The Magazine

Is Hollywood Broken?

The problem is bigger than one ‘legendary flop.’

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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By now, it no longer matters that the new version of The Lone Ranger is a remarkably entertaining, amusing, and exhilarating romp—not to mention eye-poppingly beautiful. In contrast to every other big-ticket film of the past five years, The Lone Ranger doesn’t exhaust you by the time the final action sequence sets in. Instead, its final 20 minutes feature a chase scene in which the villains and the good guys leap back and forth across two speeding trains, and the whole shooting match is one of the damndest things I’ve ever seen.

What’s more, Armie Hammer (as the title character) and Johnny Depp (as the wise Indian sidekick Tonto) manage to pull off that rare buddy-film combination of being consistently funny and believably tough. Depp, in particular, does something entirely new and hilarious with his part: His monotone voice and calm body reflect Tonto’s stolidity and patience, but his wildly expressive eyes betray every possible emotion. 

Even though it’s full of tiresome piety toward Native Americans and gibes about the injustices of capitalism, The Lone Ranger is a truly refreshing riposte to the undercharged and overdone superhero movie.

But it was all for naught. The Lone Ranger is a financial disaster of epic proportions. It cost $225 million to make, another $175 million to market, and, because of revenue-splitting with theaters, must earn $800 million worldwide for the studio to break even. It will be lucky to make half that. Fancy that: a consumer product that grosses $400 million, and is still a catastrophe. The gleeful obituaries that began to be written only hours after the movie opened on July 3 suggest The Lone Ranger may be the kind of legendary flop that ends up reshuffling the cards in Hollywood.

Numbers like these do seem to induce an automatic revulsion in all of us, a revulsion for which a moment’s reflection suggests there is really little justification. It’s not our money, after all, and if investors and stockholders don’t mind studio executives making damn-fool decisions, why should we? It’s not as though that $400 million would go to the poor; it would just be poured into a few other projects that would likely be worse than The Lone Ranger

So why the tap-dancing on The Lone Ranger’s grave?

Some of this comes from people inside the entertainment industry who don’t want to make the kinds of movies the studios now want to make and feel as though they’ve been rendered obsolete. Lynda Obst, whose chief claim to fame is having produced Nora Ephron’s best movies, has just written a whiny book on the subject called Sleepless in Hollywood. According to Obst, Hollywood is broken because it no longer has the market in DVD sales it once had and must now rely on foreign markets for added revenue—foreign markets where fantasy and action sell and clever dialogue doesn’t. The problem with Obst’s complaint is that she seems to think it’s terrible that she wouldn’t be able to make How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days today, when that horribly witless pseudo-comedy should never have been made in the first place. 

Obst and others accuse the studios of being risk-averse for avoiding mid-priced movies for adults. But in truth, studios like Disney are driven to insanely risky investments, of which The Lone Ranger is only one of two dozen this summer. If the bet pays off, as it did with Depp’s horrible Alice in Wonderland (worldwide gross:
$1.2 billion), the studio executives look like geniuses. And if it doesn’t—well, then they’re guilty only of following the same model everybody else in the industry is following.

So nothing will change, because there’s no reason for anything to change. And Obst is wrong, anyway, because there are plenty of new-fangled versions of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: Somewhat modestly budgeted hits like the $43 million female buddy-cop movie The Heat and the dreadful $32 million horror comedy This Is the End have both earned around $90 million already and will prove highly profitable. 

What will end is the weird effort to find a pre-sold title from the ruins of pop culture. Disney has embarrassed itself not only with The Lone Ranger, best known as a radio program 80 years ago, but also with John Carter, a movie based on a series of deservedly little-known pulp novels published in the 1920s. Two years ago, another radio character, the Green Hornet—who was actually supposed to be the Lone Ranger’s nephew!—was the subject of a major failure. So, too, Battleship, which was, God help us, based on a board game.

In her book, Obst concludes that the system in Hollywood doesn’t work any longer, and that it will all come crashing down. Steven Spielberg said the same thing a month ago. Though they claim the problem is with the financial model, it really isn’t. Their distress is over something else: the fact that movies have lost their sexiness, their power, their position at the red-hot center of popular culture. Television is better now, and it kills them that television is better. And it should.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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