From the Wire: The Lessons of 'John Carter'

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by Matt Singer
March 20, 2012 1:13 PM
10 Comments
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"John Carter."
It's fitting that "John Carter" opens with the death of its protagonist then follows his nephew as he tries to make sense of what happened to his eccentric uncle.  Just a few days into its release, "John Carter" looks the victim of an early death as well -- at the box office. That means it's the perfect time to perform a post-mortem like the one Scott Mendelson posted at his blog, Mendelson's Memos.  His piece, "R.I.P. 'John Carter.' What its failure means and why it matters..." is an astute observation of what went wrong with a film that cost upwards of $250 million and earned just $179 million worldwide through two weeks of release.  The big takeaway, according to Mendelson?  "Unless your film is a guaranteed home run, don't spend so much that you have to hit a home run in order to break even."  

He continues:

"The film will likely fail to reach even $85 million at the US box office, and it will likely fail to reach $300 million in foreign grosses, putting its worldwide total at under $400 million.  That's not a terrible outcome for most films and had the budget been kept in check, it would probably break even in the end.  But Disney spent $250 million producing 'John Carter,' making it the most expensive non-sequel ever made.  I've whined a lot about reckless budgets for long shot films, but the rule is simple.  Do not spend 'Return of the King'-level money on 'Fellowship of the Ring.'"

Sound advice, particularly since dicey marketing made audiences reluctant to spend $12 on a film Disney poured hundreds of millions of dollars into.  Mendelson is also the first pundit I've read to identify one of the central misfires in Disney's "Carter" promotional strategy.  All along, according to numerous reports, Disney was worried about "John Carter"'s ability to draw a broad audience, to the point that they changed the film's title to "John Carter" from the original "John Carter of Mars" out of fear that women wouldn't pay to see a movie set on Mars.  And yet, as Mendelson notes, Disney refused to play up the fact that "John Carter" contained a very strong female lead (Lynn Collins as Martian princess Dejah Thoris), a fact that might have actually attracted female audiences.  When Collins was included in the marketing at all, she was little more than eye candy.

The only place Mendelson loses me is his conclusion.  "More than anything else," he writes, "Disney's production of 'John Carter' was a defining exercise in cynicism," in that it was shameless and shamelessly generic pandering to a young male audience in the vein of previous Disney flops like "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."  But how can one movie be both a reckless financial risk and a calculated decision motivated by financial concerns instead of artistic ones?  If Disney made "John Carter" as a "defining exercise in cynicism," wouldn't they have budgeted it for $100 million, hired a hack instead of an opinionated auteur like Pixar's Andrew Stanton, and cast bankable stars instead of unknowns like Collins and Taylor Kitsch?  It seems to me there were risks up and down the board with "John Carter," and if the film is already dead just days into its release, then that could mean risk-taking might be dead in Hollywood for the foreseeable future as well.

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10 Comments

  • J.C. Young | March 21, 2012 11:41 AMReply

    Risk-taking? 250 million plus is not the same as a studio willing to bank on a different kind of movie or idea.

    They thought this was bankable and solid. And it could have been if their promotional people hadn't dropped the ball.

    It should have been John Carter: Princess of Mars, not John Carter. So, it implies not only the female lead but also an epic tale with more chapters to come. And not showing her interactions and being something other than a damsel in distress probably could have bridged the gender gap they feared.

    So many things can make a film fail.

    Disney would have been smart to have created advanced material to educate on who John Carter is and why he's special. Only one trailer mentioned that the books inspired much of modern sci-fi but didnt get across why.

    They would be wise to consider gutting the marketing department of the folks who missed the gorilla in the room and let this film miss its true potential.

  • Johnnie | March 29, 2012 7:08 PM

    "It should have been John Carter: Princess of Mars."

    Wow! Now THAT'S a movie I'd see! Would RuPaul appear in the movie?

  • Andy | March 20, 2012 4:52 PMReply

    I thoroughly enjoyed John Carter, but even as a fan of the film I agree with the article. It feels like Disney doomed this movie from the start. "Here's a bunch of money to spend on a little known property, just make sure it is the next Avatar." does not seem like a sound business model. WAY too much pressure to put on something that isnt a sure fire hit.And that's a whole separate issue from the awful marketing. I only knew of the series because my father was a fan and so I grew up seeing the books on the shelf. If I hadnt, from the trailers I wouldn't have any idea what the hell the movie was about it. They should have done it for 100-150 mil and had a different marketing campaign. Then maybe people who enjoyed the movie would get to enjoy the sequels that at this point we will likely never get to see.

  • Scott Mendelson | March 20, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    If I didn't successfully separate the perhaps genuine ambitions of those who made the film and those who greenlit and intended to profit from it, I can only fault over-editing (I can probably make three other essays out of what I cut out of this one). Where I see cynicism is the idea that Disney spent $250 million on a project that objectively had little chance of making its money back and simply presumed that it would be the next great global blockbuster merely because (on paper) it fit into the generic blockbuster template and because they arbitrarily coined it 'the next big thing'. I don't believe Stanton or the Pixar gang work like that (I've somewhat defended Cars 2 against such charges in the past). But the people who greenlit the film and allowed unlimited money to be spent where seemingly operating on the idea that it would do as well as Avatar without understanding *why* Avatar touched such a nerve with global audiences ('Oh, it was just outer-space 3D adventure!'). It's the sort of cynicism that made Disney think that Pearl Harbor and/or Armageddon would do as well as Titanic, or that 'vampire-fever' is why the Twilight series took off, or that The Dark Knight only broke records because it was 'dark and gritty'. The same meme that often fuels blockbuster backlash of these pictures ("Oh, Titanic was only a mega-hit because teen girls thought Leo was cute") is the same meme that fuels executives to constantly learn the wrong lessons about what separates a hit from a sensation. John Carter was a case of applying those wrong lessons with disastrous results.

  • Scott Mendelson | March 20, 2012 3:18 PM

    Oh, and thanks for the link and the kind words above.

  • Steve | March 20, 2012 1:56 PMReply

    My main problem with what will come to define this film's failures is the assumption that this movie is somehow inferior to Avatar. It is not. In any way. John Carter is obviously a tough sell, especially in LIEU of Avatar. But its a far more ambitious AND structurally sound as far as story goes, and the effects are actually pretty cool. Also, its more competently shot than Avatar. So please, when discussing this movie's inability to recoup its money, lets give up trying to talk trash about the movie itself, because its obviously two separate issues. If Avatar can make as much as it did, then its really not an issue of quality.

  • Corey Atad | March 20, 2012 2:08 PM

    Well, you're talking about purely subjective ideas. I happened to quite enjoy John Carter, but I think Avatar is better executed in terms of ambition (certainly technologically) and structure. I think the visuals in both are great. What's important to realize about comparing John Carter to Avatar is that it's not so much about how much you personally like the film, but about the film's ability to reach the audience. Avatar may not be a very complex film, but that simplicity was its biggest advantage. It's a simple story, easy as heck to follow, that plays on familiar iconic arcs and themes, and does it all with very simple visual cues. This makes it perfect for mass audiences, and especially for international audiences. You may have liked the story in John Carter more, but it really did have a lot going on plot-wise, and that makes it more difficult for a lot of audiences to connect with. The film has to be brilliant in the eyes of most people in order to overcome that, and unfortunately John Carter wasn't met with that sort of enthusiasm by most people who saw it.

  • Corey | March 20, 2012 1:48 PMReply

    Whoa. Sorry abou that big block of text. Apparently the comments system on this site doesn't recognize paragraph breaks.

  • Corey Atad | March 20, 2012 1:47 PMReply

    I agre with you about Mendelson's conclusion being the wrong one. John Carter was not an act of corporate cynicism (though the attempts to save it via title-change and 3D post-conversion were cynical). In truth it was an act of naive risk-taking. Disney was persuaded to buy the property, not because of some cynical strategy to get male audiences, but because John Lasseter convinced a few top execs that it would make for a great epic film and that Stanton would be perfect to direct it because of his love for the books.

    I'm guessing that the budget skyrocketed after Disney saw the success of Avatar and were wrongly convinced that a director with a bold vision putting out an epic fantasy film set on an alien planet was a lot less risky than it might have seemed. The difference, of course, is that not only is Avatar a better film, but Cameron is a guy who's already had experience with out of control budgets and putting his vision on the screen in an exciting way despite that. His name alone could draw a good number of people who'd waited to see what the Titanic director had up his sleeves. It also got attention for its extremely innovative technology. It was a movie people HAD to see. John Carter didn't have that "it" factor, and Disney clued into that too late.

    They basically made the Michael Cimino mistake. Sure, it's a business decision, which is inherently cynical, but the way they went about it was not cynical at all. They saw a director with a track record of quality and great box office returns, and they gave him a near-unlimited supply of money to deliver them something bold that could be a hit. Stanton didn't live up to his end of the bargain, but that's the risk they took.

    If you want cynical, take a look at what Warner Bros did with Inception. That was an original idea, with a premise that didn't seem like it would attract a big Summer audience. But they gave Nolan the $150 million to make it. Partly because the execs saw his track record for quality and the box office of The Dark Knight. They also probably saw that there was potential for it to hit with audiences considering how audiences took to the serious subject matter of The Dark Knight. They probably even felt like their relationship with Nolan was good enough that they could risk losing money on the film. That way they'd keep him around, plus he'd already earned them more than expected on his previous film. (Which, by the way, is true of Stanton as well. Disney is taking a loss of $200 million on John Carter, after Stanton made them about $1 billion in profits off his two Pixar films.)

    But where the cynicism comes in is clear. Nolan didn't have a contractual commitment to another Batman film. The execs at Warner knew they had to give him the crazy budget for Inception if they wanted another $1 billion in the bank from another Batman film. It was a purely calculated move that happened to pay off when the movie was both great and a sizeable hit. It was a risk, but they legitimately didn't mind if it flopped, because at least they'd have a third Batman film from Nolan.

    In Disney's case, they do mind that John Carter flopped. It's a huge blow. They had pinned a lot of naive hopes on the film, and their risk was outsized and stupid and it completely backfired. If this had been any other director, he'd probably have a hard time finding work again. Lucky for Stanton, he has Pixar to go back to, and I'm sure Disney will be fine if he spends the next several years cooking up another Pixar hit.

  • LeonRaymond | March 20, 2012 2:27 PM

    @COREY ATAD

    You sound very experienced and knowledge laden, so I will ask this question, wasn't there any way to have reigned in that budget, I mean comb over it to the point where it would have been less of a risk and still got the story point across, I mean of course your going to loose some eye catching effects but I hated to see this happen, it's just not good for the industry as a whole, I am not a fan boy but I felt this film would just add to the cannon of great films to come!!!

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