The Lone Ranger, critics, and schadenfreude

Are we increasingly willing certain big-budget movies to fail before they're even released? Simon takes a look at a growing phenomenon...

You don’t have to look far at the moment to see the wide reporting of The Lone Ranger’s financial performance. According to a conference call with Disney’s head honcho Bob Iger, the film will mean a write off of around $190m for the studio. That’s not a loss: it’ll claw some of that back over time, but there’s nonetheless a clear and present impact on this financial year’s balance sheet. It’s equally clear that The Lone Ranger has proven to be a sizeable financial disappointment for Disney. If it sees profit, it won’t be for a very, very long time.

But just look at the language being used to describe it. It’s a “disaster”, a “turkey” and a “mega-flop”. There’s clearly some credence to this. It’s a film that cost an awful lot of money to make, and the brutal truth is that Disney isn’t going to make that back. Is it a “mega-flop”? Well, ahead of its UK release this week, it’s currently taken $175m worldwide, off a production budget that was reportedly in the $215m range. Add marketing costs, distribution, various people’s cuts… well, you don’t need to be an Olympic-class Excel wielder to work out the basic maths. Time may prove it more disappointment than a disaster, but it’s clear nonetheless that any work on the sequel script can cease forthwith.


Jerry Bruckheimer has caused some ripples in an interview he gave with Yahoo!, where he seemed to pin the blame for the film’s financial disappointment on critics. He said similar to me when I interviewed him a week or two back, saying of US critics that “one or two critics in the States will be the lead, and be very critical of the movie. And a lot of them will just follow along, they’re afraid to go against the main critics”.

That’s a whole argument in itself, of course. The role of a movie critic is to go into a screening and concentrate their energies on the film itself. If they like the film, they say so, if they don’t, they say so. I’d argue that the vast majority of critics do work by this principle. It’d be remiss to dismiss Bruckheimer’s argument altogether – there are one or two critics who, let’s just say, do the rest no favours. But were they responsible for The Lone Ranger’s performance? No.

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Perhaps there’s a stronger argument that the broader movie reporting world – outside of film-specific websites and publications – had a part to play, though. Because, in truth, a large proportion of The Lone Ranger coverage in some places seems to have talked about everything but the film. Going back to Bruckheimer, there’s a point he made to me that I fully agree with: “I think there are certain segments of the media that are angry and like to see failure, and encourages it”. I think the history of reporting of The Lone Ranger bears this out.

The Lone Ranger

Cards on the table: I liked, but didn’t love, The Lone Ranger. It’s too long, but has some brilliant sequences. It’s tonally uneven, yet at its best a glorious big screen spectacle, with a commitment to doing as much as possible practically rather than on a computer. I like that a lot. It was always a risky project – a big budget western, effectively, going against sequels and comic book movies – but the delight some are taking in its commercial performance is somewhat baffling.

Because what do we, as movie fans, want? Don’t we want someone to gamble lots of money on something like this?

Whether you warmed to The Lone Ranger or not, it was something different, something ambitious, and something that bucked the trend a little. While loosely based on the television show of the same name, it’s still close to an original movie in a summer where sequels and comic book movies have, again, taken precedence. On days when articles aren’t jumping up and down on The Lone Ranger, there’s every chance you’ll find complaints about the dominance of major franchises on big budget cinema. When something comes along that offers something different? Well, the heavy arsenal appears locked and loaded.

I like a lot of sequels, and I love a lot of comic book movies. But I also like having a good, broad choice when it comes to a night out watching a blockbuster movie. The ramifications of The Lone Ranger’s box office takings, and the delight some have taken in shooting it down, will be felt. They can’t not be. When do you think the next time we’ll see such an expensive western on the big screen? It might just be that the chance has gone for a generation now. If The Lone Ranger had been better – and I’m not avoiding this – it would have helped. But even then, had too many people made their mind up after two years of less than positive coverage?

Box office

Some of Kevin Smith’s thoughts over the years have proven as divisive as Bruckheimer’s, but I do recall one particular comment that he made. And, to paraphrase, he said that we, on our side of the fence, shouldn’t worry about box office numbers and budgets. We pay the same price whether a film cost $1m to make or $300m. Our job is to go and have a worthwhile time out at the movies.

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I don’t entirely agree with him, but his point is still a strong one. A movie fan is going to care about box office takings, because we know that it’ll have an impact. We know that when Dredd‘s box office numbers are low, that it doesn’t just impact on the chances of Dredd 2, but it also has consequences for those trying to get R-rated comic book movies funded.

However, it does feel in some quarters as if box office takings have become the most important thing. The Lone Ranger turns up in the UK this week, against an avalanche of publicity about the film’s commercial performance, rather than a judgement of the movie itself. And heck, most of us could list a long stream of box office disappointments that we dearly wished we’d seen on the big screen while we had the chance. Chances are that many who go on to enjoy The Lone Ranger will now discover it on disc. That’d be a pity. For all its problems, this is a massive, big screen spectacle, that should be seen on one.

The Schadenfreude question

The broader question that Jerry Bruckheimer felt around but didn’t hit was if the press – and not just the movie press – and social networking has resulted in a culture of schadenfreude. That it’s somehow fun, a kind of sport to see big projects fail, to the point where many seem to be willing them to do so, and then taking delight as they fall. We’ve seen countless examples. Many were content to declare John Carter a disaster before they’d seen it just last year, and the prophecy became self-fulfilling to a degree (again, appreciating that some don’t like the film at all). The word “flop” is attached to films, simply based on box office takings, rather than other factors like profitability.

That in itself hints at the degree of misunderstanding at work. Waterworld is routinely dismissed as a box office disaster when it actually turned in a profit. On the flipside, Pacific Rim’s non-US box office take is going to outright save the film, whereas the reality there is that a lower proportion of the non-US take ends up in Warner Bros’ coffers.

It’s not just about willing projects to fail. There appears to be a willingness to make up inaccurate facts to support said desire.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of good movie websites and magazines willing to see beyond the spreadsheets and keep their gaze on the screen. But movies are big business, and big news. The sad fact seems to be that a failure generates more headlines than success, and whilst that’s not exclusive to film, the schadenfreude issue does seem more pronounced here.

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In the conference call where Disney confirmed it was expecting a massive write-down on The Lone Ranger, it was telling that it also teased more Marvel films. I’m not going to resist more Marvel films, but that’s cause and effect right there. Marvel films are a safer bet than big budget westerns, in the same way that Grown Ups 2 was a safer bet than Pacific Rim. Personally, I’d like big, bold, practical, non-franchise movies to sit alongside CG-dominated blockbusters. But if we’re going to shoot down anything that goes against the norm, without seeing it first, then that’s not a status quo that’s sustainable.

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