Revisiting the Collective: Why John Carter Was a Box Office Bomb

(CS: I had started writing the Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness on Friday, but got hit with a cold that wiped me out, and so now, it is delayed way past the date I had planned to post it. Since my goal is to have something on here every single day in 2022, here is another Collective Publishing repost. Since I was writing a review of a movie that will be one of the biggest box office hits of the year, I thought I'd repost a piece that I wrote about one of the biggest flops of 2012. This was supposed to be a huge tentpole for Disney, but ended up being a bomb. Remember when Disney had bombs? Back in April of 2012, I analyzed why John Carter failed to connect with audiences, and we will see how much modern Christopher agrees.)

John Carter was supposed to be one of Disney’s major blockbuster films of the season, but instead, Disney is estimating the science fiction film will cost it around $200 million when it is all over. That isn’t exactly what film studios want out of their tentpole films, and I am sure many executives are scratching their heads over what went wrong. Well, I’m here to do some armchair quarterbacking, and present some of the major reasons John Carter was a major money loser.

Reviews: Good reviews don’t necessarily mean a hit, and bad reviews don’t necessarily mean disaster. You just have to look at the Transformers franchise to see a series of films that constantly got panned by critics but still reeled in a ridiculous amount of paying customers. That series also had major ‘80s nostalgia going for it, and an extensive marketing campaign that made it very clear what the audience would be getting. John Carter’s built-in fan base was clearly much smaller, and so there was a reliance on reviews to help the film goer decide if it was worth their $12.00 (along with the additional $12.00 for popcorn and soda). (CS: A movie ticket in Brantford is little less than that now, but the popcorn and soda is a little more.)  Rotten Tomatoes is a very popular site, and I know many people that refer to it for movie going decisions; unfortunately, a 51% Rotten Rating isn’t going to cause people to rush to the cinema. (CS: I feel like anyone who writes about John Carter is championing it now and saying it is so much better than its reputation.)

Trailer: The trailer played before several of the major summer blockbusters and had a super cushy spot during the Super Bowl; the trailer definitely got the proper amount of exposure. The problem is the trailer did a horrible job of explaining exactly what the film was about. The promise of 3D, sword wielding, special effects and action isn’t enough to entice the modern viewer, because we get that kind of thing on a monthly basis. The trailer made the film look like yet another 300 wannabe, and most of those films have not only been flops but atrocious movies. The viewer was likely left wondering why they wanted to watch Conan’s skinny, long lost brother battle a giant polar bear in the desert. It needed to show the audience this is different than the countless other 3D sword wielding “epics” clogging up the cinemas in the past few years. (CS: And now it feels like years since we got a notable sword and sandals type movie.) Most weren’t even aware the film was set in Mars, and more of a science fiction film than “sword and sorcery.”

Brand: The Hunger Games broke the opening weekend box office record for a non sequel when it raked in over $150 million, but even though it did garner positive reviews, this success was clearly due to the fact the film was based off an extremely popular YA novel. It had an established brand going into it, and people were likely going to line up to see it even if it showed unappealing trailers and received negative reviews. (CS: It has an 84% Rotten Tomatoes score, so it has lots going for it.)

John Carter is lacking that type of brand loyalty in 2012. Now, if the movie executives had a time machine and went back a hundred years ago, the John Carter name would have drawn them lots of that sweet revenue. John Carter was a strong brand name in the first half of the last century thanks to a successful book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs along with countless outside works that included comics and TV programs. Outside of science fiction buffs and pulp magazine/novel fans, John Carter is largely forgotten today. (CS: The Barsoom series that John Carter is the lead is credited as one of the most influential series by many science fiction writers.)  Apparently, director Andrew Stanton believed John Carter was a household name, which would explain why there wasn’t any effort to establish that the film was based off a once popular series written by the guy who created Tarzan. I’m not saying this knowledge would have turned the film into a cash cow, but clearly Disney, overestimated the impact of John Carter on current culture. (CS: It is also odd that they just called the movie the protagonist's name, since all the books written by Burroughs has different titles, but a person's name as a title was thing in 2012. The movie was apparently based off A Princes of Mars, which as a title may not have done much better.)

Disney Studio: Since John Carter isn’t an established name in 2012, the audience wasn’t clear on what to expect. I think promoting the film under the Disney banner was a monumental miscalculation. Disney owns the studio Touchstone Pictures for a reason, so that it can release more adult fare without upsetting parents. (CS: They weren't using this label often by this point, and now that they own Fox, I think they may be done with it.)  If you see Disney, you think a family film, but then the trailer to this movie would have likely turned off most parents. Meanwhile, the Disney banner would have likely scared off teenagers and young adults looking for a big loud action adventure, because they probably were worried an animated mouse would pop in halfway through the film to assist the hero. (CS: I think this reasoning is faulty, because The Pirates of the Caribbean was a huge hit and it was released under the Disney banner.) Disney also owns Marvel, but they always release their comic book films under the Marvel banner rather than Disney. (CS: Well, at this point Avengers was about to be the only Marvel movie to have actually been released under Disney.)  Marvel is cool among the target demo for films like Avengers and Spider-Man, (CS: Not Disney at the time.) but the Disney name reminds them of their childhood with talking animals and fairy godmothers. (CS: I don't really think this was the case in 2012 and it definitely isn't the case now.)

Budget: John Carter cost $250 million, but after 3 weeks has only grossed $62 million domestically. On the other hand, the box office shattering The Hunger Games cost only $75 million. Clearly, you don’t need a ridiculous budget to attract a large audience. If John Carter had The Hunger Games budget then they’d likely have been able to turn a profit after you count in international grosses. The reality is that big, loud, explosions in 3D don’t automatically equal mountains of cash. The novelty of 3D has worn off, and now people want to have a compelling story with their sizzle and flash. (CS: Oh boy, has the appeal of 3D worn off now. Luckily, way less movies come in 3D now and it is way easier to avoid.) The film may have been able to tell the same story with a much smaller budget, and thus avoid several Disney executives worrying that they soon may need to start asking, “Would you like to make it a combo?”

I’m not saying John Carter wasn’t a fun and enjoyable movie. (CS: I've seen it now with Everett, and it is a really fun sweeping space adventure. Definitely worth it for fans of space fantasy adventures.) I am saying that it was an abysmal failure in making money, which is still the whole point of mainstream films. (CS: Well, I'd like to think that the director also wants to create something creatively fulfilling and inspiring and that matters.)  These were some of the major reasons why John Carter will go down as one of the all-time biggest box office disasters. (CS: Instead of the Disney banner thing, I should have put the lack of an established star in the lead role. Taylor Kitsch was a star in the Friday Night Lights series but while that series was a critical hit, it didn't do great TV ratings, He had not had a major lead role in a successful move yet either, His name would not have been any kind of draw, and since the John Carter character meant little in 2012, they needed a hot star in that lead role. Though to be fair, star power was starting to mean less even in 2012.)