Disney's new action-adventure sci-fi epic John Carter opened this weekend to a staggeringly low $30 million, earning it certified flop status and leaving many wondering if there will be some big staff shakeups at Disney HQ. With the film's budget estimated to be $250 million, plus another $100 million spent on marketing, this is indeed quite a disaster for all involved. So what happened? What did they do wrong? Well, a few things.
Bad Branding: As has been pointed out, why on Earth would Disney make such an expensive movie, based on little-known, hundred-year-old source material, and call it simply John Carter? And why would was the marketing campaign for the film so obfuscating? The previews showed little beyond a series of vague action sequences that didn't offer much information in the way of plot. An old-timey guy somehow ends up on Mars and then there's a big space dog or something and some ugly green aliens and a human princess and some sort of battle over something. There was nothing to grab onto, no implied narrative whose details we were desperate to figure out. An obvious comparison has been made between John Carter and Avatar, as both are expensive CGI-heavy alien planet pictures, but with Avatar it was pretty clear from all the promos just what kind of story we were dealing with. As it turns out, the plots of both films are rather similar — both are sort of "noble savage" type tales about a human championing the cause of a downtrodden race of aliens — but that was hard to glean from any of John Carter's trailers or TV spots. The title was vague, boring, and uninviting on its own. The film really didn't need the rest of its promotions following that same model. Had anyone had any idea what the movie was actually about, maybe they would have been more interested in going. Brief shots of pretty CGI just aren't enough these days, when so many films come loaded with eye-popping graphics. Something else needs to stand out.
Low Star Wattage: Look, those of us familiar with Taylor Kitsch love him. He's brooding and tough but also handsome and sensitive. By all measure he's a textbook movie star. Only, those of us familiar with Taylor Kitsch aren't a terribly large group. Obviously Sam Worthington wasn't much of a name when he blue-suited his way through Avatar, but that film at least had the James Cameron stamp to coast on. John Carter director Andrew Stanton is by no means a household name (though his movies, like Finding Nemo and Wall-E, certainly are) so it's likely that a bigger star on the billing was necessary to get folks interested. (There's also maybe an argument to be made that Kitsch, all leathered up in loincloth and strappy things, was a little too pretty, that maybe the vague Greco-Roman-ness of his look turned off male moviegoers, but who knows.) The film's biggest star is, arguably, Willem Dafoe, and the movie he's mostly just a voice speaking through four-armed alien computer animation. Look, obviously movies with smaller or even "no-name" actors can do well, but to hinge a $350 million project on a star-less movie? That's maybe expecting too much. And there we run into perhaps the film's biggest problem.
Impossible Odds: Three hundred and fifty million dollars, guys??? What were you thinking?? As The New York Times asserts in a yikes-y post mortem piece on the film's duddery (they compare this flop to notorious bomb Ishtar), when considering the studio's profit sharing arrangements with movie theaters, "analysts say the film needs to take in more than $600 million globally to break even." (Emphasis ours, and it's worth pointing out that's just enough to put it on track for breaking even, since generally theaters get to keep about one half of the box office gross; home video, TV rights and other ancillary revenues would still be needed to get the film into the black.) That's a huge, almost laughably ridiculous, demand to put on a movie that asks this much of its audience going in. How did the budget get so unwieldy? The Times blames a hierarchy change that happened mid-development and suggests that Stanton was not told no often enough, but whatever the reason, a bunch of people really dropped the ball on this one. Were this a $100 million movie, a $30 million opening would have been just fine. But when your film, with no stars and from a largely unknown source material (outside a small band of enthusiasts), needs to open with at least $50 million to not be considered a complete flop? That's an outright failure of reason. Maybe there was some magic spreadsheet in Burbank that showed this particular property was a sure-fire hit, but it always seemed like a risky endeavor to us, at least. Somebody should have asked us! We would have laughed $350 million -- much of that spent on the perfectionist Stanton's expensive and extensive reshoots -- right out of the room. It's crazy that Disney saw fit to spend basically as much money on this, if not more, as was spent on Titanic. Maybe they were relying on the extra high cost of 3D tickets, maybe they really thought there was a market for retro space operas, or maybe everyone just had facts-blinding crushes Taylor Kitsch. Whatever the reason, it was an epic miscalculation, one that set themselves up for failure, or at least disappointment, right from the get-go.