Hollywood

Fear of Movie Duds Makes Disney Rethink 'Tentpoles'


Actor Johnny Depp, left, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer at a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presentation to promote The Lone Ranger

Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Actor Johnny Depp, left, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer at a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presentation to promote The Lone Ranger

The long and profitable partnership between Walt Disney (DIS) and producer Jerry Bruckheimer will end next year as the studio focuses on its franchise films and aims to limit the financial risks from flops. The news comes just days after Disney shuffled its film release calendar, delaying the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie produced by Bruckheimer, which had been scheduled for 2015.

One of Disney’s bigger failures this summer was a Bruckheimer production, The Lone Ranger, which is expected to yield a loss of as much as $190 million for the company. Starring Johnny Depp, the Western cost $215 million to make and earned $244.8 million globally, according to Box Office Mojo. Its budget does not include the millions Disney spent to market the film.

That experience, coupled with the steep budgets of the Pirates movies, appears to have set Disney on a more financially conservative path as it works to exploit its Lucasfilm and Marvel Entertainment acquisitions for their existing franchises. The strategy seems to be steering Disney away from the big-budget, wide-release “tentpole” movies that can deliver huge box-office numbers or blow up badly on a studio if audiences don’t respond. Toy Story and Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, provided years of returns after spawning sequels; big-budget bust John Carter did not. Disney took a $200 million bath on that picture in 2012.

“I think we’ve also learned that there needs to be a cap on tentpole nonfranchise movies,” Jay Rasulo, Disney’s chief financial officer, said earlier this month at an investors’ conference. “We need to cap those at a level that allows us to experience good economics and doesn’t quite put as much at risk.” Rasulo laid out the studio’s annual film strategy: two movies from Marvel, a Star Wars film, one from Disney Animation, one or two from Pixar, up to three “live-action tentpole movies,” and a few others described as nontentpole live-action films.

For his part, “Bruckheimer is looking to produce more mature films outside the scope of the Disney brand,” according to a joint statement from the producer and Disney. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bruckheimer said his recent box-office debacle was not a factor in the split. “It’s not about Lone Ranger. It’s more about the types of movies Disney is making and the types of movies we want to make, in addition to Pirates,” he said. He also noted the $10 billion box-office record his films have amassed at Disney.

Bruckheimer and Disney still plan future releases of National Treasure, the Nicolas Cage live-action vehicle, and installments of the Pirates movie.

Disney is revamping its film slate for the next few years, a move that will leave Pixar Animation without a release next year. The Good Dinosaur, a film about life on earth if humans and dinosaurs coexisted, was pushed from May 2014 to November 2015 and the same weekend that had been planned for the Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory.

Pixar removed The Good Dinosaur‘s director last month, seeking a new direction for the film. Disney also moved the fairy tale Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, up by two months, to May 2014. “Nobody ever remembers the fact that you slipped a film, but they will remember a bad film,” Pixar President Ed Catmull told the Los Angeles Times.

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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