Disney’s $250M ‘John Carter’ Gamble: Otherworldly Hit or Cosmic Bomb?

Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels doesn’t just have to be a big hit, it has to be one of the biggest movies of all time

The exit of Disney marketing president MT Carney on Monday creates yet more drama around  “John Carter," the $250 million sci-fi epic that may be the biggest studio gamble since “Avatar.”

The film doesn’t hit theaters until March, but reports are rampant that "John Carter" has gone over budget and required costly reshoots.

A lackluster early trailer didn't help the buzz and now, without a marketing executive to lead the global rollout, the pressure on "John Carter" is more intense than ever. 

“It doesn’t just have to open big — it has to be one of the top grossing films of all time,” a rival studio executive told TheWrap.

Also read: She's Really Gone: Disney Confirms MT Carney's Exit as Marketing Chief

A film of this size and scope typically requires a marketing budget of roughly $120 million, adding to the price tag. 

All eyes are on Disney to see if the studio can turn the lead character from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ once beloved, now largely forgotten 11-volume Mars series into a $700 million blockbuster. Its director, Andrew Stanton, admitted to the New Yorker in October, that it will have to gross that much worldwide to justify a sequel. 

That’s more than “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and “Iron Man” have banked during their theatrical runs.

Also read: 'Men in Black 3': Delays, Script Problems and Will Smith's Really Big Trailer

Only one March release, “Alice in Wonderland,” has ever exceeded that benchmark, and it was able to rack up over $1 billion globally thanks in no small part to the combined talents of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton.

In contrast, “John Carter” is relying on untested “Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch and Stanton, who scored hits with “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo” but is hardly a household name. Stanton has had great success with animation — winning Oscars for both those movies — but he's never shot a live-action film before. 

Ironically, Kitsch is also starring in “Battleship,” a $200-million-plus film from Universal that has set off rumors in the blogosphere of a similarly troubled production.

Subsequent "John Carter" trailers and TV spots have received a more favorable reception, and there's still time to build excitement for the outerspace adventure, but there's no denying the stakes.

Disney declined to comment.

Compounding those challenges is the ouster of Disney's controversial president of movie marketing Carney, who had been overseeing "John Carter"s' rollout. The movie opens in two months, but with Carney out and Disney still searching for her replacement, it will be left to the studio's inhouse team to handle the opening. 

The studio has not hired an outside marketing consultant for "John Carter," nor does it plan to, an individual with knowledge of the situation told TheWrap. 

Marketing issues aside, some  industry observers tell TheWrap that a movie this risky should never have been made — at least not at this budget. To them, “John Carter” is evidence of runaway production and profligacy.

“How does something like this get green lit?” one film financier told TheWrap. “It’s insane. The only people who could justify a budget like this are true superstar filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Steven Spieberg, James Cameron and George Lucas. Guys who have a proven history and who have created billions.”

Though the film was greenlit while Dick Cook served as the studio's chief, according to an individual with knowledge, it will test the regime of Rich Ross, the man who replaced him in 2009.

If Ross pulls it off, he will be credited with launching a potential film franchise that has both fascinated and bedeviled the film industry for decades. 

The attempts to get the Burroughs story onto screens dates back to 1931, when Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett approached the author about plans to  adapt the first book in his John Carter series, "A Princess of Mars," into a feature-length animated film.

Clampett’s vision was abandoned over concerns it wouldn’t play well to midwestern audiences, but starting in the 1980s, he idea of filming Burroughs’ story was kicked around at Paramount and Disney. At various points, everyone from Tom Cruise to Jon Favreau was attached to the film.

But the movie, which centers on a Confederate soldier (Kitsch) who is transported to Mars where he tries to put an end to interstellar civil war, has proven notoriously difficult to adapt.

There’s a great deal of optimism that Stanton may have cracked the code. After all the boyish looking, Pixar dynamo has a reputation for taking films that on their face should never work  — “Wall-E” is a nearly silent movie about a robot — and spinning them into celluloid gold.

One producer who works with Disney said that the studio is “bullish” about the project, and the New Yorker reports that an early test screening had 75 percent of the audience rating the science fiction epic as “good” or “excellent.”

“I think it has a good shot of breaking even or turning a profit,” J.C. Spink, a producer on “A History of Violence” and “The Hangover,” told TheWrap. “At its core, it’s a really cool story. I remember hearing rumors about ‘X-Men’ and ‘Avatar,’ and they turned out to be great movies. You can’t make a judgment until a movie comes out.”

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That said, the early trailers and the studio’s decision to abbreviate the film’s title from “John Carter of Mars” to “John Carter” left some sensing that Disney doesn’t quite know how best to sell what Stanton delivered.

“I’ve seen the trailer and they never explain what the hell is going on,” the rival studio executive told TheWrap, adding: “Not releasing the film in the summer raises some eyebrows.”

“The trailer felt weak,” a film producer told TheWrap. “It felt like ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ with some guy running around the old west or I guess Mars.”

A full trailer and a collection of TV spots were released last month and have received slightly better buzz. The new previews for the outer space epic positions its hunky hero as a freedom fighter in the “Gladiator” vein and overflows with shots of CGI-created aliens. 

The geek crowd, which will be key to making the movie a hit, was more impressed. 

“Can't deny it,” Harry Knowles of Aint It Cool News wrote. “Little boy in me is being pretty insistent. It isn't my instant inclination to introduce the character in that fashion, but getting to really hear the sound … it kinda gives me goosebumps.”