Disney’s new Lone Ranger film starring Johnny Depp is a monumental bust. After spending $375 million in production and marketing, Disney saw opening weekend earnings of only $48.9 million, meaning it will lose at least $100 million on the project. Many films lose money, but Disney’s mammoth investment in a western originally based on traditional racial stereotypes—a white man with an honorable but terse Native American sidekick—speaks volumes to Hollywood’s current disconnection from real-life concerns.
This is not about major American films providing audiences with a way to escape daily realities during tough times; rather, it is the movie industry's refusal to confront real life problems in a comedic, dramatic, romantic, or even action-oriented way. If the Lone Ranger really wants to ride to the rescue as its namesake promises, its failure should cause the film industry to change course.
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, I realize that the failure of the new Lone Ranger film “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” But Disney’s staggering miscalculation—it still holds out hope for ticket sales from “older consumers, who remember the property fondly and don’t have a lot of movies aimed at them in the weeks ahead”—is an extraordinary testament to the film industry’s flight from the realities of contemporary life.
If Disney wanted to make a film addressing and subverting racial stereotypes—which some argue the Lone Ranger tried and failed to do—it could have produced a movie set in the present. But Disney instead thought an “older” audience—the GOP voter base?—hungered to return to the Lone Ranger’s America, which for at least two hours would bring the “good old days” to life.
(Disney also saw the Lone Ranger as reassembling the successful team behind the Pirates and the Caribbeanfranchise. But if studio execs did not see the enormous distinction between these two commodities then Disney is even more out of touch than thought).
Of the top ten box office winners this past weekend, none addressed real world social or personal issues. And in the second ten, only Before Midnight addresses such concerns.
Many were absolutely enthralled with Before Midnight, believing it the best of the series (following Before Sunrise and Before Sunset). Critics and viewers seem awestruck that a 2013 film actually grapples with real life concerns in a realistic way.
If Disney wants to attract the “older consumers” for which it made the Lone Ranger, it might learn from Before Midnight’s success. Audiences have long enjoyed seeing recognizable, real world film characters facing the problems of modern life, whether in comedies, romances, dramas, or action pictures. It’s only in the past decade where cartoons, the supernatural and special effects masquerading as films have completely dominated major studio productions.
Preston Sturges showed in his 1941 classic, Sullivan’s Travels, that tough times like the present do not require humorless films on serious subject matter. But major studios in 2013 are not even giving audiences the chance to laugh at modern life realities. When they make comedies that purport to satirize real life—like The Internship, Vince Vaughn’s and Owen Wilson’s embarrassing advertisement for Google, it is so detached from reality that it would have worked better if set on another planet.
Harold Lloyd’s America
If you want to see how far American films have moved in the wrong direction, check out Harold Lloyd’s Speedy, a silent film that came out in 1928. Although Lloyd is best known for Safety Last, Speedy is a remarkable film that holds up perfectly today.
Unlike Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd never tried to “send a message” with his films. All he cared about was attracting audiences, yet Speedy provides an extraordinarily accurate depiction of life in New York City and much of the United States in 1928.
Speedy includes all of the themes of modern life—greed, inequality, love, romance, sports fan zealotry, and the daily travails of working people—rarely found in a single film today. The film’s many chase scenes lack the pyrotechnics of the computer era but will still excite audiences.
Like today’s major filmmakers, Lloyd also sought to draw an international audience. Yet he did so by portraying universal themes, rather than by explosions, mass killings or unrealistic plot devices.
American moviegoers should not have to wait until the December holiday season to see real world films. If its colossal failure causes Disney and other major studios to reevaluate their movie plans, then the Lone Ranger will indeed have come to the rescue.
Wednesday, 10 July 2013