It’s fitting that “John Carter” opens with the death of its protagonist then follows his nephew as he tries to make sense of what happened to his eccentric uncle. Just a few days into its release, “John Carter” looks the victim of an early death as well — at the box office. That means it’s the perfect time to perform a post-mortem like the one Scott Mendelson posted at his blog, Mendelson’s Memos. His piece, “R.I.P. ‘John Carter.’ What its failure means and why it matters…” is an astute observation of what went wrong with a film that cost upwards of $250 million and earned just $179 million worldwide through two weeks of release. The big takeaway, according to Mendelson? “Unless your film is a guaranteed home run, don’t spend so much that you have to hit a home run in order to break even.”
“The film will likely fail to reach even $85 million at the US box office, and it will likely fail to reach $300 million in foreign grosses, putting its worldwide total at under $400 million. That’s not a terrible outcome for most films and had the budget been kept in check, it would probably break even in the end. But Disney spent $250 million producing ‘John Carter,’ making it the most expensive non-sequel ever made. I’ve whined a lot about reckless budgets for long shot films, but the rule is simple. Do not spend ‘Return of the King’-level money on ‘Fellowship of the Ring.'”
Sound advice, particularly since dicey marketing made audiences reluctant to spend $12 on a film Disney poured hundreds of millions of dollars into. Mendelson is also the first pundit I’ve read to identify one of the central misfires in Disney’s “Carter” promotional strategy. All along, according to numerous reports, Disney was worried about “John Carter”‘s ability to draw a broad audience, to the point that they changed the film’s title to “John Carter” from the original “John Carter of Mars” out of fear that women wouldn’t pay to see a movie set on Mars. And yet, as Mendelson notes, Disney refused to play up the fact that “John Carter” contained a very strong female lead (Lynn Collins as Martian princess Dejah Thoris), a fact that might have actually attracted female audiences. When Collins was included in the marketing at all, she was little more than eye candy.
The only place Mendelson loses me is his conclusion. “More than anything else,” he writes, “Disney’s production of ‘John Carter’ was a defining exercise in cynicism,” in that it was shameless and shamelessly generic pandering to a young male audience in the vein of previous Disney flops like “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” But how can one movie be both a reckless financial risk and a calculated decision motivated by financial concerns instead of artistic ones? If Disney made “John Carter” as a “defining exercise in cynicism,” wouldn’t they have budgeted it for $100 million, hired a hack instead of an opinionated auteur like Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, and cast bankable stars instead of unknowns like Collins and Taylor Kitsch? It seems to me there were risks up and down the board with “John Carter,” and if the film is already dead just days into its release, then that could mean risk-taking might be dead in Hollywood for the foreseeable future as well.