Walt Disney Studios' Martian adventure film "John Carter" appears to be heading, in the words of one financial analyst, "to the red ink planet."
Wall Street media analysts said the studio could lose $100 million to $165 million on its big-budget epic, which opened Friday in theaters worldwide.
"We normally would not be changing estimates prior to a movie opening," Alan Gould, senior media and entertainment analyst at Evercore Partners, wrote in an investor note published Friday. "But given the tracking reports, reviews and high profile of this picture, we feel there is little risk in adjusting our estimate early."
Gould more than doubled his earlier estimates of the studio's loss on the film, to $165 million. An entertainment analyst at Cowen & Co. also projected a write-down of $100 million or more, citing the apparent lack of moviegoer interest in seeing the film about a Civil War hero who is magically transported to Mars.
The debut of "John Carter," a film based on a century-old series by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, looked Friday as if it would be eclipsed by the second weekend numbers for the 3-D animated movie "Dr. Seuss' the Lorax." The family film, from Disney rival Universal Studios, opened at $70.2 million last weekend and could bring in an additional $40 million this weekend.
Based on East Coast screenings and pre-release surveys of would-be moviegoers, "John Carter" could bring in $26 to $28 million worth of ticket sales over the weekend, according to a competing distributor. That figure, while precipitously low for a movie that cost $250 million, marks an improvement over earlier projections.
Overseas, the fantasy film garnered $13 million in box-office receipts, according to one person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly. In Russia, "John Carter" had the highest opening-day in movie history, with $6.5 million in ticket sales, the person said. The movie also had solid starts in Asia.
The stakes are high for a big-budget event film like "John Carter" because Disney has dramatically curtailed the number of movies it produces each year. The studio has limited its film 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.
Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz raised questions about the structure of the Disney studio.
"Aside from the output of Pixar and Marvel … the company appears to have put itself in a fairly tight box with only a couple of major films per year, that are also expected to be 'Disney-branded' 'franchise' films," Creutz wrote Friday. "We think this puts an enormous amount of pressure on studio management, which has a very limited number of 'shots on goal' each year."
The SNL Kagan Box Office report archly suggested that "it might be best if Walt Disney Co. avoided movies about Mars altogether."
About a year ago, Disney released the box-office dud "Mars Needs Moms." That 3-D animated movie, which cost a reported $150 million, grossed just $21.4 million at the domestic box office.
Kagan noted that "John Carter" could still outperform predictions and do well overseas, where audiences respond to big-budget 3-D epics. And the film's accomplished director, Pixar Animation Studios veteran Andrew Stanton, has proved naysayers wrong before.
"What makes the film risky is not so much its century-old source material or its relatively unknown cast or even the fact that it represents the first live-action film from director Andrew Stanton, who previously helmed 'Finding Nemo' and 'Wall-E,' " wrote Kagan analysts Sarah Barry James and Wade Holden. "Rather, the danger comes from the movie's gargantuan budget."
"John Carter's" projected $25-million to $30-million opening is reminiscent of another Disney science fiction film, "Mission to Mars," Kagan observed. That movie, which debuted in March 2000, opened to $22.9 million and went on to bring in a total domestic gross of $60.9 million.
Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.