EXCLUSIVE: Disney film production chief Sean Bailey’s effort to retool and relaunch the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is back in uncertain waters after the defection of Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, the hot-shot writing team behind Fox’s mighty Deadpool franchise.
Disney insiders say Reese & Wernick are no longer working on a sixth installment in the swashbuckler series that has grossed $4.5 billion in worldwide box office and $2.5 billion more in global merchandise since it first set sail in 2003. The films have all been built around Johnny Depp’s antics as the bleary buccaneer Jack Sparrow, but the actor’s recent travails and steep salary prompted Bailey to consider a new course for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and its flagship brand.
Bailey’s new direction began with the October hiring of Reese & Wernick, who are viewed as tone-savvy specialists in subversive action comedy after the success of the Deadpool series (which has posted the two largest opening weekends by R-rated films in Hollywood history) and Sony’s Zombieland (which celebrates its 10th anniversary with a sequel this October).
The hiring was widely hailed and Bailey has been vocal in his excitement about it, telling reporters and colleagues that the scribes were going to “make Pirates punk rock again” and give the franchise a much-needed “kick in the pants” that would revive the off-kilter charisma the brand exuded in its early days. Those high hopes faded in recent weeks.
Disney insiders are divided about what happens next. Some say a search is already underway for viable replacement options, others say the once-proud flagship of Disney’s live-action fleet may be headed to dry-dock for good.
The glory days for the swashbuckler series were more than a decade ago. The franchise matched The Lord Of The Rings series by finishing back-to-back years with the No. 1 film in global box office (Dead Man’s Chest in 2006 and At World’s End in 2007), each taking in north of $950 million. The plunder has been more modest in recent years. The latest release was in 2017 with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man Tell No Tales, a $230 million production that showed the brand’s international traction ($622 million in foreign markets) is far stronger than its domestic standing ($173 million).
Interestingly, there has been some spitball discussions about revamping the property for a Pirates of the Caribbean television series, but the budgetary and logistical challenges of a seafaring series may be too daunting.