Disney’s ‘John Carter’: Why did it fail?


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By now, the arguments seeking to explain Disney’s ‘John Carter’ debacle have flown so fast they’ve almost contradicted themselves.

The Taylor Kitsch-starring science-fiction epic, which grossed just $30.6 million this weekend on a budget of more than $250 million, should have played more heavily to the sci-fi crowd, one argument went (the film didn’t go to Comic-con and dropped ‘Mars’ from its title). Or maybe it was the opposite -- Disney should have made the film look and feel more accessible. Those indecipherable creatures in its billboards and its television spots emphasizing the arcana of Barsoom battles didn’t exactly scream an all-ages must-see.


The truth is that both sides are a little right. Disney could have played harder to the base and potentially made the film work -- presuming, of course, that the budget and expectations were commensurately modest from the outset.

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Or, having made an absurdly expensive movie, it could have tried to figure out better ways to bring everyone along. As it was, viewership came in at ratio of 3:2 in favor of those over the age of 25 -- not exactly the youthful audience a studio wants in this and-the-teenagers-shall-lead-them era of movie consumption.

Needless to say, Disney marketers were also working with a film that didn’t exactly blow anyone away. Directed by Andrew Stanton, ‘John Carter’ was panned on many fan blogs and garnered a measly 48% positive on Movie Review Intelligence, drawing poor reviews even from those who tend to give duds a pass.

But although there’s plenty of blame to go around on both the creative and marketing sides, there’s another factor: the source material itself. Disney could have made a better movie and sold it more persuasively to a skeptical public. But it was dealing with a stacked deck from the start.

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‘John Carter’ is based primarily on ‘A Princess of Mars,’ the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ early 20th century 11-volume series of Barsoom novels. It’s a touchstone work of science fiction -- so touchstone that many viewers don’t know what it is.

More to the point, it’s an epic, which can be a tough sell no matter the studio or marketing strategy. In today’s climate, big action-adventure movies work, but they’re not usually epics -- more like movies based on a very simple concept (like, cars that turn into robots that fight each other).

Actually, ‘John Carter’ is even tougher material than a typical epic, because it’s the beginning of an epic -- not a film conceived as a stand-alone, self-contained piece, a la ‘Avatar.’

The irony in all this is that ‘John Carter’ follows in the tradition (and indeed, its source material helped inspire) the most successful science-fiction epic in the history of cinema, ‘Star Wars,’ with both movies featuring interplanetary combat and sprawling fictional universes, and also marrying spectacle with identifiable heroes.

Disney and Stanton didn’t come within a galaxy of fashioning ‘Star Wars’ from Burroughs’ work. But it’s not clear that today’s ‘Transformers'-ready multiplex audience would have been hugely open to it even if they had.


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-- Steven Zeitchik