What Turns Flops Into Media Feeding Frenzies?

What Turns Flops Into Media Feeding Frenzies?
What Turns Flops Into Media Feeding Frenzies?

At The Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein asks why the failure of Disney’s “John Carter” became such an enormous story in the media last spring, while the similar failure of Universal’s “Battleship” has largely been ignored:

“Both films cost more than $200 million to make, an additional $100 million to market and, despite OK performances overseas, were pretty much dead on arrival in the United States. Their overall numbers aren’t all that different. Disney’s ‘John Carter’ did a paltry $72 million in the United States and an additional $210 million overseas; Universal’s ‘Battleship’ is on track to do even less in America than ‘John Carter’ while so far making $232 million overseas. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Universal could lose $150 million on ‘Battleship,’ while Disney took a $200-million write-down on ‘John Carter.’

So one cost a little bit more to make (“Carter”) and one will likely end up earning a little bit less (“Battleship”) but the net result is a pair of nearly identical flops: same overmatched lead actor (Taylor KItsch), same hundred fifty million dollarish loss. So why was “John Carter”‘s belly flop into the box office pool such a big deal when “Battleship”‘s similarly disastrous dive made so few waves? Goldstein cites a few possible reasons, from the high profile departure of Disney marketing chief MT Carney in the middle of the “Carter” campaign to Disney’s icy relationship with the Hollywood press corps. First and foremost, though, he says it has a lot to do with the nature of news:

“If there are two box-office stinkers, the first one gets far more attention. Being the first mega flop of the year, ‘John Carter’ was a magnet for media scrutiny.”

Though Goldstein doesn’t explicitly say this, it seems like the fact that “Battleship” and “John Carter” were such similar flops worked heavily in “Battleship”‘s favor. By the time “Battleship” quickly went down to its watery grave, the media had already written the story of the handsome but untested TV actor given the reigns of a massive blockbuster with questionable creative roots and dicey box office prospects. At that point, it felt like old news.

At Badass Digest, Devin Faraci puts forward his own theory for the “Battleship”‘s smooth sailing in the press (this piece better end soon or I’m going to run out of nautical puns). To him, it all boils down to three words: “Hollywood hates creatives.”

“I always suspect that it’s jealousy, that the lowliest screenwriter can do things that the president of a studio can’t — come up with new worlds, bring characters to life, share imagination. It’s probably also just a simple irritation at the fact that creatives have demands and they fight against the wisdom of marketing and they try to make good movies instead of saleable movies.”

So how does executive bitterness affect film coverage? “90% of the industry reporters in this town take their stories directly from marketing and executives,” Faraci says, and “Hollywood industry reporting always, always, always sides with the executives because numbers are quantifiable — the Times can declare a movie a winner or a loser based on box office — while art is much harder to nail down.”  

The one possible motivation for the press’ treatment of “Battleship” that neither Goldstein nor Faraci mentions: fundamental disinterest in the film from day one. Sure, “John Carter” had a troubled production, but it also had a legendary pulp novel as its source. It had a creative pedigree. It had an interesting development history. Compare that to “Battleship,” a movie based on a board game where you randomly guess letters and numbers while shoving colored pegs into plastic ships. To most observers its creative failure seemed inevitable, which made its eventual financial failure a lot less interesting to write or read about. “John Carter” on the other hand, could have been a masterpiece. Stanton’s passion, his intense devotion to the source material, his demands to shoot the film using the techniques he’d honed in animation, gave “John Carter” the one thing that “Battleship” didn’t have, and the one big difference between the two films: risk. And risk makes good copy.

This may not seem all that important; after all, no matter how they’re written about now, both movies already tanked and nothing anyone says or does is going to change that. But the movie business is all about perception, and the folks who made “John Carter” got hammered a lot harder than the ones who made “Battleship.” As a result, I imagine it’s going to be a lot more difficult for them to recover — even though many of them, like director Andrew Stanton, are incredibly talented.

In a related story, what’s Hasbro’s next board game turned potential movie franchise? “Risk.” Of course.

Read more of “How Did ‘Battleship’ Escape the ‘John Carter’ Flop Furor?” and “The Real Reason the Press Went Easy on ‘Battleship’ and Killed ‘John Carter.’

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