BEFORE THE FIRSTPirates of the Caribbean opened back in 2003, Entertainment Weekly wouldn’t put Johnny Depp on its cover. The publication maintained that while he was a well-respected actor, he didn’t sell magazines. It wasn’t just print that was wary. Somewhere along the way, Depp, who had made his name in iconic roles like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, became a renegade in the eyes of the big studios. In 1998, while filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he seemed to take on Hunter Thompson’s real-life persona. Depp was too Hollyweird, even for Hollywood.

A string of second-rate roles followed Fear and Loathing until Oscar-nominated (thanks to Harvey W.’s big-money campaign) Chocolat put him back on the radar. But it was his dead-on turn in Blow that put Depp back on the town’s top acting talent list. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory showed he could open a pic. Now, SAG, Golden Globes and Academy Award nominations later, Johnny Depp’s the principal reason Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest broke nearly every Hollywood movie box-office record. And, no surprise, ever since the Pirates phenomenon kicked in, Johnny has gazed out from EW’s cover six times.

When it comes to putting a bold personal imprint on a role, Jack Sparrow was far from Johnny’s first original creation. But when Pirates1 hit the screen, it was one of his most surprising. It was boozy, it was fey, and it totally freaked out producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who was expecting something much more mainstream. (With lots of “aarrrs” and “shivver me timbers” no doubt, spoken as if Sparrow meant them.) Thank God reshooting would have been too expensive, or else the footage would have been trashed, and Pirates would have had a cookie-cutter feel to it. Even director Gore Verbinski acknowledges that Depp came up with Sparrow’s characterization all by himself. When the suits went batshit, it fell to Verbinski to defend Depp’s interpretation.

This wasn’t an Oscar-worthy performance by the actor, even though he was nominated. But, there should be a separate award for someone like him who can take so-so material and elevate it. For crissakes, Pirates 1 was nothing more in the beginning than a promotional tool to increase attendance for one of Disneyland’s duller rides. Suddenly, Depp led audiences on a box-office romp they found utterly irresistible.

While the script, the direction, the effects and even the music associated with P2 left most critics cold, even they had to admit that it was Depp’s unique talent that made this franchise into a phenomenon. It sure wasn’t the buccaneer theme: Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island and even Spielberg’s Hook tanked. And it wasn’t that teenage girls went gaga for Orlando Bloom after Lord of the Rings, which is what conventional wisdom attributed P1’s $305 mil take to. By Monday morning, show-biz types had to finally realize the secret to Pirates’ success: Depp’s fearlessness.

He’s now that rare combination that fills studio coffers: a sexy heartthrob to teenage girls, a cool dude to young guys and an accomplished thespian to adults. Also helping his career is that someone as objectively beautiful as he is still can be chameleon enough to lose himself in his roles. Just look at what he did with the two Eds: Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. (And let’s not forget the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he was hilariously channeling Anna Wintour.)

We got our first hint that Depp, who came to stardom as the eye candy in that lame TV series 21 Jump Street, would have an interesting career when he went to work for John Waters in Cry-Baby. Today, looking through his catalog of performances, it’s hard to find any other actor of his generation who’s played such an amazing array of characters.

That’s why Johnny Depp is now the biggest movie star working in Hollywood, and soon the world, and not just because he has a couple of blockbusters under his belt. Rather, it’s based on the fact that he’s clearly the most exciting actor working. He says he tries to push himself to the “absolute brink of failure” with each role and it’s clear he’s unafraid of whether audiences and critics are gonna love him or hate him for it.

GIVE CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE, and one who deserves credit is Walt Disney Studios chief Dick Cook. Though Disney has a notorious history of stiffing its working stiffs (as opposed to Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz and Bob Iger), Cook, unlike so many other suits, deserves whatever bonus he negotiates.

Cook began his show-biz career in 1970 operating the steam train and monorail rides at Disneyland. When he was named chairman of Walt Disney Studios back in February 2002, Hollywood was skeptical that a bureaucrat from the marketing and distribution side was now in charge. Yet his selection underscored the new reality at Walt Disney Studios: FrankenEisner had spent the past two years slashing overhead by $600 million. Cook took over a deeply downsized movie operation at a time when the flailing company was desperate to avoid exposure to the humongous financial risks of tent-pole movies.

Now, four years later, a big-budget summer popcorn pic has ended the weekendwith $133 mil. Pirates2 buried the previous record holder, Sony’s Spider-Man. It was a truly historic opening, and it had been eons since Disney shareholders had something to cheer about. Now Disney has network prime-time hits and box-office booty. And, to further curry favor with his penny-pinching Disney bosses, Cook immediately launched a plan for substantial layoffs and a production slate that will go down from 18 to eight films. All of the remaining pics will be Disney-branded, which may prove to be a deathblow to Touchstone and many production deals on the lot. The idea is to “improve the studio’s return on investment.” (Warners did the same thing after its banner 2005.)

So why isn’t Disney’s stock price soaring?

True, shares spiked 41 cents at one point in trading Monday, but then it settled down to its normal range. Which just goes to show that, no matter what Hollywood does, the Street is awfully hard to impress.

The reality is that Wall Street understands that filmed entertainment has become just a small part of a major media company’s overall portfolio. Disney’s entire film/TV unit accounts for about 16 percent of the company’s market value: That’s only about $4.80 out of the $30 its stock trades for. So an individual film just doesn’t move the dial very much at these huge companies. What’s more, since stocks are typically priced on multiples of the expected value of discounted cash flows, for a film to have an impact, it would not have to do well — it would have to do shockingly well.In other words, generate far more profit than investors expected without something else pulling down the total.

Everyone expected that P2 would be at least as big as P1. The problem for Wall Street specifically is that while Pirates2 topped all expectations in a big way, Disney/Pixar’s Cars didn’t live up to them. Its $60 mil opening-weekend gross was perceived as disappointing because it was at least $10 mil below even the most modest predictions.

Also, there’s the not insignificant matter of costs versus returns. Check out the profit margins for the movie business and you’ll wonder why anyone sane is in this industry. Given the movie’s $250 mil budget, and astronomical marketing costs, if Pirates2 simply matches Spider-Man and grosses $822 mil worldwide, then Disney would collect about half. Ergo, a blockbuster doesn’t look so big, at least in theater revenue. At most infotainment companies today, there is no real afterlife for these films. Sure, there are DVDs — but after six months, that’s the gift that stops giving. Disney is an exception because it can milk theme-park rides, make TV shows for the Disney Channel and sell more tchotchkes. Then again, Johnny Depp, Jerry Bruckheimer, et al. probably didn’t leave much money on the table. The perception is that the best way to make a million dollars in Hollywood is to start with 2 million.

Old joke, but they still believe it on Wall Street.

LA Weekly