make boatloads of money.)  Did the critics have a part to play, no matter how small?  How petty does the complaining from the filmmakers sound?  Let me know in the comments!

22 thoughts on “The Lone Ranger, Critics and the Box Office

  1. I think it’s a bit of a clueless statement by Johnny Depp to say that it’s wrong to have expectations of this to be a blockbuster. When you pour $225 million into making a movie, it HAS to be a blockbuster or it will automatically fail. If you want to make a movie with few expectations, you make one for $50-70 million. I think Disney’s expectations got in the way of this movie.

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    • Yeah, I agree. Especially when you consider Disney’s statement that they will be focusing more on “tentpole” movies in a high risk/high reward strategy. I’m sure Disney expected a blockbuster, so I’m not sure why Depp didn’t.

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      • Perhaps Johnny Depp is a realist. He’s been in a wide variety of films, few of which have actually been blockbusters. I seem to remember reading something to the effect that he was relatively unknown to the general audience (not to us geeky types) until Pirates. Perhaps he was being modest, or just goes into projects as an artistic expression thing, because if you expect Success each time you will be terribly disappointed.

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  2. I had zero interest in the movie overall. The trailers that you mentioned were incredibly off-putting and I had the impression that it was, like you said, a cowboy “Pirates” or even an unfunny buddy comedy like “Shanghai Noon.” I also don’t like Armie Hammer who essentially played himself as twins in “The Social Network.” I will potentially rent the movie and if it’s not what I’m expecting then perhaps it’s halfway decent. You can sell me on Johnny Depp as a pirate, a modern-day gypsy, the groom of a corpse, or even Ed Wood, but as a Native American? C’mon, son!

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    • Weeeeeeeeeeellll, I actually liked Shanghai Noon. And Pirates. And Armie Hammer. Which is why there are lots of films out there, to appeal to all of us.

      Which brings me to the Hollywood mentality, and a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.” Abraham Lincoln. Hollywood wants to make lots of $$$ by pleasing all of the people all of the time and it’s impossible.

      And Native America is still peeved with Hollywood’s portrayal of them.

      Which brings me to: hopefully we can do something like the music and publishing industries, have more outlets for more independent filmmakers.

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  3. Yep, I think you pretty much summed it up. I loved the film (and, yes, I grew up with the Clay and Jay version, and yes I loved the Pirates films too, and yes, I do have taste, and yes, I care not what anyone thinks of my taste).

    I’ve hung out with Native people enough to realize what I don’t know, and my first reaction to (one of my favorite actors) Johnny Depp as Tonto was…!?!?!?!? Then I realized he has more Native blood than a number of people I’ve seen dancing at powwows. Whatever. I hope he can do some great things for the people who put their faith in him.

    I stopped listening to critics long ago, I think you have nailed the mindset multiple times. I do find rogerebert.com one of the most sensible.

    And your blog. Keep writing.

    I blathered on in an epic fashion here, about the mythic imagery in the film… after all, the Western is the American faerie tale; http://www.swordwhale.com/the-lone-ranger.html

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  4. Pingback: The Lone Ranger | iamnotlefthandedeither

  5. Well, damn, you pretty much covered every angle of this thing beautifully. The only thing I would add is that it seems highly likely that after Rum Diary and Dark Shadows and the kind of ret-conning of Alice for some people (i.e., I never liked that movie even though I saw it) has created an anti-Johnny Depp movement which contributed to the poor performance of The Lone Ranger.

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    • Thanks! I think you’re right, especially when you add in The Tourist. I enjoyed the alternate take on Alice, but Dark Shadows was a mess. I think the general public is just over Johnny Depp, particularly when it comes to playing odd characters that involve a lot of makeup. I guess we’ll see how true that is when Pirates 5 comes out in a couple years.
      Thanks for the comment and the compliment!

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  13. Great quote: “There is also a side of human nature that likes to root for underdogs while reveling in seeing the mighty knocked down a peg.”

    There is no doubt that many people didn’t see The Lone Ranger because it was criticized as being a racist film. We live in an age of political correctness.

    I believe that is is healthy and normal to laugh at racial stereotypes.

    I wrote a short essay on The Lone Ranger called “Laughing at Racial Stereotypes.” Feel free to post a comment and include a link back to your post: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/the-lone-ranger-2013/

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