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:
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.