Uncertainty Clouds the Future of The Lone Ranger In China

According to a July 5th, 2013 report in TheWrap, a mid-July promotional trip - that would have had Lone Ranger stars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, as well as producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, in China - has been scrapped.

With July 4th box office numbers in English-speaking North America a huge disappointment, Disney might naturally look to China (the world's second biggest theatrical market - and rising) to recoup The Lone Ranger.

But SARFT (the branch of government that administers the People's Republic of China's movie theaters) has not yet committed to a release date for mainland China.

Without a clear glide path to touchdown in China - the marketing folks at Disney are apparently not willing to commit more marketing money and risk squandering the promotional power of Johnny Depp right now.

"A studio spokesman confirmed that the July 15 trip had been moved, and issued the following statement to TheWrap: "As part of their promotional activities for 'The Lone Ranger,' Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer plan to visit China in early September closer to an expected release date.""

As with all Hollywood films looking to China, getting on the list of 34 non-Chinese films eligible for distribution in Chinese theaters in 2013 is the first challenge.  But - even after that victory has been won - Hollywood producers still have to run the Chinese distribution gauntlet: Hoping to get a good opening weekend (e.g., free from major local competition), the right promotion and the right mix of theaters in the first, second and third-tier cities.

For an industry built on clever marketing and the power that comes with spending vast amounts on a push that crests over one weekend - the increasingly important prize of box-office success in China remains frustratingly elusive for Hollywood execs.

US-based studio bosses are familiar with certain types of uncertainty - but not knowing when your tentpole film will be released (to what will soon be the world's biggest audience) or how to marshal your unquestioned access to the popular media to market your film - that's just crazy.

The production expenses that Disney lavished on The Lone Ranger (rumored to be north of $200 million) always represented a huge gamble.

Now we know that Disney's bet hasn't paid off in US theaters.

Anyone who's made their living in Hollywood, knows the disappointment that follows a weekend flop.

But The Lone Ranger's stumble is big enough to send career-changing shockwaves through the system.

For some Mouse House executives, the Monday morning drive into Burbank will be tinged with dread - foreshadowed by holiday weekend phone calls from over-qualified minions (ironically, "minions" were apparently the key to Universal Studio's box office success this July 4th) about empty theaters and rotten word-of-mouth.

The Monday meetings at Disney will include tense discussions about how to maximize revenue in secondary markets.

Yes, China is growing in importance to the studios and represents (potentially) a big pay-out.  But the recent history of US blockbusters in China suggests the studios haven't yet figured out how to pull the levers so that the Chinese movie business money-machine pays out reliably for Hollywood fare.

UPDATE July 10th, 2013:  A July 9th, 2013 LA Times article by Dawn C. Chmielewski and Steven Zeitchik (in addition to predicting how Disney will apply the lessons of The Lone Ranger: i.e., "likely to reinforce its resolve to double down on less risky sequels and lower its spending on original live-action films") contains the following nugget: "Shaoyi Sun, professor of film at Shanghai University's School of Film-Television, said in an email that Chinese audiences have supported homegrown westerns such as the 1991 Mandarin-language hit "Swordsman in Double-Flag Town," but the Hollywood genre remains less familiar. "Many of them know of John Wayne," Sun said, "but it is hard to say there is an enthusiastic audience base in China for westerns.""

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