Why Johnny Depp Remains Disney’s Most Beloved Celebrity Asset
In anticipation of the fifth movie in the seemingly never-ending Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, leading man Johnny Depp surprised visitors to the attraction of the same name at Disneyland by appearing in full Jack Sparrow garb to heckle riders. As expected, the moment went viral, and reporting of the publicity trick spread far and wide across social media and major websites. The tone of the latter was overwhelmingly positive, with carefully chosen tweets calling Depp “daddy” and sharing their glee of the moment. Other social media users were less taken with the stunt, but they remained overshadowed by the marketing power of the House of Mouse. Ignore all those domestic abuse allegations, along with swaths of evidence presented by his ex-wife, and come enjoy this charming scamp, just in time for his new movie.
It’s been almost a year since actress Amber Heard filed for divorce from Depp, accusing him of abuse. Pictures of her injuries were published, and video was leaked of Depp exploding in anger at Heard, where he smashed a wine bottle and glass and said to Heard, “You want to see crazy, I’ll show you something crazy.” As expected, the media fallout was intense, with Heard facing a barrage of misogyny, biphobia and attacks from Depp’s famous friends, including the comedian Doug Stanhope, who was given pride of place in a think-piece at The Wrap to essentially accuse her of Amazing Amy levels of manipulation. Even after a settlement was reached by the pair, there was never any doubt in our minds that Depp’s career would be fine. Critical and commercial flops couldn’t hurt him, so why would a domestic abuse allegation?
Johnny Depp isn’t just a movie-star, he’s a prized asset in the eyes of one of the most powerful brands in the world. The Walt Disney Company never could have imagined the power he’d hold when he turned up on set for Pirates of the Caribbean in full pirate Keith Richards cosplay, and Michael Eisner even lamented that Depp’s drunken skunk performance was ruining the film. Of course, we all know how it turned out, and the film made over $650m. Just as importantly, it landed Depp his first Oscar nomination, and so a Disney star was born.
Depp quickly became Disney’s iconic leading man, one who broke the then-expected early-2000s leading man mould and gave them a much-needed edge. The animation renaissance of the 90s was over, the Eisner era was coming to a close, and Dreamworks had begun to usurp the mouse essentially by ripping them off while simultaneously mocking their terminally delightful image. Pixar kept them going, but they were a long way from the masters of Hollywood they’d become following the Marvel and Star Wars acquisitions. They needed a new face, a symbol of fresh blood that could give them a public boost and make them cool. Disney is many things, but coolness was seldom one of their qualities, and any attempts at it fell flat, but Depp? He wasn’t just cool, with his hats and scarves and grungy Rockstar singing in a basement allure; he was just dangerous enough to still be risky. For the only studio in town that sold its films based on a specific personality of sugar-sweetness and sunshine, Depp was the right level of dark and edgy for them.
Generally, Depp’s persona was a well-crafted balance of artistic seriousness and awkward sweetness. Here’s a guy who worked with Jim Jarmusch and Tim Burton but still visited children’s hospitals in Jack Sparrow costume to cheer up sick kids; the former bad boy who now spoke romantically of his love for Vanessa Paradis and his children; the 3 time Oscar nominee who could still be a goofball. The limelight seemed to make him uncomfortable but he braved it for press tours, endearing himself further to teenage girls the world over and selling posters and dolls from coast to coast. He brought his old pal Burton to the Disney fold with Alice in Wonderland, another box office smash that seemed tailor-made for Hot Topic. What’s better than an icon? One you can brand.
Yet even when Depp couldn’t guarantee a hit, Disney worked hard to keep him on board and by their side as their top star. Nothing about The Lone Ranger seemed like a good idea - a decades old series with little modern name-recognition amongst key demographics, a ridiculously oversized budget, and Johnny Depp in Keith Richards mode, only with a dead bird on his head and a few stripes of make-up to convince audiences he was Native American. Disney attempted to strike lightning twice, following the mould for the first Pirates movie, only now the formerly box-office poison leading man was a beloved star, so surely it would take off.
From a $225m budget (plus an extra $150m for marketing), The Lone Ranger grossed $260.5m worldwide. Reviews were tepid, audiences were uninterested in an old cowboy show, and Depp’s shtick had grown thin, exacerbated by the white-washing of Tonto. Usually, that would be enough for a studio to kick a star to the curb, but just a year later, Depp was in the ensemble for Disney’s Into the Woods, and in 2015, he was inducted into the exclusive club of Disney Legends, alongside George Lucas and Danny Elfman. Disney chief Bob Iger called the new inductees “indelible parts of our legacy”. It’s not just that Disney will be remembered for Depp: They want to be.
It was alleged that Disney warned Depp over the impact Heard’s allegations would have on the release of his latest film, Alice Through the Looking Glass. The Express’s source said that Depp had been told he would need to settle quickly and win back fans to keep damage to the film’s box office to a minimum. Whether or not this is true, it feels dishearteningly predictable that Disney would have such concerns. It’s hardly surprising that the company whose films grossed over $7bn last year would be worried about profits, but it is indicative of the myriad of ways the industry, and indeed our culture as a whole, panders to blatantly bad men who hurt women if they make them enough money. By now, Depp’s image as Disney’s golden icon was tarnished, but it wasn’t impossible to fix. Alice Through the Looking Glass didn’t make the money it needed to, but it hardly mattered now that the studio had superheroes and Star Wars.
But now, Depp must return to the forefront as a Disney asset. The Pirates films are the eleventh highest-grossing film series of all-time, bringing Disney $3.73 billion worldwide so far. They’re not just money-printing machines; they’re exorbitantly expensive ones. The newest film in the series, Dead Men Tell No Tales, has an estimated budget of $320m, making it easily the most expensive film of 2017, and the second most expensive film ever made (coming second only to the fourth Pirates film, On Stranger Tides). Realistically, this film needs to gross a minimum of $1bn to break even, and times are very different in Hollywood from what they were in 2003. The A-List model has grown increasingly powerless, with only a handful of exceptions able to open a film based solely on their name. The IP is king and familiar names bring audiences to the cinemas. Yet Pirates of the Caribbean is a franchise that is powered by its biggest star. It is the showcase for Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp, and he remains inextricably tied to the series as its reason for being. How does Disney deal with that in an age where the risky bad boy is now just an abusive dick?
The cutesy Disneyland stunt has provided some positive column inches, but the company does seem to be lessening his presence in marketing. The first teaser for the movie doesn’t feature Depp at all, instead focusing on new villain Javier Bardem, and he’s only in the second trailer at the very end (he’s more present in the third trailer, which makes the preceding two feel like a studio treading the waters of public response). He’s on the posters, but no longer front and centre. Much of the marketing is focused on the excitement of the returning Will Turner. Disney still needs Depp, but for how much longer? If Dead Men Tell No Tales does not gross the gargantuan amount it needs to, will Depp be out of the inner circle?
Audiences need more from their stars now, and they’re more socially aware and ready to spread the word across the forum of their choice. We’re less enamoured with the self-serious artiste who stays in character 24/7 and prefer our stars to have fun with themselves. Twitter and Instagram has made the rich and famous more visible than ever, and audiences want to see joy, especially during dark times. We’ve no room for abusers, talent or profit be damned. Even Disney, who have half our childhoods on their slate, still needs those kinds of stars to keep the brand going. Fortunately, they’ve got a new one.
.. (I think the lady to my right is snapping a pic of my bootaaaay) Surprise! Once I committed to our Disney partners to make the movie based off the JUNGLE CRUISE ride, I wanted to dive head first into the research. So I headed to Walt Disney World and surprised tourists by commandeering the JUNGLE CRUISE boat. It was a GREAT day on the river. Learned a lot.. for example, it takes approximately 12.6 minutes for all the passengers to get over the shock of me jumping on the boat and thinking I'm a DJ look-a-like. One passenger even said, "Oh the real Rock is much smaller than this guy". I threw his ass off the boat. Jokes aside (and yes, with me as the Cruise Skipper there will be an abundance of puns) this is such an amazing, fantastical and cool world to build out. Best part about this surprise research day was knowing how FUN of an experience we're gonna work hard to create for families around the world. That's the part that gets my excited the most. The movie. The ride. The experience. It's the cruise of a lifetime. And trust me, you'll want me as your Skipper. Just don't forget to bring the Skipper's beer. Next step… we find our visionary director. #SurpriseAroundEveryCorner #ResearchDay #DisneyWorld #AllAboard #JungleCruise
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the star Disney needs: Effortlessly charming, delightfully self-aware, enthusiastic to no limits, and making money by the boatload. Following the success of Moana, he’s now on board the Jungle Cruise movie, yet another film based on a Disney theme-park attraction. Disney doesn’t need edge or coolness nowadays - they’ve got way too much money to care about stuff like that, not to mention their big nerd acquisitions give them enough residual cool to keep going - and The Rock is the ideal candidate for the giddy hero with a song in his heart that speaks to the heart of the company’s image. Perhaps he is the new Disney Legend in waiting.
Of course, dropping Depp won’t wipe Disney’s slate clean. It won’t undo the ways in which they, along with an entire industry, continue to prop up a man accused of attacking his wife to continue making money. He will always be a Disney Legend, an admittedly indelible part of their history. Hollywood may never stop shielding bad men and awarding them opportunity after opportunity to fail until they finally succeed and prove them right. Indeed, Depp is already at work on more movies, including Murder on the Orient Express and a biographical drama about the cop who tried to solve the Biggie and Tupac murders. But perhaps audiences’ patience will wear thin, and the industry will be forced to respond to demands that justice be done. Or maybe Dead Men Tell No Tales will make billions, and we’ll all be back at square one. Whatever the case, Disney’s asset is tarnished, and they’ve only themselves to blame for desperately trying to keep the shine.