Movie Talk

Has Disney Lost Its Movie Magic?

Movie Talk

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'John Carter' and 'The Lone Ranger' get dubious Disney distinctions (Photo: Walt Disney Company)

Following its disappointing opening weekend, "The Lone Ranger" continues to drastically underperform at the box office. It's a bomb that could cost Disney roughly $190 million once the dust settles.

But the masked man isn't alone in Disney's dunces corner. Last year the epic-sized "John Carter," went $200 million in the red. Add to that 2011's "Mars Needs Moms" and 2010's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" — were both major misses for Disney (see list below). The list of attempts to create gigantic franchise hit machines that died in the cradles with their first film now stretches out a mile long — "Haunted Mansion," "Country Bears," and "Prince of Persia" to name a few.

[Related: 'Lone Ranger' Takeaway: Disney, Forget Original Franchises]

So has Disney lost that special spirit that made its name almost synonymous with feel good, family entertainment for so long? Has Tinkerbell's fairy dust blown away from the movie studio?

Yes and no. Disney has done well with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "National Treasure" series (the latter of which oddly had only two installments), but the majority of their critical and commercial successes over the past several years have mostly come from films released through Pixar and Marvel Studios, two companies the Mouse House acquired; purchases that Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com calls "two of the best corporate decisions ever made." While they may not bear the Disney label, the profits for this year's hit "Monsters University" and last year's smash "The Avengers" go into the same pockets.

[Related: Did Hollywood Copycat Syndrome Doom 'White House Down'?]

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'Avengers' is arguably an outsourced success for Disney (Photo: Marvel/Disney)

Ultimately having creative output over several different banners is pretty common across all movie studios, not just Disney. "If you look at any of the studios today, they're releasing 12 or 15 pictures a year through various production companies, though the studios themselves are probably only looking at four or five," says box-office analyst Leonard Klady at MovieCityNews.com. "Studios are more banks than anything else," he adds.

Even if Disney's own house brand itself might not always be as successful or "creative" as, say, Pixar or Marvel, it ultimately might not matter because ... well, Disney is Disney, whether it shares a logo with another company during the opening credits or not. "The Disney brand isn't being compromised or going into the background — it's essentially evolved and reached a new level," says Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. "Maybe in-house 'Disney movies' aren't doing as well as 'Iron Man,' but it doesn't really matter. It's all Disney and it's all good."

The situation with Warner Bros. pictures, Klady points out, isn't that different than Disney's. "Jerry Bruckheimer Productions provides them with around three pictures a year, and most of them make money."

[Related: A Little Depp'll Do Ya! See Tonto and Jack Sparrow Sniff Each Other Out]

Contrino also points out that while Disney might see more profits from, say, merchandise than box office, that's kind of putting the chicken before the egg. "They can't do that unless they first make a movie that merchandise comes from ... People aren't going to buy toys if they didn't first fall in love with the movie characters those toys are based on."

While the fact remains that Disney's own creations are a long way from a sure bet these days, the company's name has retained its luster. "There isn't a better brand in movies," Klady says. "They have some peculiarities that other studios don't have, but nothing's going to put them in financial jeopardy."

Peculiarities like "The Lone Ranger," which Klady describes as the "train wreck" that came from a production where "no one was quite sure what they were making." But Dergarabedian believes "The Lone Ranger" is actually proof that there's still a lot of creative chutzpah going on at Disney. "Give them credit — Disney went for it with 'The Lone Ranger,'" he says. "They swung for the fences in hopes of building another big franchise around Johnny Depp."

It's that kind of creative risk-taking — whether it's profitable or not — that Dergarabedian believes allows Disney to sally forth with its soul intact. Though the fact remains, the company is far from its "Snow White" days — when the late Walt Disney, a creative force himself, was running the show.

When you look at the big picture, no studio has a perfect track record at the box office. "Every studio has had share of flops and hits," Dergarabedian says. "Companies are doing what they can — some things work, some things don't. And Disney is big enough to absorb this kind of hit and move on."

Beyond the "Lone Ranger," here's a list of some other 21st-century Disney-produced film flops (numbers courtesy of Box Office Mojo):

"John Carter" (2012)
Production Budget: $250 million
Domestic box office: $73 million
Foreign box office: $209.7 million
Total box office: $282.8 million

"Mars Needs Moms" (2011)
Production Budget: $150 million
Domestic box office: $21.4 million
Foreign box office: $17.6 million
Total box office: $39 million

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (2010)
Production Budget: $150 million
Domestic box office: $63.2 million
Foreign box office: $152.1 million
Total box office: $215.3 million

"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" (2010)
Production Budget: $200 million
Domestic box office: $90.8 million
Foreign box office: $244.4 million
Total box office: $335.2 million

"Around the World in 80 Days" (2004)
Production Budget: $110 million
Domestic box office: $24 million
Foreign box office: $48.2 million
Total box office: $72.2 million

"The Haunted Mansion" (2003)
Production Budget: $90 million
Domestic box office: $75.8 million
Foreign box office: $106.4 million
Total box office: $182.3 million

"The Country Bears" (2002)
Production Budget: $35 million
Domestic box office: $17 million
Foreign box office: $1 million
Total box office: $18 million

"Treasure Planet" (2002)
Production Budget: $140 million
Domestic box office: $38.2 million
Foreign box office: $71.4 million
Total box office: $109.6 million

"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (2001)
Production Budget: $120 million
Domestic box office: $84.1 million
Foreign box office: $102 million
Total box office: $186 million

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