‘Pirates’ one big plank for Mouse

Signature property for a studio focused on franchises

When Rich Ross had to greenlight his first films as chairman of the Walt Disney Studios last year, there wasn’t much hesitation, if any, about a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

The three previous pics earned $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office, collected at least $900 million from homevideo and an additional $1.6 billion from related toys, games, apparel and other merchandise sales.

As a result, Disney is ready to set sail with more “Pirates” pics as long as Johnny Depp wants to swagger as Captain Jack Sparrow. It’s a signature property for a studio focused on franchises that can boost the bottom lines of the parent company’s other businesses.

In fact, producer Jerry Bruckheimer already has a fifth and sixth sequel in development.

But to keep “Pirates” afloat, Disney and Bruckheimer has provided Hollywood with a case study of how to overhaul a property in a way that strives to keep the material fresh without altering what made it popular in the first place.

It’s the same fear of franchise fatigue that Universal has successfully overcome with its “Fast and the Furious” property and that Fox is now tackling with “X-Men” and Paramount with “Mission: Impossible.”

For “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” Disney and Bruckheimer have gone back to basics, launching the film as its own stand-alone adventure after wrapping up ongoing plot points and eliminating major characters with the franchise’s second and third outings, “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End.”

It’s been four years since auds have seen Captain Jack, and the new installment revolves around the character facing off against the villainous Blackbeard and enlisting mermaids to find the Fountain of Youth.

The $150 million budget is smaller than that of the other “Pirates” sequels, but the film doesn’t skimp on visual effects. The ships are bigger but the plot is simpler. Just don’t mention the last point to Bruckheimer, who bristled at the notion during press junkets.

Disney chief Bob Iger has described the film as “a funny, fast-moving adventure that I believe captures the spirit of the original ‘Pirates’ movie.”

New film also embraces the 3-D evolution for the first time, and it has a fresh director in Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Nine”), who injects enough of his own style to breathe new life into the property while retaining the franchise’s overall tone and design. The latest installment also amps up the international appeal of its cast, with British thesps Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane and Kevin McNally alongside Penelope Cruz (Spain), Astrid Berges-Frisbey (France) and Sam Claflin (Australia).

As Ross put it at Disney’s investor conference in February, “On Stranger Tides” has “a more international flavor and a more international cast than I think we’ve ever had in our ‘Pirates’ movies historically. … We really think this has led to a very, very holistic and, we hope, very, very big movie.”

The global outreach was done by design, with Disney especially focused on foreign shores with “On Stranger Tides” after “At World’s End” generated 68% of its B.O. overseas, earning a whopping $654 million. Similar fantasy fare like “Alice in Wonderland” also earned 67% — $664 million — of its B.O. haul overseas. Of course, the increased Spanish presence may also attract Hispanic moviegoers as well — an increasingly important demo for studios.

To court that crowd, Disney took the new pic to Russia and the Cannes Film Festival for the first time, after a lavish outdoor premiere at Disneyland that involved shutting down the park and the construction of an outdoor theater for the 3-D screening.

Strategy has paid off so far, with “On Stranger Tides” already earning $18.5 million from 10 territories on Wednesday, up from the $12.3 million that the third pic earned from 16 countries. More than 70 territories will have bowed through Sunday, including China.

Bruckheimer is eager to get a fifth “Pirates” into theaters “quicker than we did the last.” But the producer added that effort will depend on developing a script that winds up being “a great piece of entertainment that everybody will enjoy.”

That includes Depp.

So far, the thesp has moved ahead to bigscreen adaptations of “Dark Shadows,” with Tim Burton, and “The Lone Ranger,” which will reteam him with original “Pirates” trilogy helmer Gore Verbinski and Bruckheimer. But in a junket for “On Stranger Tides,” Depp admitted he’s still game for more adventures.

“With a character like Captain Jack, you feel like it could just continue,” Depp said. “The possibilities are endless. So you feel with this character that you’re never really done.”

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