We were all pretty excited about John Carter when it hit theaters… that is everyone who knew it existed. I can’t begin to tell you how many questions I fielded about this film from my coworkers who hadn’t even know it existed until it began failing at the box office. So the question stood: How does a film that spent millions of dollars on marketing, lose $200 million and bomb at the box office?
Disney’s huge film John Carter hit theaters last week and has since begun its downward slide into the box office flop home base. Even though our critics here gave the film a great review, many other critics scored it poorly. As a result, Disney is expected to lose roughly $200 million because of the project.
We expect the film to generate an operating loss of approximately $200 million during our second fiscal quarter ending March 31. As a result, our current expectation is that the Studio segment will have an operating loss of between $80 and $120 million for the second quarter.” Said a statement from Disney.
So what happened between the post-production and the release? It was slated (at least by the studio) to be one of the big hits on the year, so far as the studio was already working on a script for the sequel. (I think it is safe to assume that isn’t happening now). Yet now the film, which cost $250 million to make, has grossed much less than that at $30.6 million domestically.
So there are basically 4 reasons why this film flopped at the box office (although it might do better on DVD who knows).
Aside from the one published here, the reviews for this film was subpar to say the least. The film only gained a 53 rating on Metacritic, which is surprising because it’s rare that a family-friendly release is smashed by the critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film 2.5 out of 4 stars. Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a D rating, feeling,
“Nothing in John Carter really works, since everything in the movie has been done so many times before, and so much better.”
Other critics proclaimed the film to be to long, and undeniably boring. The reviews pretty much all so-so. Not to great, but not terrible. But who wants to go spend 20 dollars to see a film in theaters that is only so-so? The film may do better when released on DVD but it doesn’t appear to be going as far as the studio imagined in the theater.
I think this is where they made their biggest mistake. There was so much that they could have done to draw attention to the film, but in the end they just didn’t. They could have touched on the fact that the film was directed by the guy who wrote and directed hit Pixar films WALL-E and Finding Nemo. Or they could have mentioned it was based on one of the most loved novel series by well-respected novelist, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Or that the 95-year-old story influenced much of sci-fi culture, as we know it now. But no, there was no mention of director’s abilities, or even a simple line like that the story came from the writer who created Tarzan.
But the trailers just got worse.
The movie’s very first teaser trailer left most audiences saying, “what IS that?” And by the time the Super Bowl ad for the film had played, people weren’t paying attention to it. The studio released so many incredibly similar ads and trailers for the film, that by the time it actually hit theaters, no one cared anymore because they couldn’t really tell what the film was even about. Even a former studio marketing chief stated that,
This is one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of movies
They went on to say that,
It’s almost as if they went out of their way to not make us care.
Which, as it turned out, most people didn’t by the time the film was released.
Oddly enough, for a film that banks on the action aspect of its story, the first trailer and some others were utterly devoid of the effects and action points that was the biggest selling point for the story. Most trailers should have a “wow!” factor that hooks in audiences from the beginning. But unfortunately, John Carter didn’t. Especially the first trailer that was meant to have been the summer hook for the film lacked any special effects or “wow!” factors that would make the audience want to see the film (and even wait a year or so to do so, like the Hunger Games.)
The lack of a good trailer stemmed from the fact that regrettably, the director, Stanton, didn’t have any of those special scenes ready for the summer trailer release. He was new to the live-action world of filmmaking and most scenes even remotely awesome for the trailer were still unfinished by the time the first trailer was expected to be released. So basically they had nothing to create a decent trailer with. Thus audiences received a lackluster and boring trailer that didn’t explain much about the storyline or hook us in to want to see more.
Even worse, when the first full-length trailer came out in November, to compensate for the unintentional bad first trailer, it was entirely in the other direction. All action shots with no explanation of the storyline, the character or the film and why audiences should want to see the man on Mars.
It seemed they couldn’t just find a happy medium.
They also landed on an incredibly bland title for a sci-fi film. The original novel is called A Princess of Mars as a part of the Barsoom series. Any variation on any of the titles from the series would have been better than a name that sounded like the “ER” character got sent to space.
Many also commented that the film seems too reminiscent of another blockbuster failure, the film adaptation of Prince of Persia. (And who wants to be reminded of that film?) A desert setting that makes everything look brown and dirty? Check. Long, and not so luscious locks on our main hero? Check.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not bashing Stanton; I think he is a brilliant director. But his first live-action film shouldn’t have been this one. Mainly because this was a book that he, as a fan of the series, had a fierce loyalty to that wouldn’t budge. He had this kind of ego regarding the film, and just couldn’t fathom that people didn’t know about the original series, and therefor wouldn’t be interested in seeing his adaptation. And because of his creative control, despite urges from the marketing departments, Stanton won every argument, resulting in the failure of the ad campaign and ultimately the flop of the movie.
One Disney executive added:
You only get one shot at making a first impression … and that first trailer, it never jumped off, never did anything to catch that wave of anticipation that all new movies crave. That’s what so critical for a movie like this.
It seems that Stanton was pretty invested in the film looking like he always imagined it to be when he a child, and in turn the rest of the world, who hadn’t read the novels, didn’t quite get it.
I think something that is often overlooked regarding the film faltering in the box office. The movie just seemed so…. Done already. The original series inspired so much of modern science fiction that looking at John Carter now seems like the themes and characters are over played even if it was the original inspiration.
One of the most obvious is the Star Wars franchise in which much of the film is derivative of the Barsoom series.
Princess Leia and Princess Dejah. Oh yeah and they both wear those sexy bikinis.
Evil Sith an Evil Sith Insects.
That thing Leia stands on next to Jabba also happens in Carter.
The Banthas were also inspired by the banths.
Avatar was also reminiscent of the novels by Burroughs.
“Every great scene in the book has been reaped,” explained Don Murphy, the producer of movies like Transformers and Real Steel. “It’s all been done before, so you actually have to find a way to make and market it in a way that’s actually less faithful to the original material.” (Murphy had also tried to bring John Carter to the silver screen almost a decade ago, but was never able to fully get it going.)
However, despite urging to deviate from the source text, Stanton refused, probably feeling like the film was going to be the next great sci-fi series like he always imagined.
Basically, you should never attempt to adapt a film that you glorify. When you do this, like Stanton, you lose the ability to look at it objectively and figure out how to work with it. Stanton tried and it flopped. He wasn’t ready for the live-action world, he wasn’t willing to compromise, and thanks to the terribly marketing of the film most people don’t even know what the film is about or that it existed over the weekend.
It seems it was doomed to fail before it even began.