John Carter lightly transported itself into theaters this past weekend, securing a relatively meager $30m opening domestically, though it managed to secure another $70m internationally. While I will eventually make a defense of the economics at play here, it is hard to argue that John Carter isn’t a domestic failure, considering it came in second to The Lorax, which debuted a full week earlier. On top of that, John Carter has a suspected $250m budget with marketing costs guestimated in the $100m range, for a total investment of around $350m.
The critics have been somewhat kind to the civil war veteran’s debut – while the average review seems to be “it’s alright,” there have certainly been some hyperbolic highs and very few hyperbolic lows. Consensus is you’ll probably think the movie is okay, but you might want to wait for DVD. Scattered among those are bold claims that film will live on with your children as a classic, which are probably a bit off the reservation.
There is little doubt that in at least several ways John Carter failed, ways that were easily avoidable and ways that make me fairly angry with the system.
The New York Times not-at-all-cleverly compares John Carter to Ishtar, a big budget flop that none the less received large influxes of marketing cash, a big financial push meant to show goodwill on the part of the studio towards leads Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
While Disney is quick to say the following statement isn’t true, the failure of the film rests squarely on at least one of director Andrew Stanton‘s shoulders. The rest of the weight is spread across the Disney Company themselves, as they were the ones who, apparently foolishly, entrusted too much control to first time live-action director Stanton.
Stanton is well known and highly regarded for his work with Pixar – his hands have been involved with all three (and the upcoming fourth) Toy Story films, as well as WALL-E, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. It’s indisputable that he has an impressive writing an animation pedigree. However, there is really nothing in the animation world that prepares you for making a live-action movie. To his credit, Stanton was up front with the Disney executives, plainly telling them, “I’m not gonna get it right the first time. I’ll tell you that right now.”
Not the vote of confidence I’d be looking for from a director. His statement was prophetic, as Carter went in for two lengthy re-shoots, each one adding millions of dollars to the ballooning budget. In this regard, Stanton and Disney share the blame. Stanton for marching forward without having much of an idea how to handle a big budget, live-action feature, and Disney for letting him. The same New York Times article reports Stanton went to his Pixar compatriots for advice on the film, rather than looking for advice from those with relevant live-action experience. Big mistake.
Further, in planting the blame on Stanton, it is reported that he had control over the marketing of the film, which everyone has almost universally agreed to be lackluster. Stanton reportedly repeatedly rejected ideas from MT Carney, the marketing chief, and went ahead with his vision of trailers, music choices, billboard imagery, and early footage screenings. Big mistake number two.
With this coming to light, Stanton must stand guilty of being perhaps too proud at worst, or at best, being too naive to accept the guidance of others in areas he knew little about.
Some may want to give Disney a big pat on the back for supporting Stanton and refusing to point the finger of blame at him. It’s the right move to stand by your director, though in this case because Stanton is holding a mirror, reflecting the blame back on Disney. Stanton made many mistakes in bringing this movie to life, but he was only allowed to make those mistakes by Disney executives allowing him too much freedom with too much money.
When push comes to shove, the studio must sometimes stand their ground. We all love to complain about studio interference, but on the by and large, studios are good at what they do – producing movies and making money. How many movies a year do you watch and enjoy? Behind the bulk of them are smart executives who spend tireless hours making sure that you are guided to your seat and entertained. It is easy to hate executives, they’re seen as lacking creativity and vision – but making and publicizing movies is a business. Without that, even a great movie has an uphill battle. Simply put – the studios should have interfered more here to save this film.
Tim Burton wisely stepped aside and let Henry Selick direct The Nightmare Before Christmas because Burton suspected he did not, at the time, have the skills necessary to direct a stop-motion film. The result? A dazzling and beloved classic. Knowing your limitations and working with them while learning to overcome them is an important growing pain. Stanton probably learned that in the harshest way possible.
So, in these ways John Carter is a definite failure. An inexperienced director was given too much freedom on a very large budget because Disney wanted to woo him based on his Pixar pedigree. They forego regular business sense to instead protect the ego of a star and will most likely pay the price.
I say most likely as we lead into the second part of the article, the part where maybe, just maybe, it’s too early to seal the door on John Carter’s specially built tomb. The only thing the world likes more than watching a star rise is watching one burn upon re-entry to the world.
Everyone is quick to point out that John Carter did not make any money. It is a flop, a failure. Domestically, the opening of John Carter is indeed very soft for the budget. However, big event movies like this are international affairs and a $70 million opening outside of the USA is no small feat. As a popular book series, the Carter adventures have a global fan base. This cowboy might have some legs underneath him in the long run, which is the only run that matters. Titanic did not break all box office records in the first weekend – it ran. And ran. And ran. For weeks into months. It stayed in theaters, pulling in money week after week. Stanton’s film has a long road ahead of it, but pulling in $100 million in the first weekend is a decent first step towards recouping the budget.
It is too early to stomp on the financial future of Barsoom, but most outlets don’t care about long term forecasting when a negative headline will bring in people to point and stare like a car crash. Carter has veered off of the road, but it has yet to be seen if he’s lost total control of the vehicle. Even with a drop off of say, 40%, John Carter could bring in another $60 million internationally next weekend. Maybe $30 the week after. It won’t be a stretch to see Carter’s cave of gold eventually being worth north of $200 million in box office receipts.
I don’t think either Superman Returns or King Kong are considered flops, even though each took several weeks to earn their money, with Peter Jackson’s film barely surpassing its budget and Singer’s never quite making it there. It didn’t end the career of either director, nor did it stop Warners from greenlighting another Superman adventure. John Carter may yet turn a profit, or break even, and see his way to the screen again. It will be a tough fight, one befitting a Warlord of Mars.
For the record, I thought John Carter was mostly enjoyable. There were a bit too many similarities in the action to The Phantom Menace for my taste and the humor at times felt out of place, tacked on if you will, rather than being organic to the story. However, I would go see a sequel in theaters.
Traditionally this column would feature a lot more expletives and a lot more visible anger, but this week is seething. Partly at those who prematurely dismiss John Carter (a risky proposition, if you’ve seen the film) and ignore the international market, which so often can determine the fate of large studio pictures, and mostly at the whole process behind creating the film.
Stanton should have sought aide, assistance, and guidance from those who knew the business. Pixar has a wonderful animated track record, but their business is not the live-action business. Disney should have sacked up and put their foot down on Stanton. He’s an animation director and a writer, not a marketer, not a big budget, live-action, stunt heavy guy. I don’t care how many Olympic Gold Medals Michael Phelps has in swimming, I’m not going to him to learn how to improve my tennis backhand. Stanton has all the credentials in the world when it comes to storytelling and creating visuals, but crafting them in real-time is not his thing. He needed a babysitter and Disney wasn’t bold enough to give him a strong overseer to keep the progress on track. In the end, a cacophony of egos and ego coddling have potentially derailed a great franchise and for that… I am past my boiling point.