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Andrew Stanton Reflects On Box Office Failure Of 'John Carter,' Discusses 'Finding Nemo 2'

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by Drew Taylor
September 10, 2012 1:25 PM
4 Comments
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John Carter

We're now six months out from "John Carter," Disney's hugely expensive flop based on the beloved novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs about a Civil War vet magically transported to Mars, a land of warring tribes, princesses, and adorable, multi-legged dog thingees (we love you Woola!) Since then, Disney has admitted to losing $200 million on the movie and two of its top executives – Walt Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross and marketing chief MT Carney – were fired in its wake. But director Andrew Stanton, who had made the hugely profitable "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo" for Pixar and who before the release had maintained an air of bulletproof unflappability, has kept mum. Until now. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the director opens up about the making and marketing of the movie and what's up next.

Stanton admits that he wasn't ever compromised, creatively or artistically, during the entire development process of "John Carter" (originally entitled "John Carter of Mars" and billed, for a while, as "Pixar's first live-action feature"), a rare luxury for a director who had never worked in live-action before, much less a $200 million tent pole initially envisioned as a springboard for sequels and cartoons and theme park attractions that would zoom you through the craggy world of Barsoom. "I was left alone from Day One to the last day," Stanton said. He then gave way to an apt metaphor: "I thought, 'Are we gonna lose the green light?' In the very beginning I assumed it would be like that, cause who's gonna give me the keys to a Ferrari if I've never driven before?," he said. "But studios are not set up like that. They're like, 'Go and drive the car and don't drive it off a bridge.'"

While many point to Stanton's unlimited freedom, mixed with his naiveté and inexperience, as the reason for the film's downfall. Not only was Stanton not policed by the studio, but he also was unaware of how key components of live action marketing work and his personal assembly of things like the film's wonky first teaser trailer led to the sensation that he was driving that Ferrari very, very recklessly.

Still, he points to a destined-to-fail mentality in the industry and press, which isn't exactly off-base, with much made in the media of extensive reshoots that were actually built into the production schedule and budget. "There was this weird air the summer before of schadenfreude, of doomed to fail," he recalled to the Times. "It isn't a nice atmosphere to be in, but what can you do about it?"

The marketing of the movie, with that first teaser set to a gravelly Peter Gabriel cover of an Arcade Fire song, to the posters which promised a crimson red of Mars that never actually appeared in the movie, focused much on "Friday Night Lights" heartthrob Taylor Kitsch, then thought to be a rising star. (Instead, he would go on to lead another costly turkey, Universal's "Battleship," and the ugly Oliver Stone drug world thriller "Savages,") Things they chose not to highlight: the scope and scale of the production, the earnestly old fashioned Saturday afternoon serial vibe, the many bizarre creatures and vehicles, the involvement of author Michael Chabon, and the fact that the original material inspired everything from "Star Wars" to "Avatar" (something a very late television ad finally addressed). 

"We didn't always agree on which direction to take every step of the way, but there was never serious contention," Stanton said of the studio's marketing. "The truth was everyone tried their very best to crack how to sell what we had, but the answer proved elusive." Stanton's co-director Mark Andrews, in an interview with us a few weeks ago, was more damning, telling us that he thought, "The studio pulled the plug on it a little prematurely and I think there were some mistakes in marketing."

The Los Angeles Times points out, and rightly so, that after "The Abyss" bombed, James Cameron went back to his first hit, "The Terminator," for a follow up, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Similarly, an argument could be made that Stanton is doing the exact same thing, as he recently committed to a sequel to "Finding Nemo," to be written by Black List scribe Victoria Stouse, set for release in 2016. This isn't the case, according to Stanton. "What was immediately on the list was writing a second 'Carter' movie," he told the paper. When that went away, everything slid up. I know I'll be accused by more sarcastic people that it's a reaction to 'Carter' not doing well, but only in its timing, but not in its conceit." Andrews, in that same interview with us, said that he and Stanton would still work on the "John Carter" sequel, in the hopes that they'll get a call one day and say that it's back on.

Stanton remains proud of the film and told the paper that he hopes it will join the privileged ranks of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Blade Runner" in terms of films that took years to find their audience. (Andrews told us that 'Carter' was the #1 pirated movie of all time, which does say something.) We think that a reappraisal will happen at some point. "John Carter" might not have been a masterpiece, but it's certainly more smart and entertaining than most of the big-budget junk that came out this summer in its wake (is anyone really going to argue that "Battleship" or "Total Recall" are more sophisticated sci-fi spectacles?)

"The ennui you have after a huge success when it's all over is exactly the same as the ennui you have when it's a bomb," Stanton said, learning an important lesson after being so unaccustomed to the later. "You loved the doing. You've spent every waking moment thinking about its birth, worrying about it, raising it. It's an empty nest syndrome. Whether your kid went to college or went to jail, it's an empty nest."

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4 Comments

  • terry | June 2, 2013 7:28 PMReply

    finding nemo 2 ha ha ha ha ha i not go see that only babys go see ,i want john carter ,what a fool ,glad u not market star wars like u did john carter ,what fools

  • HistoryGirl | September 14, 2012 11:19 PMReply

    Well, add me to the list of those who came late to 'John Carter' and found myself pleasantly surprised. I rented it with a free rental code from Redbox, and figured it would be one of those movies I'd hate but would only have wasted a couple of hours. After all, the trailers had been puzzling and I kept thinking 'Boy this piece of crap stole from everything didn't it...even Avatar and Star Wars.' Of course my main question was 'Who the heck is John Carter?' I loved it. By the time it was over and I had watched the behind the scenes, I was angry, not at the people who gave us the movie but the morons at Disney who mismanaged the entire ad campaign. A year prior to its' release, Disney should have been giving us the background, even if it was simply 'From the mind of the man who brought you Tarzan the Ape Man comes the works which inspired Star Wars and Avatar.' But instead of tempting us and teasing us with something incredible and making us eager for the release, they just threw these commercials out there and left it at that. The studio should have its' butt kicked! At any rate, I loved the movie, especially as I had never known of ERB's Barsoom series -- and now I've read Princess of Mars and I'm tackling book 2. When the movie was over, I said something I rarely say "I want a sequel." I am hoping that a sequel will one day come -- I want to see John Carter return to Mars and his beloved. I just hope that if there is a next time, it will be handled by a studio that knows what it is doing.

  • Amanda | September 13, 2012 8:45 AMReply

    I recently watched this film with my son on DVD and really enjoyed it. I asked my son if it had been in the cinema and he told me that he had a slight idea that it had been...... The reason this film flopped is not because it was badly made (it was not) but it was completely down to the lack of Advertisment. I saw all the advertisment for total recall and because of this went to the cinema to see it, but of course they only showed the best bits in the 40 second trailer because the film was soooo dreadfull that half way through the film I was begging mentally for the film to be over (it was that boring and droll). I loved John Carter and anybody else that I have spoken to about this film have only good things to say. Maybe they should try and realease it again but this time advertise like crazy.

  • JD | September 10, 2012 2:24 PMReply

    I honestly think that while the movie bombed it did not bomb for the lack of a great movie. I watched this last week with the intention of snoozing through it however i loved it, it had a great feel to it and kept me tied to it for the 2 hours by the time i finuished it i sat there scratching my head wondering why this movie not only flopped but why it didnt do great! After spending some time chatting up the social boards i realized that this movie already has a following a huge one, everyone i know loved this movie. In my humble opinion i think that the only mistake made was the marketing. im not saying that this was the greatest movie of my generation, i am merely stating that it had every right to be one of the greats in the line with other scifi greats. i think that while it was unsuccessful box office wise that this movie will be a cult classic now! my nod to the man who brought this movie to fruition, you may have f*(&ed up the ads and promotions but this movie you should be glad to call your own. From a fellow fan of the "Princess of Mars", "God of Mars" and all of the other great books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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