When Walt Disney Co.'s "John Carter" opens in theaters this weekend, the science-fiction adventure may encounter obstacles as formidable as its hero faces on Mars.
The film brings to the big screen a century-old fantasy tale, from Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, that has inspired generations of filmmakers and science fiction writers including James Cameron, George Lucas, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Its sweeping scope and $250-million budget suggest director Andrew Stanton's ambition to create a cinematic adventure on a par with movies such as "Avatar" and "Star Wars" — works that were informed by Burroughs' original pulp fiction.
Pre-release surveys of potential moviegoers, however, prompted Hollywood's biggest tracking company to revise its domestic opening weekend ticket sales estimates downward, from $30 million to $25 million. Typically projections rise as marketing campaigns reach a crescendo before a movie opens. Tracking numbers indicate that, as awareness of "John Carter" has risen, desire to see it has remained flat.
The film is struggling to find its footing in foreign countries as well. "John Carter" has strong interest in Russia, South Korea and Mexico but is tracking poorly throughout Europe and in other key markets such as Brazil and Australia, according to preliminary surveys.
Just as troubling, media analysts at Morgan Stanley, Barclays Capital and Davenport & Co. all predict Disney will lose money on the film, which will need to reach an estimated $700 million in worldwide ticket sales to break even, according to several people familiar with the film's economics who requested anonymity because of the confidentiality of the matter.
The project has undergone false starts since the 1980s, when Disney first secured the movie rights from the Burroughs estate. A series of directors explored the idea of adapting the alien world of Barsoom, with its warring red-tattooed inhabitants and towering green creatures with four arms, tusks and prickly tempers, including "Spy Kids" director Robert Rodriguez, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" writer-director Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau, who left to tackle "Iron Man."
Pixar Animation Studios veteran Andrew Stanton, who had scored big with the Academy Award-winning "Finding Nemo" and was on his way to a second Oscar with "Wall-E," said he was disappointed when he heard Favreau had walked away from the film.
"Since I'd read the books as a kid, I wanted to see somebody put it on the screen," Stanton said in an interview in December. When he heard the rights had reverted to the Burroughs estate, he said, he asked Disney executives to consider him for the job. "Within three months they had bought the property and said, 'It's yours if you want it.'"
Stanton's background as a director who had worked exclusively within Pixar made him an unexpected choice to make a live-action adaptation of "A Princess of Mars," the first novel in Burroughs' 11-book Carter series. He was accustomed to the animated studio's process of reworking scripts relentlessly, and to working with a team of artists all under the same roof.
On "John Carter," Stanton was crafting a complicated, inter-planetary story with live action period elements and more than 2,000 visual-effects shots delivered by four companies. The director said he coaxed Disney to adopt some of Pixar's iterative style on "John Carter."
"I've been taught how to make a movie work really well that's had four reshoots," he said. "The thing I had to explain to Disney was, 'You're asking a guy who's only known how to do it this way to suddenly do it with one reshoot.' I said, 'I'm not gonna get it right the first time, I'll tell you that right now.'"
The project reflects the film studio's decision to limit its filmmaking investments to two categories: developing movies around its established Marvel, Pixar and Disney brands, and financing wide-appeal event movies with the potential to drive sequels, merchandise sales, television series or theme-park attractions.
Analysts note that the studio contributes less to the company's bottom line than other parts of the media colossus' business, such as sports network ESPN or the theme parks.
"I don't think most of the value in Disney as a company is any one franchise or any one movie," said Anthony DiClemente, an entertainment analyst with Barclays Capital. "The reality is that a small and ever smaller piece of Disney's value comes from the film studio."
The studio used to release 20 or more pictures a year. For 2012, only two live-action Disney films are scheduled for release, "John Carter" and "The Odd Life of Timothy Green." The rest of the company's theatrical release slate is reserved for Pixar and Disney animated films; Marvel Entertainment's latest superhero saga, "The Avengers"; and, from DreamWorks Studios, "Lincoln" and "Welcome to People."
In remarks to Morgan Stanley's Technology, Media & Telecom Conference on Feb. 28, Disney Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo explained the rationale for the company's retrenchment. The "melting ice cube of the DVD business," he said, has caused the studio to focus its investments on potential franchise films that could also be exploited by its television networks, consumer products group and theme parks.
"The number of outlets … takes you out of the pure economics of the film business and brings you into the economics of a lot of other businesses that have extremely high returns to great content," Rasulo said.
Success within that new philosophy still hangs upon a strong theatrical performance, of the kind the studio got with "Alice in Wonderland" in 2010 but failed to achieve last year with "Mars Needs Moms."
So far, Disney's marketing campaign has done little to stoke enthusiasm for "John Carter." Marketing experts point to missteps, such as the decision not to promote the movie at the Comic-Con International conference — ground zero for sci-fi enthusiasts. Instead, the studio showed preview footage at a Disney-sponsored fan event, D23, which draws from a diverse community of animation buffs and fans dressed as Disney characters.
Moreover, Disney appeared to run away from the "John Carter" legacy by removing "Mars" from its title, out of fear of alienating women.
"I was in the middle of reshoots, and marketing came to me and said, 'Look we've done all these focus groups and not a single woman is gonna come see a movie called 'John Carter of Mars,'" Stanton said. "I was a little bummed about that (but) … I changed the "Princess of Mars" to "John Carter of Mars" because I thought no boy would go to the film. So I'm victim of the same exact thing."
From the beginning, Stanton and Disney have seen "John Carter" as a potential franchise, and the director said he has outlined a story that would play out over the course of three films.
"The idea is to get to do it again a little bit better," Stanton said. "Freshman year doesn't have to be my only year in high school."
Times staff writer Ben Fritz also contributed to this report.