Sunday, March 03, 2013

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

The perceived failure of Andrew Stanton's John Carter dominates any talk of the film itself.  I say "perceived" because the film was the victim of studio politics and ineptitude.  It was easier to bury studio mistakes and move on than it was for Disney to take responsibility for the debacle.  And while I am not a fan of Andrew Stanton's Wall-E, Stanton is, perhaps, the biggest victim of how the release of the film was handled.

Michael D. Sellers has cataloged all the missteps in his book, John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood.  A fan of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, he covers the writing of the original novel, A Princess of Mars, and Burroughs interactions with Hollywood, predominantly on the Tarzan films.

Animator Bob Clampett was the first one to attempt to turn the John Carter stories into film, albeit animated.  While Clampett produced samples, he was unable to find a backer for the series.  At various times, Ray Harryhausen, Disney, and Paramount were interested in the property, but while scripts were written, nothing was produced.

Andrew Stanton first became a fan of John Carter though Marvel's comics adaptations.  When the rights became available, he was working on Wall-E and asked Dick Cook, Disney Studios chief, if could direct it as his next project.  Cook secured the rights.  As Stanton moved onto the project, two questionable decisions were made: setting the budget at $250 million and not casting stars.

Shortly after the budget was set, Dick Cook was out at Disney.  It's common in Hollywood for projects to be orphaned when executives are fired.  In this case, given Stanton's importance, it was impossible to cancel the project, but Cook's replacement, Richard Ross, was not enthusiastic. 

Neither was Robert Iger, who fired Cook.  Iger's pattern is to buy established franchises like Marvel and Lucasfilm rather than spend the money to develop franchises in-house.  In fact, at the time Cook was giving John Carter a green light, Iger was negotiating to buy Marvel, which would give Disney a line-up of characters all better known to the public than John Carter.  And while John Carter was in production, Iger was negotiating with George Lucas for the purchase of the Star Wars franchise, one that would give Disney a much higher profile space adventure than John Carter

While the studio was willing to allocate a standard marketing budget for the film, it was not willing to spend more.  Given the risks associated with the production budget, this could be seen as prudent or foolish.  In addition, once Ross was in place, he hired a new director of marketing, MT Carney, who had no experience marketing films.  What made it worse is that she was fired before John Carter was released, so there was little continuity in the marketing campaign.

Months went by without marketing activity for the film.  The release date was moved from summer to March, which raised questions as to whether the film was strong enough to compete with summer blockbusters.  "Of Mars" was dropped from the title, leaving the very generic sounding John Carter.   The budget began to attract attention, the implication being that costs were out of control. Stanton's interviews implied that he was less comfortable with live action production than animation, which didn't help the perception that the film was over-budget.  In reality he held to the budget, including 18 days of reshoots.

For the March release, the film's main competition would be The Hunger Games.  Sellers shows how that film trounced John Carter in creating audience awareness prior to release. 

The film did not open with enough box office to suggest it would be profitable, but only 10 days into the release, Disney publicly declared the film a failure and indicated that it would write off $200 million on it.  It's unusual for a studio to abandon a film while it is still in release domestically and yet to open all around the world.  Sellers explanation is that Richard Ross made the announcement early so that it would be old news by the time Iger next had to meet with the financial press for the quarterly earnings report.  It also attached the failure to Richard Ross, who Iger was about to replace. In total, the three executives most responsible for producing and marketing the film -- Dick Cook, MT Carney and Richard Ross -- were all fired.  Stanton was sent packing back to Pixar.

Sellers is scrupulous about his statistics and quotes, but less scrupulous when it comes to his own involvement.  While he admits to being a Burroughs fan in the introduction, it isn't until the second half of the book that he reveals that he is the proprietor of, a fan site that collected information about the film prior to its release.  He also cut a fan trailer that received a lot of praise for being better than the official trailers and he met with Disney, hoping to involve himself in the film's marketing but was rebuffed.  While there is no question about the facts surrounding John Carter, Sellers actions do raise questions about his motives for writing the book.  He is not a dispassionate reporter but a spurned fan.  Is the book reportage or revenge?

Ultimately, John Carter fell victim to three problems: a budget that made it difficult for the film to be profitable; source material that seemed old hat after influencing other science fiction projects; and a major changing of the guard and focus at Disney's film studio.

Andrew Stanton brought his first live action film in on budget, a major accomplishment considering the difficult logistics of the project, but the merits of the film couldn't overcome the aforesaid problems.  Sellers has written a textbook for all the things that can go wrong off a movie set that ultimately affect the success of a film.  John Carter isn't unique, just the latest Hollywood film to be mismanaged and cast aside.


Angela Entzminger said...

This is an excellent evaluation of the behind the scenes action surrounding "John Carter." Our professional practices animation class (basically a business class for animation majors) discussed the issues surrounding this film just last week. It is good to know about the inner workings of the industry as animators so that we can be better prepared. Thank you for sharing.

S. Stephani Soejono said...

Thank you for the article :D I have been waiting awhile for this

Anonymous said...

Whatever one thinks of the movie, the book is a bit too "fan-boy" and un-biased for it's own good. That the Disney studio dropped the ball on the marketing isn't entirely uncommon in Hollywood, but decisions like that aren't made in an entire void. There was just nothing for the audience to really care about; no stakes, either from a character or a plot point of view. No one to root for. The book continually glosses over the films serious flaws in this regard, and instead spends it's time trying to convince a world that rejected it that they're wrong. It's just not that simplistic, and their argument is weakened by their fan-boy fanaticism.

Thad said...

I've yet to read this book, but I have to add that I don't get all the hate over JOHN CARTER as a movie. At its worst, it's a less endearing STAR WARS. No better, no worse. It definitely could not have made SW or WALL-E like numbers, even with the fiercest marketing, but the fashion in which it bombed seemed like deliberate self-sabotage all along.

Alberto said...

After finishing the book I'm left with the same question I had before I started it: How on earth did the manage to spend $100 million on such a non-marketing campaign?

Michael Sporn said...

Unfortunately, after wasting an hour on the movie (I walked out of it), I wouldn't wsste another five minutes on the book. I'm curious to see what Disney does with their next $260 million fiasco, the new Wizard of Oz with star, "John Franco" opening this weekend.



Just spent (wasted) a hour today reading about the teardown of the 20 Thousand Leagues Ride at Disney world, a similar story of corporate ineptitude at the House of Mouse.
But they ultimately have the power; fandom don't count for much.

What were some other major film failures due to similar circumstances?

Anonymous said...

It makes perfect sense that they tore down the 20 Thousand Leagues ride at Disneyworld. It's very low capacity, takes up a lot of real estate, and is wildly expensive to keep up. I don't agree with it, but do understand it!

No one asked for a john carter movie. Very few people even know or care anything about it. The bigger question is why Disney spent $280 million on a novice director with an apparently massive, unjustified ego with virtually no studio supervision.

David Nethery said...

Anony. at March 07, 2013 11:09 PM:

How could Andrew Stanton be considered a "novice" director?

Director of Finding Nemo , Wall-E, co-director of A Bugs Life . All of them successful films.

Anonymous said...

Live action. And he was one of two directors on finding Nemo.

Shaun Firth said...

John Carter is a very entertaining movie. Should they have spent $250 million on it's production? No. But as far as being unknown to most people, nobody had ever heard of Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. And how many BILLION dollars has that franchise made? A more modest budget and execs who cared about the film and the story might have been very different. It's always like this in Hollywood. The new guys make sure the old guys movie fails to prove their hiring was not a mistake. Of course in a world where a film has to make $80 million in the first three days to be considered a success, this story is more likely to become the norm than an outlier. Oh, and it's a much better movie than John Franco's Wizard of Oz!