Why is The Lone Ranger’s budget so high?

As new pictures from the set of The Lone Ranger emerge, we wonder why it’s costing an estimated $250 million to make…

Yesterday, some new pictures from the set of Disney’s The Lone Ranger appeared, which you can find dotted around this very page. By now, I’ve looked at each one closely, and at length. If my printer hadn’t run out of ink, I probably would have printed them out and held them up to the light. But so far, I’ve yet to discover the answer to a small yet nagging mystery: why is this adaptation of an old cowboy show costing Disney such an extraordinary amount of money to make?

The Lone Ranger began as a radio show in the 1930s, and was then a hit TV show that lasted from 1949 to 1957. In it, a masked Texas ranger (played by Clayton Moore on the television) rode around on a horse named Silver and maintained order in the Old West. He was joined in his efforts by a native American named Tonto, most memorably played by Jay Silverheels. 

The Lone Ranger’s popularity continued to endure after the series ended, and various spin-off movies have appeared sporadically since, culminating in Disney’s forthcoming revival, which after years in development hell, is due out next year with director Gore Verbinski at the helm.

Verbinski, of course, enjoyed huge success with the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, and Disney no doubt hopes to recapture a similarly wide audience with The Lone Ranger. Armie Hammer will star as the Ranger himself, while Johnny Depp will play his sidekick Tonto. William Fichtner, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper and Helena Bonham Carter will round out the impressive cast.

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Now admittedly, a movie with a cast like that won’t necessarily be cheap to make, and if the script has lots of epic battle sequences written into it, those would push the budget up, too. The Lone Ranger, however, is rumoured to have a budget of around $250 million – a figure which would place it somewhere fairly high in the top 10 list of the most expensive movies ever made. 

Disney had attempted to reign in the film’s budget in the past. Last August, the movie was briefly shelved, partly due to disagreements over how much it was costing to produce. With this in mind, The Lone Ranger’s makers agreed to trim some action scenes and reduce their upfront fees in order to reduce the budget to $215 million.

One early version of the script, written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, also had supernatural undertones to it. To cut down the effects budget, that screenplay has since been reworked by Justin Haythe, who ditched its spookier undertones, including some ghostly coyotes and a demon that turned victims into cannibals.

More recently, however, it’s been rumoured that the budget has risen again, following delays and set damage caused by dust storms – these setbacks have, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s sources, put the budget back up to $250 million. 

The irony is that The Lone Ranger is based on a frugal show, that itself sat in a genre once prized for its cost-effectiveness; most episodes of the old TV show consisted of little more than a few character actors, some sets and a horse. Verbinski, it seems, is hoping to do for the Western what he did for the swashbuckling pirate movie, and turn The Lone Ranger into the kind of multimedia blockbuster that breaks a billion dollars and launches lots of sequels. 

Verbinski’s no stranger to making expensive films either, with Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End currently standing proudly at the top of the pricey films league table – the 2007 sequel cost an estimated $300 million to produce, having been shot back-to-back with Dead Man’s Chest, which cost an estimated $225 million. (Other estimates put the combined cost of these two movies at a slightly more modest $450 million.) 

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Whatever your thoughts are on the creative merits of those films, you could certainly see where some of the money went – they were full of expensive locations, big boats (both real and computer-generated) sea monsters, and glossy special effects, including Bill Nighy with lots of tentacles all over his face.

The Lone Ranger isn’t alone with its wallet-busting production – the budgets of Hollywood movies in general have continued to climb in recent years, with Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince, Spider-Man 3, Tangled and John Carter all recent examples of movies that have apparently crossed over the quarter of a billion budget threshold. 

Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin, meanwhile, is another instance of a potentially cheap genre (the samurai movie) which has been spun out into a fantastical and expensive enterprise – according to current estimates, this lavish Universal movie, which contains all kinds of witches and monsters, has run up a budget of $225 million.

Oddly, the images released from the set of The Lone Ranger so far look quite modest. Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp look the part, with Depp looking set to bring us another eccentric performance as Tonto, complete with a stuffed bird on his head. There’s a picture looking down over a spectacular canyon, while another shows two men riding horses against an amber sky. Still another sees dozens of extras crowding around a train – the only hint at the scope we’ll surely get from the finished film. 

Admittedly, it’s still early days for The Lone Ranger, and we’ll only really know what to expect from the film once the first trailer comes out, presumably later this year. Has all that money been spent on epic battles with hundreds of extras? Was it poured into building colossal towns and settlements? Or was it blown on lots of computer effects, designed to bring to life some fantastical elements still in the script? Will it prove to be a mixture of all of these?

Disney has a lot riding on The Lone Ranger, but with Verbinski and Depp’s collaborations proving so successful in the past – see the Pirates movies and the wonderful Rango – not to mention the producing might of Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie has every possibility of becoming the hit the studio is looking for.

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“It’s out of control,” an anonymous source told THR. “But if you were going to bet on anyone, it would be on Gore, Johnny and Jerry.”

The Hollywood Reporter

First Showing

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