The gargantuan belly flop of “John Carter” shows how risky Hollywood's tentpole strategy can be.
After a weekend in which the $250 million film took in just $30 million domestically, the Disney film underwent a collective post-mortem which focused on costly reshoots, the lack of a recognizable star, the director’s inexperience with live action and Disney's marketing for the movie.
“The studio was desperate to stay on good terms with…Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman,” wrote Barnes. “’Ego trumps logic in Hollywood,’ said Peter Sealey, who was Columbia’s marketing chief at the time.”
But there’s more to it. While ego and other issues may have hobbled "John Carter," the larger question is whether Hollywood’s newfound penchant for paring down production slates to a handful of big-budget bets works.
To be sure, a tentpole strategy has its merits. There are fewer costly marketing roll-outs and more opportunities for lucrative merchandising tie-ins.
But there are simply not enough superheroes or young adult novels to go around, meaning that studios have been forced to rummage through the graphic novel and comic book archives with diminishing results.
In the case of “John Carter,” that meant unearthing a hugely influential, but now largely forgotten series of pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that had inspired such past hits as “Star Wars.”
Yet instead of galvanizing filmgoers with a new vision of a galaxy, far, far away, the movie seems likely to follow in the footsteps of such recent big-budget weaklings as “Green Lantern,” “Cowboys and Aliens,” and “Prince of Persia,” all of which were based on C-grade branded entertainment.
Even the relatively disappointing box-office performance of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” which was a true publishing phenomenon, demonstrates that there is no magic formula to finding the next big thing.
The knives have been sharpened for “John Carter” for so long that it had been largely written off as a catastrophe before most people had seen a single frame.
Fueled by press reports of costly reshoots and budget overruns, producers and executives throughout the movie industry gossiped mercilessly about the looming disaster the Disney had on its hands with "John Carter."
Of everything Disney threw at the project — eye-popping special effects, hunky up-and-comers like Taylor Kitsch or the team at Pixar, which played a substantial role in the pricey film’s development and production – nothing seemed to help. Nor did Andrew Stanton, the animation house's star talent, who made his live action debut with the picture.
The movie did better than dire projections leading into its opening weekend — grossing $30 million domestically, and $70 million in foreign markets — but still seems destined to be cost the studio dearly.
“That’s a really good international number,” Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com told TheWrap. “Will it be immensely profitably? No, but it’s not in the same league as ‘Waterworld’ or ‘Heaven’s Gate.’”
“John Carter” has now opened in 55 territories, or 80 percent of the international market, with only a few other major countries such as Japan left to play.
At this point, analysts project that the studio could lose more than $150 million on “John Carter.” A return to Barsoom, the fantastical land where Rice Burroughs’ pulp novels are set, seems highly unlikely.
That is a blow to Stanton, who had reportedly been planning two more installments in a “John Carter” franchise.
However, it was Stanton who unintentionally set the stage for much of the negative publicity that led up to the film’s release with a much picked apart profile in the New Yorker last fall.
The article stated that the movie would have to make $700 million worldwide to justify a sequel. That kind of gross would require it to be not just one of the biggest films of the year, but one of the high-grossing movies in history. From there the articles about a runaway production were relentless and unending.
On Twitter, Stanton, whose once white-hot career has surely cooled, tried to turn the page by thanking ticket buyers.
“Thanks to everyone who ignored the schadenfreude and went to 'Carter this weekend! You're the best!” he tweeted.