John Carter and big-budget Schadenfreude, or how 100M gross in the first 3 days gets instantly labeled an iconic Hollywood flop

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Special Report by Michael D. Sellers for The John Carter Files on the accuracy and curious psychology of much of the reporting on Disney’s John Carter since its release on March 9, 2012.

“To the schadenfreudist, an epic fail is the only just reward for such epic hubris, and thus the narrative is pre-determined and nothing short of an outright “win” at the box office will derail that narrative.”

Our old friend Mr. Webster defines schadenfreude as enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others and it would seen that Andrew Stanton, Disney, and Edgar Rice Burroughs fans have all found themselves on the receiving end of an epic convulsion of schadenfreude as journalists, media analysts, and gleeful internet “trolls” trip over themselves to label a film that brought in 100m in its first three days a “bomb”, a “flop”, and the “new Ishtar”.   Meanwhile the film itself, while splitting the critics more or less down the middle,  has garnered a passionate fan base that, while not as large as may have been needed given the enormous budget and marketing cost, is  giving the film multiple viewings, exorting one another to support Stanton’s vision, and vowing to give the film the legs it will need to gradually change the perception of flop that has been hung around its neck in the wake of its less than stellar domestic opening weekend gross of $30.1M.  Where, in all of this, is the reasonable truth about the status of the film?  And what are the psychological forces at play in the way the story is being reported?

A pre-established narrative prior to the release

The truth, most reasonable observers would agree,  is, the  flop/bomb/epic fail label had already been taken out, prepped, and was ready to be affixed to John Carter before opening day ever arrived.  Report after report of “soft tracking” led to pre-release headlines like: “John Carter set to crater”, “Bomb in the making John Carter set for anemic opening”, and so on.   But why such gleeful delight in announcing the projected weak domestic opening?  And once released — why  is there so little acknowledgment of the healthy $70m in foreign gross which, coupled with the $30m domestic, gives John Carter $100M in its first three days?    Are the reports comparing John Carter to epic failures Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate accurate or fair, based on these actual numbers?

The pre-release buzz regarding John Carter was negative in part because it is inevitably so.  Whenever a studio invests “tentpole” dollars in a film that does not come with a built in “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games” fan base,  questions about the judgment exercised in taking such a gamble are just too easy to ask,  and the target is just too inviting to pass up.   The gleeful anticipation of failure is so strong that there seems to be an underlying psychological sense that the overall order of things will improve if risky,  mega-budget movies fail.  When the moment of truth comes, the narrative has already been set — and nothing, it seems, can derail that narrative  one the trigger is pulled unless the film in question vastly outperforms expections–as happened with Titanic, Avatar, and a few others.

In this case, the gun was cocked and ally he trigger that was needed was a less than blockbuster opening weekend of  $30.1M  which, while not “flop” territory for a “normal” film, was deemed to be a “flop” because of John Carter’s high budget and marketing costs.  Instead of referencing actual recent films which opened around 30m,  the reference point for John Carter was Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate.  Are such comparisons reasonable?  Not really.

“Those movies lived and died on domestic box office,” says Vincent Bruzzese, president of the Worldwide Motion Picture Group, a research firm employed by many major studios. “Unless someone knows the details of John Carter’s financials, the foreign sales, the DVD, pay TV, all that, it’s very difficult to comment.” But he adds that Disney’s huge investment in John Carter placed unrealistic pressure on the movie’s box-office performance. “If you have to be Avatar or Titanic to break even, then good luck.”

International grosses might be John Carter’s saving grace: The movie has already taken in over $70 million overseas. “Visually stunning movies translate into any language. And international audiences love the 3-D component as well,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office analyst at “I’m still saying wait and see. Nobody makes a $250 million movie hoping for a $30 million opening. But the $100 million worldwide was not a bad result.”  Entertainment Weekly

But if actual expert are saying “$100m worldwide was not a bad result”, why is it that virtually every major media outlet has joined in the feeding frenzy labeling the film as a disaster, a bomb, a flop of epic proportions?

The Psychology of Schadenfreude

If the actual facts of John Carter’s business situation are as Paul Degarabedian has stated — and they are — then why the feeding frenzy?  If it cannot be explained logically based on the business outcome, is it better explained psychologically?  What is the psychology of the enormous feast of schadenfreude that is on display?

James Shenton writes: “There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing a big-budget movie flop. Whenever we hear about these ambitious, special effects-laden extravaganzas going down in flames we get an odd feeling of schadenfreude. But why is this? Does it stem from the fact that we feel manipulated, almost exploited, by the movie industry? Perhaps. After all, movie studios make a lot of coin from tweaking our emotions, be it through adrenaline-filled action films or mawkishly tear-jerking weepies. Perhaps the best reason for our guilty pleasure at seeing a big-budget movie flop is the fact that we feel like we won a battle. We caught Hollywood trying to pull a fast one by releasing a bad movie and trying to hype it anyway — and we weren’t fooled. Gotcha. Better luck next time.”

Does this mean that film journalist schadenfreude is somehow tied up with the notion, psychologically at least, that with such a high profile failure, a kind of rough justice is achieved?

Norman T. Feather in a study in Australia in 2007 analyzed “Envy, resentment, Schadenfreude, and Sympathy: Reactions to Deserved and Undeserved Achievement and Failure” among college students.  The key finding of this study was that schadenfreude about a previously high achieving student’s subsequent failure was predicted by resentment and not by envy. Sympathy was not predicted by either resentment or envy. Deservingness was a key variable in the models that were tested.  In other words, schadenfreude kicked in most clearly when the person suffering the failure had previously experienced what was perceived to be undeserved success.

Is such psychology in play in the response to Disney and John Carter?

Is it more than ironic that the very journalists and analysts rushing to classify John Carter as an iconic Hollywood bomb are the same ones who complain that studios are too conservative, relying to heavily on sequels and failing to take risks?  An Irish blogger observes:

So, what happens when a major studio actually takes a chance, rather than spending money on a sequel to a tired franchise with no creative vision? We pounce on it. We mock it. We turn it into a joke as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not a box office prognosticator, but I am genuinely worried about the box-office returns on the film – but those numbers are so uncertain precisely because it’s not a safe bet, precisely because it’s an”out there” choice. I think that producing John Carter was a very brave move from an institution that we tend to mock for being staid and conservative, and I just find it odd that we are so quick to preemptively punish that sort of bold creativity and risk-taking, especially when we claim that’s exactly what we want.  The

What has all the empathy gone?

If Schadenfreude is the taking of pleasure at the misfortune of others, is it not the opposite of empathy?  And if so — where does empathy factor into the equation?  Andrew Stanton stepped out of a perfectly successful career as an animator to spend five years of his life lovingly crafting a film adaptation of the book series that captivated his mind as a child.  Why no empathy for him?  More than a thousand film-makers labored heroically to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs vision of Barsoom to life on the screen?  Why no empathy for them?

Even Disney, an easy target to be sure,  stepped out of the conservative mold and made a risky big bet on a piece of classic literature and a director whose genius was acknowledged in the animated realm, but was stepping into live action for the first time?  Why no empathy for Disney?

The answer, it would seem comes back to the notion that schadenfreude erupts when there is a felt perception that the failure restores balance, that a form of justice is achieved by the failure.  In this case, Disney is seen as being properly rewarded for foolishly investing mega-dollars in a questionable property, and then shoving the resultant product down the throats of unwilling potential audience goers with  mind-numbing, relentlessly obtuse marketing.  To the schadenfreudist, an epic fail is the only just reward for such epic hubris, and thus the narrative is pre-determined and nothing short of an outright “win” at the box office will derail that narrative.

Why do studios make themselves targets like this?

One has to wonder, knowing the psychology – why do studios trumpet the budget of a film like John Carter?  It is as if in the early stages they think that announcing a huge budget will bring glory to the film, make it seem more of an event, and so they rush to leak the budget — in this case $250m — even though doing so immediately and inevitably stokes the what one blogger called “pre-schadenfruede” — the gleeful anticipation of failure?  Why?

Given the fact that “announced budgets” are always a quasi fiction whose main purpose is to position a film in the marketplace, not truthfully report financials (that happens incorporate reports, and even there actual individual film budgets are obscured), wouldn’t it be better, particularly with a gamble like John Carter, to avoid triggering the pre-schadenfreude in the media by avoiding having the film labeled as a “mega-budget” effort.  I mean — with Hollywood Accounting and all, did Disney really have to peg the “budget” at $250m?  Is that, after all, actually the budget to get the film shot under Andrew Stanton?  Or is that the total production investment including all the development costs going back to 1989, and interest on all the 1990’s development, accruing for 15-20 years?   My point is–there is enough fuzzy math involved in budget-talk around Hollywood that Disney could surely have tamped down the pre-schadenfreude by simply avoiding the impulse to trumpet the film at a “biggest budget ever” blockbuster.

In truth — wouldn’t John Carter have been much better off entering the marketplace as the underdog it actually was — a labor of love, no big stars, animation director, heartfelt and made with passion.  If Disney had achieved that kind of positioning, we wouldn’t now be seeing the film written off repeatedly as a colossal flop – we would instead be hearing that it’s off to a slow start in the US, but with good international Disney’s investment in Andrew Stanton and Edgar Rice Burroughs may well pay off, just give it time?

That is, after all, the reality — it’s not a complete bust by any stretch of the imagination and is headed for global numbers in the $350-450M range that have never previously in the history of cinema been called a flop.   But a “flop” it is — just google “John Carter flop” and see for yourself.

Flops Turned Classics

It’s too early to tell, of course, but it is entirely possible that John Carter will eventually join the ranks of films that were considered box office failures when they were released, but which eventually went on to achieve cult and in some cases, classic status.

Anyone following the intensity of the fan-love for the picture, with multiple viewings much passion being expressed for the movie from those who, as Andrew Stanton has said, “get it”, could not help but wonder if Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate (which were, after all, monuments to actor and studio egos – not lovingly crafted sci-fi epics based on beloved source material)  ever got the kind of fan love that is emerging for John Carter.

What of others in the sci-fi genre who may have followed a similar pattern?

Blade Runner, after all, opened with a disappointing $6.1M and split the critics, only later emerging as the beloved classic it has become.

2001: A Space Odyssey split the critics when it was originally released and only made $56M at the box office — a figure which, when adjusted for inflation, comes out to $335m in today’s dollars, a figure which quite probably is at least $50m less than John Carter will eventually make.

If John Carter is a flop, it may well turn out that it’s in good company.


  • I loved this movie. But, Andrew Stanton dropped the ball as far as telling the story.

    He took instances from SEVERAL of the books and threw them together into a hodgepodge that isn’t like anything I have been reading for the past 45 years. He completely changed characters, left out major characters, and changed the storyline drastically. Taking a storyline out of book number seven, and putting it into the first of what should have been at least a trilogy, was just wrong. That’s just one of the instances where Stanton went astray. I wonder if he even thought there ever WOULD be a second movie. That might explain why he tried to toss so much stuff into this one.

    That said: I LOVE this movie. I have seen it five times. BUT: It is NOT the movie that it should have been.
    My review from my website.
    [b]John Carter[/b]
    A couple of years ago, Asylum put together “[b]A Princess of Mars[/b]” in just a couple of weeks. It was one of the most bastardized movies, derived from a book, I have ever seen. The only good thing in it was Tracy Lord’s body, which is still nice after all these years. I actually believe the movie was made to be bad. I think Asylum does that sometimes. It was so bad, I sort of liked it just because it gave me something to cuss at. I need to buy some NURF balls so I have something to throw at my TV when I watch movies like this.

    Now, Disney has sunk a a reported 250 million dollars in “[b]John Carter[/b]” in another retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs “Martian” books. This movie is about as “bad” as the one I just mentioned as far as the storyline goes. But, the actors and the technical aspects of the movie are much better. but if this movie actually cost 250 million to make, somebody got paid a lot under the table for nothing of substance. 50? I can see that. 75 Maybe. 100? Doubtful. But 250? No way.

    Whoever wrote this screenplay didn’t pay a lot of attention to the books, if he indeed read them at all. It seems like he may have just gotten someone else to read them and make his some notes – very bad notes.

    Anyway: I went to see this film tonight, with reservations. I have seen several scenes on YouTube, and they didn’t look to be anything like the books that I have grown to love over 45 years. Yes, I started reading them when I was around 12 years old.

    That said, a friend and I went to the Carolina Theater and saw the film in a completely refurbished theater with new rocking chair seats. The cost of admission? $2.50. Add a 20 oz soda and a medium popcorn for $6, and I had a good night at the movies for only $8.50. 🙂

    As I expected, many aspects of the film did not go along with the books. Some things were a bit outrageous when compared to print, but the movie as a whole was plain out good. I think that if I had never read the books, I might have liked it more. But on a scale of 1-100, I would still give it a good 95. 😀

    The lead characters are Taylor Kitch as John Carter, and Lynn Collins as Dajah Thoris. A list of the actors is at the end of this post.

    A few inconsistencies (not all listed) between the movie and the books are:

    1 – Tars Tarkas was not the Jeddak when he found John Carter (The Jeddak was Tal Hajus).

    2 – Woola could not run as fast as the movie makes out. He could apparently put a Greyhound to shame, but he couldn’t run like a shot out of a cannon as on the movie.

    3 – The Holy Therns could not just materialize anywhere on the planet. They also wore blonde wigs.

    4 – The weapon that the Holy Therns used in the movie came on quite a bit later in the series and was developed not by the Therns, but by a scientist (Phor Tak) for a crazy Jeddak (Tul Axtar of Jahar) who was out to conquer the world. The weapon itself was reversed from the book in that it killed (vaporized?) people. In the book, it dissolved the ships and metal, and the soldiers fell to the planet.

    5 – Matai Shang was a “Holy Thern”, and in fact the “Hekkador” of Therns (top dog) and dedicated his dirty deeds to “Lessor Therns” (mostly those who had not reached the 10th cycle which denotes a Holy Thern). He would not have dirtied his hands with the things that the movie character did. He also had a beautiful daughter named “Phaidor” who was nowhere to be seen in the movie.

    6 – The movie intimated that the Therns were aliens to Mars. This was definitely not the way it is told in the books. The Therns fooled the planet into thinking they were “Holy” and doing the work if “Issus” yes, but they were not aliens. They were definitely not Holy, and Issus turned out to be a several hundred year old crazy woman of “The Black Pirates of Barsoom” who dined on the “delicate” parts of the most beautiful women on the planet that happened to be taken hostage by the Black Pirates (who themselves made raids on the Therns).

    7 – Dajah Thoris was not a warrior, and neither was she a great scholar. She was a smart, pretty, and determined little princess who could wield a sword if she had too, was loved by her country, and captured the heart of our intrepid hero, John Carter, and that was about it.

    8 – John Carter could jump at most around 150 feet. Most of the time it was more like 20-50 feet. The movie has him jumping a thousand feet or more. In one book, he is in a hole that he says is probably 100 feet deep, and he can’t get out.

    9 – Tardas Mors would never have made his grand-daughter, Dajah, marry “Sab Than”, no matter what the cost to the city of Helium. There is no mention of Mors Kajak (Dajah’s father who is supposed to be the Jed of Lessor Helium.) The movie has Tardos Mors as her father. That was a big no-no.

    10 – Powell and Carter were mining partners in the books. Powell was no longer in the military.

    11 – Zodanga. Where do I begin about Zodanga? This city was an enemy to Helium, but it didn’t movie around on some kind of monster sized mechanical platform. And, Sab Than was not a Jeddak. This part of the storyline is one of the dumbest parts of the movie.

    Even with the inconsistencies, it is a good movie to watch. I don’t quite understand why it didn’t do well in theaters other than the horrible advertising by Disney. I suppose that some of the disinterest comes from the movie being so different from Burrough’s books. This is a shame too as there should be two more films (more or less) to complete the original trilogy.

    All in all, I would say that this movie was good though and I will definitely see it again, and again. 🙂

    [b]Note:[/b] Even if you do NOT like science fiction, or other movies of this type, take notice: If you like seeing good looking women in skimpy costumes, you should see this film. [b]Lynn Collins[/b] is absolutely beautiful as Dajah Thoris. I think I fell just a little bit in love tonight. ;D

    Disney should have had better advertising and not given up so easily on this film.

    As far as the person who wrote the screenplay (Andrew Stanton?), someone should just whip his ass as it doesn’t appear that he read ANY of the books regardless of what he says. Characters are missing, things are changed and made more elaborate than they should be, and story lines are just made up that have nothing to do with E.R.B.’s books.

    I know it is difficult to make a movie from a book, especially one that is 100 years old, but this movie was so far off course it was pitiful.

  • @Steve Davidson

    Well and good, but there is a consistent thread of comment here and elsewhere that is beginning to seriously annoy me and detract fro. The actual discussion.
    And that is the constant attacks on critics and the calling into question their professionalism with the regular questioning of whether a review (giving a bad review) has actually seen the film or just the trailers.

    When you say “comment here” I’m not sure if you’re referring to commentary by the site, or comments by readers. But just for the record, the site has never once said anything about any reviewer making a review just based on the trailer, etc. Never.

    As for fans expressing such a view in comments — well, you may find it annoying, I just find it a natural expression of frustration in a situation where a movie that does has passionate fans (and John Carter does have passionate fans) is going through what John Carter is going through now — “Flop of the century”, etc. People are hurting, that’s all.

    On a side note, it would be equally valid for me to suggest that none of the fanboys/girls who are so gushingly enthusiastic about JC must be basing their reactions on only watching the trailers since most of the critics – who actually have a bit of experience and education and history in how to judge a film professionally – unlike the fans – found it to be so awful.

    So you’re saying “most of the critics….found it to be so awful.” Really? Now you’re the one exaggerating. 51% Rotten Tomatoes score is not “most of the critics found it to be so awful.” Critics are split right down the middle and the percentage that rated it “awful” is quite small. Most are either “mixed/good” or “mixed/bad”.

  • The debate regarding both the film itself and the critical reaction to it is being well served by this site – among many, many others. Well and good, but there is a consistent thread of comment here and elsewhere that is beginning to seriously annoy me and detract fro. The actual discussion.
    And that is the constant attacks on critics and the calling into question their professionalism with the regular questioning of whether a review (giving a bad review) has actually seen the film or just the trailers.
    Why not go whole hog and question whether they even saw the trailers? Obviously, anyone who actually sat in the theater and managed to keep their eyes open for the duration would absolutely HAVEto agree that is was the greatest thing on non-celluloid since the invention of the pencil, right?
    Please produce one PROFESSIONAL reviewer/media critic who A panned the film and B did so based soely on the trailers, and I will accord this argument some merit. Otherwise, please drop it as it is a fallacious argument and not helpful to the discussion.
    It is fallacious on its face because I did go to the theater and did manage to keep my eyes open – somehow, though I did yawn a fair amount – and my critiques of this film match many of the same things the negative reviews are saying. It is therefore obvious to me that the reviews did see the film.
    On a side note, it would be equally valid for me to suggest that none of the fanboys/girls who are so gushingly enthusiastic about JC must be basing their reactions on only watching the trailers since most of the critics – who actually have a bit of experience and education and history in how to judge a film professionally – unlike the fans – found it to be so awful. So please produce your ticket stubs forthwith as proof that you actually physically sat in a theater and watched this bloated, orphaned, uninspiring, illogical and insulting take on Burroughs masterpiece* – otherwise I’ll be forced to conclude that the film you think you like so much all took place in your head.
    *adjectives and hyperbole for effect only – my real critique of the film is elsewhere and far more negative…

  • The same like “Chronicles of Riddick” which was not very succesfull in the us and was counted as “flop” but the same movie earned better on the international market. After 1 Year the dvd sales, bluRay sales and the international earnings made “Chronicles of Riddick” a movie which earned his productions cost and made a small income. It is still one the highest BluRay sales of the last 6 years.

    But Studio executives, the press and the banks want “30-70mio on the first weekend” and 200-400 Mio within 2 months. Anything which doesnt earn the money is a flop. Period.

    John Carter ist a nice movie….where I really cant see where the 200-250 Mio Budget went but still a “fun movie”. Disney expected that someone who makes great 3d Animations movies can make good real movies…..and they dont! Mission impossible 4 was “not very good” because another pixar director decided to leave “animation” and turn to real movies. It doenst work like that.

    I think that “john Carter” should be possible to produce for 130-150 Mio Dollar at max. They spent too much money with an director which was not suited for the project and a little lame screenplay.

    Did I like john Carter? Yes…very much but It looked not very Big Budget and the story showed lack of “drama”.

  • This film will become a cult classic and will sporn the trilogy Disney were hoping for. The story gets better as Carter explores more of Mars in the sequels Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars,etc

  • Great analysis and great fan trailer.

    I can only hope that JCM has legs and the BO fall off of the second weekend isn’t too high. I hope it performs similarly to Napoleon Dynamite. ND had legs! It lasted 25 weeks in our AMC theater. I didn’t see it till near the end of it’s theatrical run because of the mixed reviews but it proved it’s metal to me. I loved that film.

    I also love John Carter. A well crafted piece of pulp fiction. I don’t agree with the sentiments “that it’s a mess” tonally. Like pulp, there’s a little bit of everything added creating a unique mix. I can’t wait to see it again.

  • I really liked this analysis of the psychology behind the interesting evolution of the “doom-patrol” surrounding John Carter, but I almost feel like it’s over analyzing a simple problem.

    When it comes to the industry press, it’s a far more interesting article when you’re talking about a huge industry flop, especially for such an established company. “Disney Fails” is far more compelling to readers than “Disney Succeeds”. We’re so used to hundred million dollar budgets breaking bank, that we’re immune to them. They’ll generate more views and readers by focusing on the negatives of a good company.

    It’s like the republican presidential campaign, which this site mentioned earlier. The press will always report something horrible over something good. “Romney fails to win” gets more readers than “romney wins another state”.

    It’s a sad state, really. The press should have been championing this movie, and I think that deep down, many of them want to. It’s just that we’ve become so jaded about this industry that we love seeing it torn down.

  • This is a great article, and I agree with it. I’ve sensed for a long time a wierd backlash of some sorts against the always-perfect Pixar. It’s like critics were the students who struggled to keep a B average, and Pixar was the kid who got A+’s on everything.

    “Cars 2” wasn’t a masterpiece to be sure. In fact, it may in fact be Pixar’s weakest effort from a story and emotional impact standpoint. But that film had serious balls and creativity…opening with a James Bond-like sequence, and creating a whole world of cars architecture and set pieces. To me, it was a fun, frantic movie that I enjoyed in the moment. But critics reveled in declaring to the world that Cars 2 was junk.

    I loved John Carter. I was VERY impressed with how Stanton managed to mish-mash different genres, nearly-seemlessly mesh realness with CGI, made it fun and entertaining, and most importantly…he made me root for and care for multiple characters. To me, Statnton hit it out of the park, and I can’t wait to see it multiple times more in the theatre.

    Reading the Vulture article, MY JAW HIT THE FLOOR when I read that Disney’s head marker Marie Carney tried to convince Stanton to tell a more personal story of the man. A MARKETING PERSON IS TELLING STANTON….THE MAN RESPONSIBLE FOR FINDING NEMO AND WALL-E….HOW TO TELL A STORY. Unbelievable!

    Maybe Stanton’s stubborness will prevent “Carter” from being a huge box-office smash. And maybe Stanton’s stubborness will greatly hurt his chances at making a “Carter” sequel, which is a real bummer. But because of his stubborness, fans like me got to somehing rare….a film that’s not concerned with trying to please mulitple in suits who only look at the bottom line. It’s my hope that word-of-mouth saves this film and we get a sequel down the road.

  • Vulture has an interesting take on what Stanton did and didn’t want as far as promotion. You can’t take any story with unnamed sources at face value. And it may be some spin control by Disney. Still … interesting.

  • I read the novels when I was a kid. I am an avid sci-fi and fantasy fiction reader and movie-goer. And yet I only first heard about John Carter 4 weeks ago. That tells me that something was wrong about the marketing of the movie. And I was dismayed by the “John Carter set to bomb” articles I found when I started to search last week before the release.

    I booked my tickets anyway – and I absolutely loved it, and I’m going to see it again today. I enjoyed it so much that I felt compelled for the first time ever to provide a rating and write a review on and on I felt compelled to do my part in restoring some balance, since to me the press buzz seemed so grotesquely and unfairly critical.

    The good news is that it looks like many others felt the same way. When I checked on imdb on Friday night, the rating was 6.7 I think, or maybe 6.8. When I checked yesterday, the rating had gone up to 7. When I checked this morning, the rating had gone up to 7.1. Usually the ratings on sci-fi / fantasy movies track downwards on imdb after release as the initial ratings are strongly reflective of fan enthusiasm and the subsequent ratings, by the general movie-going population, tend to be a bit lower. Here, it seems to be going the other way – either because the general population liked it even more than the fans, which is possible, or because so many fans like myself have felt compelled to do something to redress the balance.

    My sense is that this movie will have a pretty successful run at the box-office. Word of mouth is very important, and everyone I know who has seen this movie thoroughly enjoyed it. Sci-fi and movie fans like myself are seeing it multiple times. (By comparison, I saw Avator only once, as I found it quite dull and childishly simple. But hey, that’s just me I guess.)

  • I agree — just hadn’t heard that this was a Stanton driven decision. It would be interesting to see if there’s a reference for that. I don’t recall haring that previously. It might have been mentioned in one of the “who gets the blame” articles that have been coming out, but I didn’t see it. Let me now if there’s a cite for it.

  • I think one poor decision on Stanton’s part (and I think I heard it was his decision) was the film’s complete absence from the 2011 San Diego Comic Con.
    Anybody who wants to produce a successful sci-fi/fantasy/horror/super hero/or even plain old action film and DOESN’T promote it at SDCC is facing an uphill battle from the get go.
    Really, the buzz for Avatar started at Comic-Con, and one could make a case that the buzz for Star Wars started there in the summer of ’76.

  • Hi Brent – thank you for the thoughtful comments. My understanding is that Disney didn’t fail to do all those things out of ignorance — it was a conscious strategy to de-emphasize three things that the viewed as liabilities: a) Burroughs (musty old creaky source material), b) Mars (bad associations), and c) Andrew Stanton (animation director-cognitive dissonance if they brand with him).

    They seem to have made a decision that they had so much “shock and awe” in the form of CGI/DigitalFX/Epicness that it should be enough to just drive home the production value and special effects and people would be awed, and would come.

    The strange part is that while I could understand (if not agree with) these decisions as a starting point for the campaign, as the campaign progressed and failed to generate interest — and as it became apparent that things they were doing weren’t working, I thought it was really strange that they did not adjust their pitch but instead kept hammering him the same things. They did, by the end, make some minor adjustments in what they were showing in TV spots (less white ape, less desert) but nothing substantial and never did they move an inch off their decision to de-emphasize the Heritage.

    Oh well…it will be up to the likes of our little site to do these things.

    Don’t know if you saw our second “fan trailer” — this one entitled “Heritage”. It speaks to what we’re discussing:

  • Another part of the John Carter narrative that I did not witness is the story you’ve told through this blog — the importance of Burroughs to science fiction as a genre, the necessity of today’s advanced motion-capture technology to achieve his literary vision, and the extent to which Burroughs has influenced today’s brightest filmmakers.

    I did not see Stanton being interviewed on CNN (Pierce Morgan Tonight, for example) or a special Nightline piece about this film and its historical significance. In a nutshell, Disney may have spent a small fortune on marketing, but the studio did not successfully mobilize marketing public relations (MPR). Without the editorial imprimatur of major television news media, the film’s launch lost a lot of credibility that might have been garnered pre-release.

    So much could have been done to mobilize positive public relations. For example, what if the studio had developed a Burroughs’ literature program for junior high and high schools, much like Apple placed its computers in the schools to create buzz for its products among the young? What if Disney had asked for testimonial support from George Lucas, James Cameron, or other major directors who have declared their passion for Burroughs?

    Before Avatar premiered, the movie had garnered significant gravitas, in spite of the lurking critics. James Cameron was everywhere: network morning shows, documentaries about the production, online director and cast interviews, and so on.

    Michael, if you want to point a finger, point it at the studio’s PR people. They could have been much more creative at building anticipation among core affinity segments, not the least of which could have been Baby Boomer men, such as you, who became entranced with Burroughs during their youth. I can think of a dozen strategies to reach this segment and reawaken their dormant memories of the youthful escapes engendered by total Burroughs immersion.

    It’s not too late, but some very creative PR people need to get the story circulated about this monumental achievement. They need to think strategically, and they need to leverage their media contacts. Many stories are waiting to be told — and need to be told.

  • Plus earning 100 million worldwide is quite impressive for a new non franchise flick. So well wait and see.

  • Personally I blame all these floptrolling assholes on websites like deadline for painting this film in a bad light. Not that there BS is working anyway. Almost every filmgoer i met loved the film and would definetly see it again. So it should pull in some decent numbers. Excuse me for some misspellings.

  • My favorite “box office disappointment to classic” story is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While the disappointment factor has been debated (it was nominated for Best Picture and Director after all), it did disappear for decides before the lovingly-crafted story by several passionate filmmakers was rediscovered and became the iconic film it is.

    (It’s my all time favorite film, if you couldn’t tell.)

  • Excellent analysis of this cultural phenomenon. It says something very sad about our times.

    I grew up reading & loving Edgar Rice Burroughs. So much so, that I went on to write the Tarzan Snday newspaper strip for United Features Syndicate for 12 years. It was drawn by my late friend, Gray Morrow. In the last story that I wrote for the strip, we took Tarzan to Barsoom. Gray and I had a lot of fun doing it!

    The critical reception that JOHN CARTER has received troubles me. While it is not the adaptation of A PRINCESS OF MARS that I might like to have seen, it deserves a great deal more respect than it has received.

  • BRAVO!!! Could not have said it any better…The media has viciously sealed the fate of this movie..

  • Agree very much with what you said (and with this article, for that matter).

    Not just STARSHIP TROOPERS, but BLADE RUNNER is a very prominent example, as well as DUNE, WATERWORLD, the 1982 remake of THE THING, and heck, even THE WIZARD OF OZ!

    JOHN CARTER was a huge risk by Disney, and I have to tip my hat to them (plus I liked the film a lot). But many critics chose to view this movie with a huge chip on their shoulder and with, well, a large reservoir of bile that was not needed at all.

    I’m not surprised that the word “flop” is being used, but it does not jibe with the general facts that are present–that the movie actually did good numbers in its opening weekend, and did very well in the foreign markets.

    Finally, it isn’t box-office take or critical response that determines a movie’s worth. It’s time–the passage of time that ultimately determines that.

  • Mike, EXCELLENT article, as usual! And Ralok, that’s exactly what I’ve noticed, too. Seems those bashing it so violently may just be afraid to see it. They just might like it, a lot, and end up eating their sour words. Makes for a nasty taste and they’ll do anything to avoid it. I still have high hopes that in the next week or so (prior to teen-tastic Hunger Games coming out) John Carter may just have some pretty nice numbers at the box office. Nearly everyone whose seen it has liked it and almost all of them have said they want to go see it again – and take others who haven’t seen it yet.

    We shall see….

  • the most recent example that I can think of to compare with John Carter is Starship Troopers

    a film that split the critics, was considered a bomb.

    and has since become a science fiction classic with two sequels, an animated series, and an animated movie!

    One thing to note, with most of the reviews . . .it feels like the reviewer didnt even watch the movie

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