George Lucas and Steven Spielberg recently took part in a symposium in which they predicted an imminent “implosion” in the system as a result of the industry’s current obsession with blockbuster movies. Curious about whether or not this was simply exaggeration, Vulture’s David Edelstein got in contact with producer Lynda Obst, author of a new book titled Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales From the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. During their conversation, she grimly agreed with the two moguls, predicting, “If, say, four huge tentpole [movies] were to go down at the same time in the same season, it would be catastrophic.”
The Lone Ranger — a.k.a. Pirates of the Caribbean 4.5: Sparrow Goes West — is looking like it might be a huge tentpole movie (it reportedly cost $215-250 million) that goes down this weekend. It also happens to be a perfect example of almost everything that’s wrong with the current Hollywood blockbuster system. In addition to being massively expensive, The Lone Ranger demonstrates the industry’s franchise obsession, origin-story laziness, over-reliance on bloodless violence, and inability to prevent running-time bloat. These are not small problems, and there is no sign that they will be riding off into the sunset anytime soon.
1. The Franchise Problem
Last November, shortly after it was announced that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm and would make a new Star Wars trilogy, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan posited that we were entering a phase in which we would begin to see films from the same franchises over and over and over. That’s because, as Obst writes in her book, studios need movies with “pre-awareness” — titles that are familiar enough to sell in both the U.S. and abroad. Whether it’s ready-made properties like Star Wars or surprise hits that studios can then sequelize until the properties burn out (see the Hangover series), franchises are, and will continue to be, the name of the game. Each studio has its own set of titles: Disney is basically a franchise machine these days — the studio is now in charge of the Star Wars, Marvel, Muppets, and Pixar brands; Paramount has Star Trek and Mission: Impossible; Fox has Ice Age, Planet of the Apes, and the X-Men films; Warner Bros. has Batman, Superman, and the Lord of the Rings series; Universal has the Bourne movies and the hit Fast and Furious series; Sony has Spider-Man.
But in addition to all those very recognizable properties, there is pressure to expand and find more. As a result, studios will glom on to practically anything that is even vaguely recognizable (hello, Battleship!), preferably one with a title that is the name of a person or a cartoon or a superhero. Disney tried this last year with John Carter and failed. Questions of quality aside (the film’s Metacritic score is split almost down the middle at 51 percent), John Carter was simply rejected by audiences. That might have to do with the fact that few were likely familiar or interested in a movie about a character from an early 20th century series of sci-fi adventure novels. The year before, Seth Rogen starred in director Michel Gondry’s film version of The Green Hornet, another pulp-era hero (the character is actually the grand-nephew of the Lone Ranger) who audiences had no interest in getting to learn about. In the mid-nineties, two films with similar comic strip/old-time radio heroes — The Phantom and The Shadow — were equally unsuccessful. Yet, as studios continue to plumb our pop culture past for any recognizable names that have yet to be made into a movie/potential franchise, we’re likely so see more films along these lines. (Even if The Lone Ranger flops, Hollywood has not been known to always learn from its mistakes.)
2. The Origin-Story Problem
This is a corollary to point number one. Don’t be fooled by the title. The Lone Ranger is as much a movie about sidekick Tonto as it is about the titular masked man. It’s a choice that makes sense, given that the Native American is played by Johnny Depp in full, mugging Jack Sparrow mode. You don’t pay Johnny Depp money and then shunt him to the side. As a result, the movie must make its way through not just one, but a pair of origin stories, as we learn both how lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) became the masked avenger as well as how face-painted, dead-bird–wearing Tonto became the wandering outcast of this version. The Lone Ranger spends a good chunk of time marking off origin-story checklist items and very little time on the actual lone ranging. But, if you’re going to try to establish a franchise, the origin story must be told, especially with a character as obscure to current audiences as the Lone Ranger. As a result, there’s a heavy sense of obligation and Catch-22-ness to the entire task. Here’s a suggestion, Hollywood — try starting a series in media res. Give us a story that works and then, if you’re lucky enough to earn a sequel, you can give us flashes of an origin tale down the road, as opposed to weighing down your first movie.
3. The Rating Problem
The modern blockbuster’s primary responsibility is to deliver maximum profits and to perpetuate franchises. According to Obst, “If you make a movie that makes $200 million and you can’t make a sequel out of it, it's a dead property.” So in order to ensure sequels and appeal to the maximum number of people, it must be rated PG or PG-13. Good luck finding an R-rated summer blockbuster. By and large, raunchy comedies, like last month’s This Is the End or last summer’s Ted, are where the R-rating is to be found. Yet, in The Lone Ranger, an ostensibly family-friendly PG-13 movie, the following things happen: A man eats another man’s heart (off-screen), a Native American tribe is massacred, a group of Texas Rangers are all loudly shot to death, two men have their heads crushed by a giant block of wood. All these things happen and there is nary a drop of blood to be seen. The film shows us death and gun violence but brushes aside any sense of consequence. The same thing could be said about Man of Steel’s blasé destruction of an entire city or World War Z’s gore-free zombie apocalypse. Specifically to Lone Ranger, though, it’s likely why many negative reviews have focused on — as Vulture’s David Edelstein wrote in his review, in which he discusses its leaps between silliness and sadism — the movie’s wildly inconsistent “tone.” What that really means is that the Lone Ranger is trying to have it both ways, like many summer blockbusters, when it’s actually not possible.
4. The Length Problem
The modern blockbuster suffers from a bloat problem, a bagginess problem. Two-hour plus running times have long been a calling card of fall/Christmas releases. Last year, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, The Hobbit, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty all fell between two and a half and three hours in length. The modern summer blockbuster is slowly but surely following that example. The Lone Ranger is two and a half hours long. Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3 and Fast and Furious 6 all fall at about two hours and ten minutes while Man of Steel clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. Last summer’s two biggest movies, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, came in at two hours, 23 minutes and two hours, 45 minutes, respectively. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies — summer releases all and featuring the same star, producer and director as The Lone Ranger — run anywhere from two hours, sixteen minutes to nearly three hours.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with long movies, of course. Roger Ebert once said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” But it’s hard to argue that summer blockbusters, as entertaining as the best ones can be, deserve to be as long as the generally more substantive fare of Oscar season. Do studios feel that, with less people going to theaters these days, movies need to be lengthy in order for a moviegoer to feel justified in spending both their time and money? It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving The Lone Ranger saying, “that movie was neither too long nor too short — it was just right!”
As of Thursday night, The Lone Ranger was projected to gross $45 million over the five-day Fourth of July weekend. (About a month ago, the Ethan Hawke horror movie The Purge made only $10 million less than that in its non-holiday debut weekend.) It has been critically panned, notching a 24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 37 percent on Metacritic, and ever since production was halted to bring the budget down, the industry press has had its knives out. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the damned film. It’s a product of a system stuck in neutral. Hollywood happened to The Lone Ranger, not the other way around.