It’s a Shame About John: How the Failure of John Carter Only Ensures More Hollywood Unoriginality
When Disney decided to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of early twentieth century science fiction novels known as “The Barsoom Series” into a big-budget, Avatar-esque blockbuster film, its heart was in the right place. After all, the rollicking serial — which focused on an American Confederate Soldier in the Civil War who is transported to another planet where he becomes the leader of a revolution against a tyrannical regime — reportedly was an inspiration for some of the greatest sci-fi writers of our time, including Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. It’s even said that a young Carl Sagan, who read the books as a child, credited it as an influence on his curiosity about the universe. The books are full of pulpy romance, monstrous alien creatures and magnificent battles, and it all should have worked.
Then a funny thing happened. After sinking a reported budget of $250 million into ensuring eye-popping effects and beastly, enormous CGI behemoths, Disney was ultimately done in by the very thing one might think Hollywood has down pat by now: nobody knew how to market it. Even with an alleged advertising budget of an additional $100 million — $100 million! — the studio’s press machine couldn’t figure out a way to get the masses excited about it. Was it for kids? Was it for adults? Was it for geeky sci-fi fanboys? Was the romance angle enough to bring in the female demographic? Was the political action and intrigue enough to entice a Mission: Impossible crowd? John Carter, on paper, had it all, and yet had nothing. Disney even shortened the movie’s title from the admittedly more descriptive John Carter of Mars to the simpler, more enigmatic John Carter, and delivered a stylized movie poster which didn’t feature a man bringing down a tentacled, fearsome alien but rather just…a man. Walking in the desert. Zzzzz.
How could this have gone wrong? The PR machine should be infallible; they’ve been driving films both good and awful down our throats for years, convincing us we have to see them. But John Carter confounded them. It was — dare we say it — something original. (Gasp!) There wasn’t an existing flow chart for promoting a movie like this. It didn’t fit into the traditional blockbuster mold. It isn’t a superhero movie! It isn’t a Bourne Identity-type film! Reese Witherspoon isn’t in it! How could Disney have been so silly to try something new, something they weren’t already 100% sure would be successful? Those fools! Didn’t they meet with the marketing department before they even green-lit the script?
(Bear in mind that I’m not here to write about whether John Carter is a good film; I haven’t seen it, and most likely you haven’t either. It may not be, and that may be yet another reason it may be forgotten. But let’s not kid ourselves; it’s pretty much a fact by now that the first two weekends of a movie’s run have nothing to do with whether a film is “good,” its tallies only serves to prove how effective the pre-sell has been.)
Say what you will about Disney, and about John Carter’s failure — it’s already considered one of history’s biggest money-losers ever, having only barely made up for half its total budget in ticket sales thus far — but it’s refreshing to see the studio innovating in a time where it’s just easier to buy the rights to an old television show, remake a previously successful movie or crib from a children’s board game (I’m looking at you, Battleship and Candy Land). The Mouse House went truly old school; so old school that no one currently alive even remembered the serialized stories which once captured a generation’s attention. And, sadly, it failed.
You can’t blame them for trying to start something new and fresh, and it’s bold to have even attempted that in this Hollywood landscape. Some of the greatest heroes of the last forty years of film have been born from an attempt to discover something new and original. Han Solo wasn’t a comic book hero; Indiana Jones wasn’t a popular television series character in the 1970’s. Both Star Wars and the Jones films were stabs in the dark which worked, due to good filmmaking and old fashioned ingenuity. John Carter may be one of these films as well. Sadly, according to the box office tallies, many of us will never know.
The further-reaching effects of the John Carter flop will be the ones which will really bite the moviegoing public in the long run. By not knowing how to market the film, it will now be seen by studio PR heads as an example for other films which may defy description — and ultimately, those movies will be seen further up the ladder as too risky to grant a big budget. In the end, inventive, let’s-try-something-new-to-see-if-it-works movies like John Carter will end up in the scrapheap, deemed poisonous and unwise. This, in turn, will only feed the notion that a studio has to know if something’s going to be successful before they even give it a shot. And that’s where we get another A-Team movie, another Spider-Man reboot or even a film like Yogi Bear. Doesn’t matter if they’re good; it only matters if they can be pre-sold, pre-packaged; it only matters if Burger King can put it on a cup or fruit snacks can be made in the shape of the film’s characters. A case in point: Cars 2 was a terrible, terrible movie; but as my two-and-a-half-year old will daily attest by never putting them down, the Matchbox-esque toys tied to that film were excellent. And can we guarantee that an Iron Man 3 will make a gazillion dollars, no matter what’s on the screen, even before the first reviews? Yes, we can. So why would executives spend extra time and money building a new brand when there’s a cash cow grazing in the studio’s backyard?
It’s too late to save John Carter; the bell’s already rung for that film. The message has been made clear; the lesson has been learned: “new” is “dangerous.” Until studios return to the visionary filmmaking on which their fortunes have been built, as it can be said Disney did by taking the John Carter risk, the almighty dollar and marketing campaign will reign. In short, because you (and I) didn’t go see John Carter, we just earned the chance to go see a remake of Fright Night II. Hooray for Hollywood.