EXCLUSIVE: In an exclusive to Deadline’s Pete Hammond during Disney’s D23 Expo, Rich Ross made his first comment on The Lone Ranger since I revealed the film had been halted for budgetary reasons. “I’m hoping to do it. I’m certainly hoping. I think it’s a compelling story and no one wants to work with Jerry and Johnny more than me, so we’ll see how it works.” The surprise is that Ross mentioned Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer but not the film’s director Gore Verbinski. Would Disney be happier making The Lone Ranger without him?   

The rumblings I’ve heard since my first story on the stoppage are as follows: Verbinski and Bruckheimer have been working hard to tone down or lose some of the budget-busting spectacular scenes in Justin Haythe’s script. At the same time, Bruckheimer as well as reps for Depp and Verbinski have been discussing ways to defer big chunks of their upfront paydays. Salary among all three likely accounts for $30 million or more. And if the trio’s backend deals weren’t at cash break before, they likely will be now if the film moves forward. Because simply adjusting above-the-line salaries isn’t enough to bring down what insiders told Deadline nine days ago was a $75 million budget gap to get to the $200 million Disney wants to spend on the Western. I’ve heard since that the studio will agree to make The Lone Ranger at $215 million. One major question is whether Verbinski can deliver at that number and retain enough spectacle “wow” factor to give The Lone Ranger a shot at a big overseas gross and sequels.

If Ross’s comments indicate that Disney would be open to making The Lone Ranger with another director, that is taking a big risk with Depp. Outside of Tim Burton, no director has made as many movies with Depp as Verbinski, with three Pirates of the Caribbean films and Rango. Would Depp continue in the movie if Verbinski was moved aside or quit? Good question. The Lone Ranger is a giant risk in the first place because Westerns don’t traditionally perform well overseas. In a DVD-collapsed world, a $275 million film is back to grossing three times its budget to earn out, and that can’t be done without a big overseas reward. Without Depp — arguably the biggest star in the world right now with three of the all-time Top 10 worldwide grossing films — there is no Lone Ranger.

Verbinski clearly still wants to stay on The Lone Ranger or he would not be working so hard to conform to the studio’s budget  demands. Yet, despite all his hits, Verbinski has watched Universal derail his Bioshock (after he dropped out of Pirates 4 to make it), and Paramount grow nervous about Rango (even though its now a surefire Oscar Animation frontrunner). For all his success, Verbinski has a rep for spending big and holding his ground when studios want cuts, and that’s just not popular right now. Can The Lone Ranger be made without Verbinski? Sure, as long as Depp stays in. Should it be? Good question, again.

The answer may well lie in some Hollywood history when Disney, under a different regime, did try to downsize a Western with a different director — and the effort failed miserably. In 2002, Disney had Ron Howard directing Russell Crowe in The Alamo, when each was coming off the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind. The studio bristled at a $125 million budget and possible R-rating, so Howard and Crowe exited. The Alamo was reconfigured by John Lee Hancock as an $80 million PG-13 film, and it grossed just $26 million worldwide.

While most barely remember The Alamo, there’s a fresh reminder of the perils of pricey Westerns. The $163 million Cowboys & Aliens has only grossed $86.5 million domestic going into this weekend and isn’t doing huge overseas business to make up for that. The film will be a flop that directly impacts three studios: DreamWorks, Universal and Paramount (which has foreign). Since Disney already has put $250 million into John Carter with Pixar vet director Andrew Stanton, and another $200 million at least into the Sam Raimi-directed The Great And Powerful Oz, it is really up in the air whether the studio wants to place another even bigger bet on The Lone Ranger.