Sunday, March 18, 2012


What Went Wrong With Disney's 'John Carter'?

It's been out a week and the news is official: Disney's new 'John Carter' film, based on the popular Edgar Rice Burrough's 100 year old fantasy novel 'A Princess of Mars', is a box office flop.

This is painful to me because I am a huge ERB fan and have read most of his works; all the Barsoom novels, the complete set of Tarzan novels, as well as one off stories like 'The Mucker' and 'The Cave Girl'.

An attempt at a film adaption of 'A Princess of Mars' was first announced way back when I was just out of high school, 1984 in the Steranko's old 'Prevue' magazine.  Every couple of years since then, new projects would be announced, then die in the planning stages.  For awhile, it did look like an adaption would get off the ground with 'Die Hard's' John McTiernan directing and Tom Cruise starring back in the early 1990's, but in the end they realized the special effects technology just wasn't there yet and so that project shut down too.

Obviously, there was nothing wrong with the basic story.  'A Princess of Mars' is such an excellent fantasy novel it is still read and cherished today 100 years after ERB wrote it.

So what exactly went wrong with the one project that was able to finish?

1. They turn the vibrant life-loving John Carter of the novel into an angst-ridden emo guy struggling with his past.  Complete with wild emo-style hair hanging over his face. Especially in the scenes on Earth at the beginning of the story, which also take far too long.  There was no reason to do this, the whole over-done, over-blown 'wounded hero' schtick.  Too much of the film is spent on Carter's troubled past. The John Carter of ERB's novel is a devil-may-care free-wheeling adventurer.  They should have stuck with that.

2. They cast unknowns. Don't let that first point get you thinking I'm dissing Taylor Kitsch.  He followed the script and gave the director what he wanted and I thought he did a fine job in the role.  So did Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris.  But if you are going to cast a huge mega $$$ production with two unknowns in the lead roles, you really really need to work hard at selling the CONCEPT of the film.  Denzel Washington just proved he is one of the last movie stars that can 'open' a picture with 'Safe House'.  If you don't have a big star that can draw an audience, your marketing for the film has to make the concept of the film very clear to the target audience.  And Disney failed miserably to do that here.  I'll expand on this thought in point #4.

3. Director Andrew Stanton was allowed to run the production up to $250 million with expensive re-shoots. Stanton had made Disney and others dump-trucks full of money with animated features such as 'Wall-E'.  But working with live actors turned out to a disaster for him.  He kept calling for expensive reshoots, apparently missing the fact things were wrong or not to his satisfaction during the original shoot.  Reshoots on a film like this are prohibitively expensive when you are using live actors conjoined with expensive sets and CGI elements like blue screens. If you decided you need to go back to a certain set that's already been dismantled and do a reshoot, they have to put everything back together again and there are always continuity problems you have to look out for.  The cast, the crew, the special effects guys.....they are essentially doing the same thing or close to it 2-3 times on the SAME scene, which doubles or triples your production cost in the long run.

4. Bad marketing.  It's being said the bomb of films with the word 'Mars' in it's title spooked the producers.  Mars Needs Moms, Mars Attacks, etc. So they decided to change it from 'John Carter of Mars' to simply 'John Carter'.  A far better title? Why not 'A Princess of Mars'? 'John Carter' doesn't tell you anything about the movie.  'A Princess of Mars' calls up all kinds of stuff; kingdoms, princesses, princes, Kings, and wow, on Mars? Awesome! Disney should hire me.

As I mentioned in point #2, when you cast unknowns your commercials and promos for the film had better be crystal clear about selling the movie to the target audience.  'John Carter's commercials and trailers started out well, then de-evolved into fast-cut senseless scenes of non-stop CGI action that didn't tell viewers anything about the stories or the characters.

It takes talent and a creative mind to craft a trailer that entices the audience into wanting to see the film.  Some hook, some connection with the characters and the story.  The very first John Carter trailer managed to have some success with that:

Unfortunately, by the time the Super Bowl rolled around, the marketing people decided to sell the film as a non-stop CGI action-fest, kind of like Transformers 2 or Attack of the Clones:

If you didn't know anything about 'A Princess of Mars', or seen that first trailer, what exactly would that Super Bowl extended commercial have told you about the film's story, plot or characters?  Essentially nothing.

The fact this movie flopped is very disappointing because there was an excellent story at the foundation of this thing.  Enough of it still shines through that many people that have seen the film liked it, despite it's problems.  Ed Morissey at Hot Air has a good review of the film:

Still, even though many people liked it, it's not going to even come close to recouping what it cost to make.  With a $250 million production budget and likely another $100 million spent marketing it, Disney would need around $600 million in ticket sales worldwide to get to profitability with box office sales.

Thus far? Not even close:

An estimated $179 million world wide box office thus far, and remember the studio has to split the ticket sales with the theaters. So that's really only around $90 million generated for Disney thus far.

I can only hope there's a reboot in a few years where somebody focuses more on the great story and less on non-stop CGI thrills.


  1. Hey, on the plus side, if they reboot it in a few years as "A Princess of Mars", no one will know it's got anything to do with this thing...

  2. Unfortunately, The Asylum already got to 'A Princess of Mars'. If anyone really wants to know more, hit IMDB for the full...'glory' isn't really the right term, but yeah. Have at.

  3. They made a version, with porn skank and all arond leathery gargoyle, Traci Lords, for SYfy. Sounds bad? I watched enough to know excessive effects would have crowded out the bad acting, hopefully. And there, John Carter was some swarthy dude who played being an Israeli soldier.

    Yep, just as bad as it sounds. Too bad, great books.

  4. I remember starting to watch that Traci Lords version SyFy made; it was on NetFlix; I got about 10 minutes in and went 'Nope!' and quit the stream.

  5. Waiting for the day someone can do John Norman's GOR series in any way approaching capable. There was an early 90's attempt that was ABYSSMALLY BAD. In the current PC Hollywood I know there is ZERO chance...too bad. A Gor movie told the way it should be would be a shot of testosterone to a nation that is slowly losing the Alpha Male.

  6. I have to challenge some of your assertions. "A Princess of Mars" is NOT still "cherished today" as widely as you imply. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one of my 'close' circle of 50 - 100 people who even knows that 'John Carter' is based on a story written by the same guy who wrote 'Tarzan'. I'm sorry to say I haven't read the actual story, but I actually recognized the name: no on else I know does.

    Disney should not have depended on a 'name recognition' that no longer exists, and should have promoted the movie on its own merits. I've not seen the film, so I can't comment on it's quality, but the marketing campaign is certainly a colossal flop, judging by the box office takes.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I suspect for the most part, only avid readers of science fiction and fantasy over the age of 50 Y/O would know who John Carter of Mars was. These days with all the media outlets most younger folk don't even read real books and with the absolute disaster Disney made out of this fabulous book, few are ever likely to. Such a shame.

      I too have been waiting decades for this book to be made into a decent movie. I think Disney just buried that dream of ever happening. You should read the book. Afterwards you will likely be chasing down the other 10. Edgar Rice Burroughs changed the face of Sci/Fi fantasy adventure. As the blogger said these books truly are timeless.

  7. and...........Mark Steyn weighs in with some good points:

    It is kind of amazing that a Saturday-morning serial can lose a fifth of a billion dollars. Yes, yes, I know that’s what the diseased government of the United States borrows every hour of every day, but, for anyone not in “public service,” it’s still a helluva sum.

    But I disagree somewhat with Michael here:

    "Who would ever green-light such an absurd amount of money for a project whose original fans were driving Model T’s and listening to the organ while watching the latest moving picture from the Lumiere brothers?"

    Yeah, but what else you got? Sherlock Holmes? Narnia? Middle Earth? Hollywood’s business model is to take a story that cost two shillings and thruppence-ha’penny and spend a fifth of a billion making it lousier. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way the industry’s living off Model T fumes. Hollywood could use its own Edgar Rice Burroughs, but instead it’s a business full of guys who can’t even adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs for less than 300 mil — and then blow it. (Broadway has the same problem, but with a couple of zeroes lopped off the bottom line.)

    Oh, and note the relatively positive nature of John Carter’s reviews: People who spend their working week immersed in Hollywood’s present sensibility couldn’t see there was no there there. This critic gets close to it:

    Just about every sci-fi/fantasy/superhero adventure you ever loved is in here somewhere.

    And he means it as a compliment: Why, here’s a film like all the other films! What’s not to like? He’s got a point: These days, whatever the source material, movies are mostly about other movies. And not even old movies, like Spielberg when he did the Indiana Jones stuff, but movies that you saw last week. You’d almost get the impression that that’s all these fellows know. So all you see is the formula, which the critics dignify as allusion and hommage rather than a shrinking myopia as constricting as the most convention-bound kabuki.

    By the way, is John Podhoretz right — they’re remaking the 2002 Spider-Man?