LOS ANGELES -- On paper and in the marketing blitz that preceded its leaden debut Wednesday, The Lone Ranger had the trappings of a runaway hit.
By the end of Wednesday, the $225 million film was off the rails. The Johnny Depp vehicle earned an abysmal $29 million through July Fourth and finished the usually lucrative holiday weekend with $49 million.
Disney did not respond to interview requests Monday, but it noted in a release Sunday that the film earned a B+ from CinemaScore (which measures audience appeal) and collected $25 million overseas in less than a third of the international markets, suggesting the film could still recoup its production budget.
But box-office analysts, who had expected Lone Ranger's numbers to be twice what they were, say a risky genre, a waning star and studio hubris left the creative team behind Pirates of the Caribbean holding what probably will be one of the year's more staggering flops.
In addition to Despicable Me 2's astonishing debut at $89 million, observers point to several warnings that Ranger was doomed from the gate:
• Westerns misfire. The genre is one of the industry's most obscure, accounting for less than 1% of ticket sales since 1975, according to data from the-numbers.com. And the landscape is littered with Western turkeys, including the Will Smith adventure Wild Wild West, which cost $170 million and corralled just $114 million in 1999; and the $160 million Cowboys & Aliens,which took in $100 million in 2011.
"Disney chose not to heed this lesson," says John Hamann of boxofficeprophets.com. "Instead, they spent a lot more for a similar result."
Steep production costs jacked expectations, and the budget seemed "a lot for a Western based on a character that probably reached the height of his popularity over 50 years ago," says Ray Subers of boxofficemojo.com.
• Stars are fading. This is just the latest weekend when an A-list star's film was crushed by a cartoon. Monsters University made mincemeat of Brad Pitt's World War Z, which actually had a strong debut June 21 by falling just $16 million short of the Pixar sequel. A week later, Monsters shot down Melissa McCarthy's strong entry in The Heat, which also had to settle for the silver medal. And let's not forget spring animation, when The Croods' $185 million trounced big-budget films from Tom Cruise (Oblivion, $89 million) and Will Smith (After Earth, $58 million).
"Concepts are winning out over celebrities," says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "The stars still drive business, but not like a fresh idea."
• Disney lives by the sword. No studio has rolled the dice and lost as big as Disney in recent years. The Mouse House released the $150 million animated disasterMars Needs Momsin 2011, which crash-landed at $21 million. Last year, Disney released the $250 million sci-fi flopJohn Carter, which struggled to $73 million.
Of course, the studio has had huge summer hits in Iron Man 3 ($406 million) and Monsters University ($216 million so far).
Bock expects the Ranger train wreck to stifle Westerns, but not big-budget studio gambles. "Sorry for this," he says, "but the Western is in a pine box for a while."
As for the industry, "if there's one studio that can absorb a flop, it's Disney," Bock says. "Its Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars properties will absorb any loss. They gamble big. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. This time they lost."
Scott Bowles, USA TODAY