‘Lone Ranger’ rides on fee cuts, less Disney risk

Principals agree to 20% fee reduction; other pay deferrmants

Walt Disney Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer are donning their spurs once again for “Lone Ranger,” but this time at a lower budget, fees for principal players reduced 20% and all involved agreeing to pony up for any cost overruns.

A couple of months after the Mouse House balked at a steep $250 million pricetag for the Gore Verbinski-helmed Western, the two sides have pared down the budget closer to $215 million and zeroed in on a new release date that will shift it from its original Dec. 21, 2012 berth, with its production start delayed from November to February, sources close to the project said.

Despite hyped reports that Disney pulled the plug on the bigscreen adaptation in August, the project was never dead; construction of New Mexico sets were put on hold, as producers lassoed in the budget for the Western. In order to reduce costs, the script by Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”) and “Pirates of the Caribbean”-franchise scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio was reworked to eliminate some pricey f/x sequences involving supernatural elements, sources told Variety. Verbinski, Bruckheimer and stars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer also reduced their fees by 20%, with certain payments deferered until the box office results start coming in.

If the budget goes beyond the new agreed-upon number, Disney won’t take the brunt of having to pay for all of the overages; provisions have been made with multiple parties involved, from producers to thesps, to cover the costs.

Disney declined to comment Wednesday and has stayed mum during the negotiating process.

“Lone Ranger” stars Hammer as the masked crime fighter and Depp as his Native American sidekick Tonto, along with Tom Wilkinson and Ruth Wilson. The actioner was always envisioned as a high-profile tentpole for Disney and Bruckheimer.

Disney is eager to work with Depp again on a potential new franchise after the fourth “Pirates” pic hauled in more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office. “Alice in Wonderland,” in which he played the Mad Hatter, also earned more than $1 billion. Studio has been promoting Depp’s involvement with “The Lone Ranger” since 2008.

“Lone Ranger” reteams Depp with Verbinski, who helmed the first three “Pirates” pics (as well as “Rango,” which Depp voiced), and Bruckheimer, who produced them.

The scrutiny of the budget shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, with studios often combing over a film’s costs before it gets the greenlight, especially at cost-conscious congloms.

Disney is in the midst of producing several tentpoles with budgets north of $200 million, including “Oz, the Great and Powerful” and “John Carter.”

It’s part of the Mouse House’s mandate to focus more on properties from which all of the company’s divisions can benefit by producing consumer products, theme parks, videogames and TV show spinoffs. As Disney chief Bob Iger said during a recent earnings call with analysts, the studio will make “films that are bigger and increasingly more risky” but reduce the size of its slate going forward.

The Lone Ranger character was first introduced in a 1933 radio show, created by George W. Trendle and developed by Fran Strike, before a TV series was developed during the 1950s and the character was spun off into movies and comicbooks.

Disney needed to lock down a start date given that Depp’s dance card is filling up.

He’s shooting Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Dark Shadows” at Warner Bros. and recently signed to produce and star in a remake of “The Thin Man” and TV show “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” at Disney. He’s also eyeing a pic based on the story of Paul Revere.