The Summer Blockbuster Is Here to Stay

'The Lone Ranger,' 'After Earth' flops won't change how studios make summer films.

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"The Lone Ranger" was once a beloved 1930s radio show and 1950s television series. Now it is the butt of Twitter jokes, after its Disney reboot starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer flopped in its five-day opening weekend.

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Costing as much as $250 million to make and wrought with production issues that pushed its release date back half a year, the film couldn't even crack $50 million domestically over the Fourth of July long weekend. (Due to marketing and distribution costs, a film typically must make double its budget to end up in the black.)

Worse, its release was shamed by children's film sequel "Despicable Me 2," which also opened over the holiday and nearly tripled what "The Lone Ranger" made in the United States, not to mention raising another $150 million in foreign markets.

"The Lone Ranger" was by most counts the third big-budget action flick to stumble this summer. "After Earth," with an estimated $130 million budget, posted a third-place, $27 million domestic opening weekend earlier this summer. In June, "White House Down" pulled in about $25 million in its initial release weekend, dwarfed by its reported $150 million budget.

However, those three failures don't by any means signal the end of the conventional summer action movie, or that Hollywood will shy away from nine-figure budgets when it comes to summertime fare. Whatever adjustments studios make to their summer strategies will be minor at best, as according to industry analysts, the occasional big budget failures are as much a summer staple as Fourth of July fireworks.

"It makes big headlines when 'The Lone Ranger' flops," says former AMC exec Douglas Stone, now the president of Box Office Analyst, a film industry newsletter, information and consulting service. "But it doesn't spell a major change in how the formula for making films is calculated."

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Like Depp in "The Lone Ranger," "After Earth" had the star power of a so-called "bankable" Hollywood actor in its lead, Will Smith, who not only starred in the film with his son but wrote the story and served as a producer. However, many critics noted it was an odd choice to make Smith's character practically emotionless and near death for most of the film, considering the actor's usual charisma. The movie was almost universally panned. (Its apparent Scientology allusions – fueling the claim that Smith practices the controversial religion, which he denies – also attracted negative attention.)

"The trend is that the good movies are doing good business and the bad movies are doing bad business," Stone says. "If the story is good, the story will make the movie a success."

"White House Down" may be an exception to that rule, its biggest challenge not being that it was a poorly conceived story – a secret service agent wannabe saves the president from a terrorist attack – but that it was a story already conceived. "Olympus Has Fallen" – which had pretty much the same plot but was made for half the price – was released in March to a solid, second-place showing.

"That was question of 'in the wrong place in the wrong time,'" Stone says of "White House Down."

But just as there have been surprise big failures, there have been surprise modest successes – smaller films exceeding expectations. "The Heat" cost a reasonable $43 million and opened to a respectable $40 million release ($10 million more than industry analysts were expecting); it has more than doubled that number worldwide in the week and a half since its release. ("Female-skewing films, save for The Twilight franchise, often open lower but have strong legs," The Hollywood Reporter notes.) Its success is also a symbolic victory for critics who decry the lack of female-driven films in the summer (or year round, for that matter).

Even "Now You See Me," which had no huge stars and only lukewarm reviews, has rolled along since beating its opening weekend rival "After Earth." "Now You See Me" is now up to $170 million worldwide on its $75 million budget.