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'John Carter' and Perpetual Sneak Preview Culture

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by Matt Singer
June 13, 2012 12:56 PM
24 Comments
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"John Carter."
"John Carter."

When it arrived in theaters in March, Disney's "John Carter" faced an audience as inhospitable as the arid landscape of Mars. Preceded by months of negative hype about its forgettable marketing campaign, truncated title, untested star, and a director who might have been out of his depth moving from animation to live action, the film's inevitable box office flop -- just $72 million domestically against a budget of more than $250 million  -- felt like a foregone conclusion.  

"John Carter" came to DVD and Blu-ray last week, complete with a new round of reviews and reconsiderations. When the film opened in theaters, reaction was mixed at best; 52% at Rotten Tomatoes, 51 at Metacritic. But now the overall tenor of reviews seems to be shifting, from muddled mess to unappreciated gem. IGN called the Blu-ray "great." Salon described director Andrew Stanton a "genius" and a "savant." Crave Online compared "John Carter" to beloved classics like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Citizen Kane" that bombed on their initial release. Following as many critics and cinephiles as I do on Twitter, I've witnessed a steady stream of supportive tweets since its Blu-ray premiere last Tuesday ("Enjoyable as hell, and highly re-watchable," reads a typical one). Suddenly, people kind of like "John Carter." So what changed?

Expectations, for one thing. I don't believe that critics (at least reputable ones) are easily swayed by things they read in The New York Times or Variety. I don't think they go to the theater with their review already written. But I do think no movie gets seen in a vacuum (except maybe when the crew of the International Space Station watches "The Avengers"). Every viewing experience comes with baggage, and that includes things like hype and buzz, both good and bad.

In a sense, the reevaluation currently under way for "John Carter" is a more protracted, less enthusiastic version of the response to Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret." That was another movie beset by piles of bad press about its tortured production; story after story was written about how the film was too long, the post-production was even longer, and how everyone involved was suing everyone else. How could the product of that creative environment be any good? These sorts of questions becomes self-fulfilling prophecies: you hear something is bad, you subconsciously expect it to be bad, every problem you see only confirms your initial suspicions.

Hollywood has always produced bombs, but I do wonder how much of "John Carter"'s failure is related to contemporary online film culture and its increasing obsession with prejudging movies.  Films are no longer anticipated by a single trailer and poster; every day of every week, it seems, there is a new teaser, or set of publicity stills, or junket interviews, or exclusive clips.  Studios pass them along to film blogs and news sites, who reprint them and analyze them; their readers, in turn, weigh in with detailed comments.

To a certain degree this is free advertising for the studios -- and you know the old saying about how there's no such thing as bad publicity. But as perpetual sneak preview culture becomes normalized, audiences are being conditioned to weigh in on a movie before it even comes out. They're trained not only to trust their expectations, but to express them constantly. "I knew this movie was going to be bad from the first trailer," is a commonly expressed opinion online. At a certain point, it begins to feel like people want a movie to fail, if only to prove their expectations right.

In the case of "John Carter," the film was dismissed and discarded before it ever opened (I say this, by the way, as someone who wasn't a particularly big fan of the movie). It's not all that notable -- or all that surprising -- that people suddenly like "John Carter." But in light of its earlier reception, it's good that people are finally giving it a chance.

24 Comments

  • Erin Whitney | June 18, 2012 3:01 PMReply

    Further proof as to why sneak previews, multiple trailers, and clips should not exist pre-release. While it's hard to avoid it, as a critic and just cinephile in general I try not to watch any trailers, much less read anything about a film before I see it. All movies deserve a blank slate on first watch, why taint that with all the crap that's out there? Well written piece Matt. I love your writing and honest perspectives.

  • steve davidson | June 14, 2012 4:25 PMReply

    Scott Mendelson,

    your 'review' of this film mirrors my own - and I'm intimately familiar with the source material. It was internally inconsistent, elements were added that confused things even more (especially if one is considering sequels) and I honestly believe that what we're seeing are the actions of a small yet dedicated group of people who (being nasty) apparently like crappy films (being nice) honestly liked the movie and have made it their mission in life to rant for a sequel, denigrate anyone who sees things differently and follow them around all over the web, exhorting people to buy multiple copies of the DVD, attend the last day's screenings multiple times & etc. Do they really think they're fooling anyone in Hollywood? I've suggested that they STFU and save their time, energy and money to crowd-fund their own sequel, but apparently they will only be happy with one made by Stanton and starring Kitsch - which I think is the ultimate reveal of the fact that we're not dealing with reason at all....

  • EASY TO CRITICIZE | June 14, 2012 8:16 AMReply

    Most movie critics are weak minded cowards who are far to easily influence by peer pressure. They're pathetic sniveling wretches incapable of forming their own opinions or having the moral fortitude to stand up for something they believe in. They coalesce into the herd for fear of standing out or for having a view that doesn't align with that of "the majority of critics" and the worst part is they get paid to do so.

  • Mike McGranaghan | June 14, 2012 10:34 AM

    Geez...so what does that say about internet commenters, then?

  • Chris | June 14, 2012 5:29 AMReply

    Great Movie. Pick it up on DVD/Blu-ray and support the quest for a sequel at johncartertwo.com and on Facebook.

  • Rob | June 13, 2012 9:14 PMReply

    I also remember the number of reviews that contained the phrase "This movie cost over $200 Million to make".... It only cost me just of $10 to see, so for me that was an amazing return on investment. It was then that I picked up on the copy paste nature of the internet and film reviews especially. People should leak incorrect stuff into a major review, and see how fast it spreads.

  • Cap | June 13, 2012 6:28 PMReply

    I confess to being one of those who badmouthed it first due to negative press. Then I saw it and loved it, and I'm totally fine that I was wrong.

  • ERD | June 14, 2012 8:14 AM

    You're a sheep but at least you're willing to admit to this defect.

  • JC Fan 4 Life | June 13, 2012 6:20 PMReply

    Let Disney know that you want a sequel to this great film! Let your voice be heard.

    Alan Horn, Chairman Walt Disney Studios
    500 S. Buena Vista Street
    Burbank, CA 91521

    Phone: 818-560-1000
    Fax: 818-560-1930



    Executive team:
    John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer, Walt Disney & Pixar Animation Studios
    Sean Bailey, President Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production
    Alan Bergman, President, The Walt Disney Studios
    Dr. Ed Catmull, President Walt Disney & Pixar Animation Studios
    Paul Roeder, Vice-President, Global Communications

    www.johncartertwo.com
    www.backtobarsoom.com

  • flo | June 13, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    john carter is a wonderful film. an epic adventure movie with great cinematography. I saw it two times in theaters and it´s such a great film and for me no surprise. andrew stanton is wonderful.

  • JC Fan 4 Life | June 13, 2012 6:17 PMReply

    The one thing I learned about the whole "JOHN CARTER DEBACLE" is that our culture has become nothing more than a cesspool of negativity and herd-like behavior. It's really opened my eyes to the fact that no one really thinks for themselves in this so-called Age of Information and just parrots back what others think - be it about news, entertainment or sports. "WE ARE BORG!" in a sense. A collective of trolls and idiots who rip apart the weak guy and prop up the strong guy. Sports culture has become the culture as a whole. As soon as the "stink" is on a film, that's the story that is run with by news outlets and everyone wants to be the first to second the prevailing opinion. Beliefs that are contrary to the popular opinion are laughed at, ignored or actively suppressed. People have a bullying mentality and like to pick "winners" and beat the hell out of perceived "losers". Just look at what they are doing to Prometheus as well. Of course I'm pissed at Disney for messing up in so many ways on JOHN CARTER's release. But I'm even more mad at my country for being so damn stupid in it's collective opinions. The Hunger Games? The Lorax? I guess I'm mistaking box office receipts with quality of film, but that seems to be the yardstick. John Carter deserves more box office love than it god. It's truly a terrific film. I hope you get a chance to see it with fresh eyes for the first time.

  • diegomom50 | June 13, 2012 5:34 PMReply

    I count myself lucky to have been oblivious to the hype and saw John Carter in the IMAX the first week it was showing. I loved the movie, it wonderful score by Michael Giacchino and the interplanetary love story. I knew nothing about The source material The Princess of Mars or the writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now Pople are renting it and seeing what I saw in March and please me to know end.

  • Kenneth Jordan | June 13, 2012 5:22 PMReply

    I do agree with your write-up. And once people express their views anywhere, they feel duty bound to continue to support them despite evidence to the contrary.

    In any event, the blu-rays and dvds of John Carter are obviously selling really well on Amazon.com, so we'll see how it goes.

    By the way, I loved the movie and saw it 12 times at the theater, 5 in IMAX, 5 in Real 3D, and 2 in 2D. It actually gets better and better with repeated viewings.

    As you suggest in your write-up, the movie deserves a chance, because it didn't get one initially due to really bad marketing by Disney and all the unjustified advance negative buzz.

  • nick | June 13, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    'Sole responsibility for its floptitude can't be laid at the feet of the press."

    I agree and disagree. Disney's bad marketing turned away moviegoers. But the press really did want to hate John carter before it came out and you can see it in their reviews. Transformers 1 gets a 57% and Pirates of the carribean 1 and 2 both score higher than John Carter!!!!????? puh-lease the press wanted a story to write about and they got one. The movie should have got better reviews, plain and simple, and the movie would have done better. But it's hard to get good reviews when the reviewers are biased, jaded and want something to write about!

  • Scott Mendelson | June 13, 2012 3:10 PMReply

    For the record, the IGN critic above merely called the Blu Ray package 'great' (audio/visual, solid extras, etc), not the film itself which he gave a '6'. His review on the movie is as mixed as anyone else's. I don't think critics at-large were gunning for the film, but it was more pundits wondering what the hell Disney was thinking spending so much money on a long-shot and then offering one of the worst marketing campaigns in recent history (no character posters?).

    As a pundit, I was puzzled by the terrible trailers, boring title change, and inexplicable budget for what seemed like 'generic fantasy blockbuster for boys: the movie'. As a critic who is a fan of Wall-E and Finding Nemo, I was secertly hoping that perhaps the marketing was merely hiding the best stuff ala most Pixar campaigns. Upon seeing the film at a pre-release screening, I was genuinely shocked at how bad the film actually was. This didn't happen at my screening, but the later press screenings apparently received character notes ala a Broadway show explicitly explaining the various characters and the central plot threads, a clear sign that the film failed to do either adequately. It's not the worst movie ever made or any such silliness (it won't end up anywhere near my 'worst-of' 2012 list), but it was fundamentally lacking in storytelling basics and simple coherency in a manner that honestly astounded me.

    There is always a wave of 'well, it's not *that bad*' second-guessing whenever a film like this comes to Blu Ray/DVD. But for what they spent and how little 'insurance' they had (stars, known source material, safe release date, moments that could goose the marketing, etc), John Carter kind of had to be unimpeachably entertaining in an Inception/Avatar kinda way in order to have any hope of making its money back (heck, even if Inception flopped, it was partially a down-payment on The Dark Knight Rises). It wasn't great or fun or even all that entertaining, not even close to it, so they deserve all the scorn they get. Similar to Universal's issues with Battleship, Disney thought they could hoist what seemed to be a generic 'Blockbuster the Movie' on the masses and they would eat it up because it kinda/sorta resembled hit films from the last decade or so. That they didn't get away with it is actually kinda encouraging.

  • Scott Mendelson | June 14, 2012 1:16 PM

    I replied to the wrong comment. Sorry. Why is it difficult to say that? I don't take it personally that you liked a movie that I didn't. For what it's worth, I've been there too, fighting for the artistic reputation for the likes of Sucker Punch and Speed Racer (among others) for as long as those films have existed. Maybe history will judge you right instead. We'll see. As for the above poster, I presumed watching the film that some of my confusion was due to my ignorance of the source material and was inclined to cut it a slight break on that account (although movies should darn-well stand alone). But I've actually been told that the film actually combines bits and pieces from multiple books and is actually more complicated than the original story, which I find kind of unforgivable considered how convoluted the film turned out. And I always watch a movie as an audience member, often as a paying audience member on opening day (although not this time).

  • ranben007 | June 14, 2012 3:26 AM

    Sorry you see it that way Scott. I loved it and thought it was quite entertaining. The only place I saw problems with pacing was after the rescue/battle scene. There was a bit too much exposition and it could have used a little suspense to break it up. I wonder if you are familiar with the source material for this film. I'm not saying one need be in order to appreciate the story (millions have seen it without knowledge of ERB and liked it) but in his desire to present the spirit of the story I believe Stanton was greatly challenged. He didn't take the easy way out like many adaptations of novels, and simplify the story, but instead tried to retain as much of the complex meandering story that Burroughs created. Not an easy task, especially for a fan of the Mars series. I commend him for creating a film that is at the same time fresh and retro. Watch it again, Scott. Don't watch it as a critic. Just watch it as a member of the audience. It might be that your opinion will change. If if does, it will be interesting to see if you admit it.

  • flo | June 13, 2012 6:26 PM

    Scott, I think you are completely wrong in all terms... It´s difficult to say this but I think you are completely wrong. and I think the trailers were great (the second and the third were so pwerful and exotic like the film). all people say the marketing were bad. but I don´t think so. the press was bad. the trailers were massive. and the film is beautiful.

  • the rake | June 13, 2012 3:02 PMReply

    But basically, you are saying hype kills a movie. That is more curse than blessing. Did hype kill The Dark Knight? No. (it succeeded despite expectations.) Did it hurt Watchmen? No. (it underperformed 'cuz it wasn't that good.) Did hype kill Battleship? No, it sunk itself. The quality of films will stand the test of time. Hype is a given in the current marketplace. Its up to the film/studio/etc. to overcome that.

    The Rake
    thefilmnest.com

  • Scott Mendelson | June 14, 2012 1:13 PM

    Why is it difficult to say that? I don't take it personally that you liked a movie that I didn't. For what it's worth, I've been there too, fighting for the artistic reputation for the likes of Sucker Punch and Speed Racer (among others) for as long as those films have existed. Maybe history will judge you right instead. We'll see.

  • Suzanne Janes | June 13, 2012 2:29 PMReply

    I absolutely loved John Carter. I thought it was marketed poorly. And I hated the Avengers which was well marketed. The Avengers was predictable and boring but John Carter was extremely imaginative.

  • Robert C | June 13, 2012 5:37 PM

    I have to agree with you about John Carter but have to disagree with you about Avengers in that i thought both movies were very good movies and both were were watching.

  • Matt | June 13, 2012 1:17 PMReply

    It's the press that killed this movie. Movie writers big and small fell in love with the idea of it bombing, and it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Where was the vitriol with BATTLESHIP, which cost about as much and tanked about as badly?

  • John Gholson | June 13, 2012 1:08 PMReply

    It seemed to me that critics were receptive to JOHN CARTER from the start - that it was audiences that weren't receptive or who had written it off. I specifically had several non-press, Joe Moviegoers telling me there was NO WAY they would ever see it, after my positive pre-release screening reaction.

    WATERWORLD got more negative press than JOHN CARTER ever did and even that film outgrossed the 2012 release. Ultimately, people see what they want to see - press be damned - and in this case, they just didn't want to see JOHN CARTER. Was it the marketing, the star, the audience fatigue of the "vanilla dude is the savior of an alien race" plot line? Sole responsibility for its floptitude can't be laid at the feet of the press.

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