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Hi-yo: How werewolves stopped Silver in his tracks

Hi-yo Silver – whoa, boy! In a move that signals a new wave of Hollywood caution, Disney halted production on The Lone Ranger this week, stopping set construction in New Mexico and laying off workers.

The movie, budgeted between $200- and $250-million and scheduled for release in December, 2012, was to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and directed by Gore Verbinski, with the masked lawman played by Armie Hammer (The Social Network) with Johnny Depp as his Native sidekick, Tonto.

The shock here is that Depp has been an astronomically successful money-earner for Disney, with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Alice in Wonderland each earning more than a billion at the box office and ranking among the top 10 box-office hits in movie history.

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Now, it's possible that Disney is simply playing negotiating hardball, trying to shave the film's budget before resuming production. How expensive can a movie about a couple of 19th-century guys on horses possibly be? As it turns out, the cost involves more than the price of oats. According to Jeffrey Wells's Hollywood Elsewhere website, an early draft has the two men battling mystical werewolves. Maybe that explains The Lone Ranger's penchant for silver bullets and Disney's nervousness.

The studio already has two special-effects-heavy, $200-million-plus films in production: John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton ( Wall-E) and starring Vancouver native Taylor Kitsch, and Sam Raimi's Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz: The Great and Powerful. With media company stocks taking a beating, the studio is more concerned with pleasing its loan arrangers than fans of The Lone Ranger.

As Disney's chief executive, Bob Iger, told analysts this week, smaller budgets and fewer films may be the way of the future: "If we can't get them to a level that we're comfortable with, we think that we're better off actually reducing the size of our slate than making films that are bigger and increasingly more risky."

Other studios are showing similar caution. Earlier this summer, Universal pulled the plug on Stephen King's The Dark Tower, a major western-themed project involving three movies and a television series, which was to have been directed by Ron Howard and star Javier Bardem. The same studio scuttled the adaptation of H.P Lovecraft's At The Mountains Of Madness, directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Tom Cruise. DreamWorks has pulled the plug on Southpaw, a boxing movie with Eminem, directed by Antoine ( Training Day) Fuqua.

There's may be another more immediate reason why The Lone Ranger bit the dust this summer. Another western fantasy movie, Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens, cost $163-million to make and earned less than $90-million internationally. Even producer Steven Spielberg and stars Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig couldn't save it.

Current wisdom has it that westerns, so central to American mythology and movie history, aren't what the world wants to buy from the United States any more. Westerns play much better in the U.S. than they do in foreign markets, which currently represent about 70 per cent of Hollywood's box-office earnings. The Coen brothers' True Grit, which came out last December, rapidly became one of the highest-grossing westerns of all time, with more than $250-million at the box office, but only one-third of that came from foreign box office.

The paradox of The Lone Ranger's cancellation is that foreign audiences might well warm to a blockbuster called Johnny Depp vs. Werewolves. They just don't care less about the absurd buddy story of the masked ranger and his loyal sidekick.

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