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Could Disney’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 5’ Be a Box Office Bomb?

By Leo Sun – Mar 21, 2014 at 12:25PM

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Disney hasn’t given the greenlight to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’, the fifth installment of the blockbuster franchise. Why has this potential hit film stalled out?

Captain Jack Sparrow could be banished to Davy Jones' Locker once more, due to recent reports that Disney (DIS 1.95%) has not greenlit the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film. During a recent shareholders meeting, CEO Bob Iger discussed new Pixar films and the upcoming Star Wars sequels, but noted that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was still on hold.

This was a surprising development, considering that the first four films of the blockbuster Pirates franchise have grossed $3.7 billion worldwide on a combined production budget of $915 million. Moreover, it's almost been three years since the last film, On Stranger Tides, was released.

(Source: Disney)

Since then, reports surfaced that Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) were on board to direct, screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me if You Can, Tower Heist) would pen the script, and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) had been offered the role of the main villain. Johnny Depp was also "set to return" as Captain Jack Sparrow, according to a report in Variety, although he hasn't signed a formal deal with Disney yet.

All that buzz certainly suggested that Dead Men Tell No Tales was imminent, so why is Disney so hesitant to get started?

The double-edged jeweled cutlass of Captain Johnny Depp
One of the issues with Dead Men Tell No Tales might be the franchise's top star Johnny Depp. Depp may be a crowd pleaser, but he's also getting much more expensive with every installment:


Johnny Depp's salary

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

$10 million

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

$20 million

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

N/A (unreleased)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

$55 million


Depp's reported salary does not include the backend payments he received from the films. After those were factored in, Depp reportedly earned between $280 million and $350 million from those four films. Depp's upfront payment of $55 million for On Stranger Tides (22% of the production budget) also made him one of the highest paid actors in history.

It's now rumored that Depp could be paid between $90 million to $116 million to reprise his role as Jack Sparrow for a fifth time. That's a staggering amount to pay a single actor to keep an aging franchise alive.

However, Depp hasn't taken kindly to pay cuts in the past. Last May, Depp quit director Barry Levinson's gangster biopic Black Mass after being asked to take a 50% pay cut from his normal rate, due to soft sales projections and budget cuts. Since Depp's usual rate is $20 million, it's widely assumed that he turned down $10 million for the role -- the same amount he was paid for the first Pirates film.

Depp's decision to play Tonto was 'muy tonto'
Disney might be willing to pay Depp $100 million to play Jack Sparrow again if he was a surefire bet. Unfortunately, last year's dud The Lone Ranger proved that Depp's quirky charm isn't a silver bullet for blowing away the box office.

Although Depp's salary for The Lone Ranger wasn't released, it's assumed that it came close to his pay for the later Pirates films. Johnny Depp, Arnie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer all eventually took 20% pay cuts due to Disney's concerns about the film's budget, which topped out at $215 million. After the film only grossed $261 million at the box office (causing Disney a loss due to marketing costs), Depp and Bruckheimer blamed the media's premature pessimism about the film for its commercial failure.

The Lone Ranger. (Source: Disney)

But it wasn't just bad press to blame. Among those who did see it, The Lone Ranger earned 30% approval with critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes, while audiences were a bit more generous -- though hardly glowing -- at 53%. The most common complaint  was that Depp simply reprised his Jack Sparrow role in a Native American costume with face paint.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Diminishing Returns
Another problem with the Pirates franchise is its mixed performance in terms of ROI (return on investment) and critical reception.


Production cost

Global box office

Rotten Tomatoes (Critics/Audience)

The Curse of the Black Pearl

$140 million

$654 million


Dead Man's Chest

$225 million

$1.07 billion


At World's End

$300 million

$963 million


On Stranger Tides

$250 million

$1.05 billion


Sources: Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes.

Dead Man's Chest was the most profitable in terms of overall box office and ROI, while At World's End represented a low point for the series. On Stranger Tides made a decent rebound, but its ROI failed to top the first two films.

Meanwhile, critical reception for the films has steadily trended downwards among critics and audiences. There were three big reasons for the icy plunge in critical reception between the third and fourth films:

  • Director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three films, was replaced by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha), causing a notable change in tone and pacing.

  • Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley didn't reprise their respective roles as Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.

  • Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio stayed with the series, but they simply adapted Tim Powers' 1987 novel, On Stranger Tides, into the new film, rewriting the main character as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Those decisions upset a delicate balance that had been established by the original trilogy, resulting in a film that sorely lacked the epic scale and charm of its predecessors. In Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jeff Nathanson, Joachim Rønning, and Espen Sandberg could be faced with a major predicament -- should they try to recapture the magic of the original trilogy, or should they forge ahead and make the franchise their own?

If they intend to do the latter, then it could be wiser to replace Johnny Depp in the lead role. I could easily imagine Matthew McConaughey or Jamie Foxx taking over as the new top pirate, and I doubt either one would ask for $100 million.

(Source: Disney)

Dead films tell no tales...
In conclusion, a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film might seem like a no-brainer for Disney, but the media giant is probably weighing those box office gains against Depp's huge salary demands, his questionable box office appeal, and waning critical reception for the series. Disney could be better off focusing on building up its bigger projects -- such as its Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars series, and Pixar cartoons -- rather than risk another Lone Ranger debacle by placing its bets on Captain Jack Sparrow again.

Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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