Monday, March 19, 2012

R.I.P., John Carter. What its failure means and why it matters...

With ten days down and $53 million in the domestic kitty and $179 million worldwide, it's pretty much time to call 'time of death' for John Carter.  Disney is announcing that the picture will lose them $200 million, and it's almost fitting. The film serves as a shining example of everything that can go wrong when crafting a franchise film in big-studio Hollywood.  Not only was it a case where everything went wrong, it was a film where everything absolutely had to go right on a record level in order to have any hope of making its investment back.  To be frank, they should have seen it coming from a mile away.   

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.  All three Lord of the Rings films originally came in at around $95 million apiece.  It was only after Fellowship became a monster hit that New Line gave Peter Jackson and company extra money to play around on the next two films, culminating in a now-quaint $150 million budget for The Return of the King.  It's a simple concept.  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.

John Carter had absolutely no insurance against its mammoth budget.  It was not a well-known property, not a sequel, had no stars, had a generally unknown filmmaker (can anyone outside of us movie geeks tell you who directed Finding Nemo?) with no live-action film making experience and no apparent editorial safeguards, plus an unsafe release date which limited the chances of strong legs.  The sad/shocking part is not that Disney rolled the dice and hoped for the best.  The inexplicable part is that there is absolutely no plausible reason that Disney (or anyone else) should have expected the film to be the kind of hit it needed to be.  Add to that an anemic and confused marketing campaign which made the movie look far worse than it was (I didn't like the movie, but it was better than the marketing implied) and hid the things that actually might have gotten audiences interested (like a well-developed female lead), and there is no reason that Disney shouldn't have seen this coming a year ago.  Sadly, those like myself who have been waving our arms in the air screaming 'Danger!' are now being ridiculed and/or called doomsayers who hurt the film with our negative publicity.

Thanks to out-of-control budgeting, John Carter *had* to be the next-big-thing in order to not lose a fortune. But it wasn't.  It wasn't new and exciting.  It didn't offer new sights and incredible moments of visual wonderment. It had one well-written supporting heroine and a heroic lead who was surprisingly not-terrible surrounded by muddled and/or dull supporting characters who all looked alike and had unpronounceable names.  It offered lackluster action that paled in comparison to the likes of any number of big-scale fantasy films over the last decade (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingAvatarTransformers: Dark of the MoonStar Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, etc), while offering not a hint of political/social relevance or parable.  All of these things wouldn't have been fatal (after all, opening weekend is about marketing, not the film) had the deck not been so stacked against it.  Without all of the other ingredients, and with a lackluster marketing campaign to boot, the film was doomed as soon as the budget climbed over $125 million.  And Disney had no right believing that audiences would ignore all of the above factors and race to the theater on opening night just out of habit.

More than anything else, Disney's production of John Carter was a defining exercise in cynicism.  The film was yet another desperate attempt for the Mouse House to create a new boy-friendly franchise, spitting on their profitable female-driven cartoons while they lost money chasing boys again (Prince of Persia) and again (The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which I liked but damn-well shouldn't have cost $150 million).  It was an insanely budgeted film that may have appeared to be a bold risk, but in fact came off as painfully generic and formulaic fantasy adventure that appeared in the marketing materials to resemble a cross between Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.  But John Carter represents the ultimate cynical hubris in that Disney expected blockbuster success for no particular reason.  Disney merely expected the media to arbitrarily anoint John Carter as 'the next cool thing' and then expected audiences to flock lime lemmings to a terrible-looking movie that they had no reason to expect they would enjoy.  But audiences didn't flock to a lousy-looking movie that offered no promise of any real entertainment.

That is the one silver lining in this mess.  There are many lessons of John Carter (don't overspend, don't skimp on varied marketing if the property needs to be sold to newbies, don't presume that geek interest equals mainstream interest, don't hire an untested filmmaker and let them run wild, etc) and we can expect the studios not to truly learn any of them.  But the key moral of the story is simply that blockbuster-level audiences won't just line up at the ticket boot for anything Hollywood tells them they should see.  They may not always make the best choices, they may choose safety over risk, but they won't just show up on cue purely because a film is arbitrarily crowned as the next defining blockbuster.  The studios still have to work for your money.  And that's actually a good thing.

Scott Mendelson


MatthewE said...

Great analysis Scott! I saw the movie and it wasn't as bad as the marketing implied, but still the trailers were awful and the movie posters posted all over buses and such just had the text JOHN CARTER with the male lead in the background..this left me wondering...WHO THE HECK IS JOHN CARTER AND WHY THE HECK SHOULD I CARE ABOUT HIM?!?! Disney deserves to lose the $200 for their arrogance and their belief that the general movie going populace is stupid.

On a side note, I was wondering if you had the chance to review the HBO film Game Change. I know you don't particularly review cable movies but since you reviewed Obama's documentary I wanted to know your take on what I consider as the best political movie in years.

For the Love of RJ said...

wait - you liked The Sorcerer's Apprentice?!?!

Frantisek Dezorz said...

Well put together. I remember many of your arguments used before, but nice sum up. I like it is different to other analysis which can be found all over the internet.
On the other hands, there are few things I don’t agree with.
No stars – actually many blockbusters do not have stars, at least not stars with great star power.
No safe date of a premiere – I guess it was changed at the last moment when Disney saw the film would not have strong blockbuster legs, wasn’t it?
Unknown and not experienced filmmaker - well, he made one 800 million dollar movie before (finding nemo) and and 600 million dollar movie (wall-e). he might not have enough experience in making live action film but he is by far more experienced and known than say Peter Jackson when he got 270 mil to make LOTR (all three of the films together), Spielberg when got Jaws to make, Lucas when got Star Wars, R.Scott with The Allien, Cameron with Terminator, etc…. John Carter is a flop but so was Spielberg 1941 (which he made after Jaws and 3rd encouters). What it seems to be more likely true is a lack of an experienced producer.
I think It is very important to see Disney tactics. Their core business is TV and Theme parks. Film studio makes only about 10 percent of their operating income. In 2011, Disney Studio had something over 6 billion dollars revenue (Theatres and DVDs) which is only 15 percent from the whole Disney revenue of 40 billions and studio net income was about 600 millions, which is 12 percent of 5 billions (whole net income) . In this light it is quite understandable new disneys tactic with less movie made and more tentpole movies. They can afford to lose some hundred of millions if they make 2-3 hit films a year. These films are made only for one reason – they must become very well known to get as much as possible from later licensing.

Matt from Phoenix said...

I saw "John Carter" this weekend as the "Let's see a movie and this is the only movie showing at the time we can see it" and found myself to be enjoyed by the movie. I liked the civil war backstory, the strong female character, and that the movie quickly moved along. My low expectations certainly helped this review. I'm a bit sad in fact that I won't get to see a sequel, but heartened that my library card is renewed and I can go check out the original books its based on.

Heather said...

I don't know if it was just my theatre but I found the sound terrible too. Half the time I couldn't hear the dialogue since everyone mumbled or the music overpowered it. It made it really hard to figure out what was going on (plus the fact that all the characters looked alike didn't help). I saw another movie right after this one and it was fine so I think it was the mixing.

spongeblog said...

This is the same mistake they're making with the Lone Ranger. The House of Mouse is so bigoted and egotistical that they have to put their name in from of all their movies. (There was never Warner Brothers Presents: Harry Potter, but there was Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire). The Disney name kills it for some people who think its a kids movie. This is why Kellogg's hides the fact they own Kashi: the name ruins it for the locavore crowd. Lone Ranger is starring a crazy white guy who thinks old time racial comedy is funny. Nyet on Billy Crystal. It's Johnny Depp who is portraying an over-the-top version of Tonto. The title card looks cartoonish and director Gore Verbinski almost derailed the project by going over budget. I enjoy movies big and small, but once they get all messages and try to force something on u, it's eye-rape. Movies should be made as art or to make money. Three Stooges remake, John Carter, Brave.... These are not artsy, and they will NOt make money


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