Our view: It’s now clear, after yesterday’s announcement – Disney viewed John Carter as a hospice case all along


We didn’t react immediately when Disney announced yesterday, with John Carter 11 days into its theatrical run, that it will be booking a $200m writedown, making the Andrew Stanton film instantly the holder of the “biggest flop ever” title.  We wanted to sleep on it, and have an opportunity to reflect on the strategy behind the announcement.

Well, we’ve slept on it, and here are our thoughts.

First, the timing and manner of the announcement has brought clarity regarding something we’ve long suspected:   The one-note,  uninspired marketing of John Carter reflects the underlying reality that at Disney — where no key executive involved in green lighting the project remains — John Carter some time ago became first an orphan, then a hospice case,  meaning the Disney top brass first distanced themselves from the project, then accepted the diagnosis of the experts that it would not succeed and decided there was no point in making creative, imaginative, or otherwise “heroic”  efforts to save the film.   Instead, as with a hospice patient, they simply did the minimum necessary to keep it reasonably comfortable until it had run its course and time came to pull the plug.   I realize this may sound like a cynical overstatement — but I don’t think it is.  I’ll explain why.  But first — let’s look at the logic of the announcement.

If your frame of reference is the economics of this movie only — the announcement, coming when it did and being stated the way it was stated, seems shortsighted and foolish.  With the film only 11 days in theaters (3 in China, unreleased in Japan), the announcement (a shot heard round the world, not just in the US) instantly branding the film as the BIGGEST FLOP EVER would clearly be expected have a negative effect on ticket sales for the remainder of the run.  How much effect?  If we use standard industry measures, John Carter as of yesterday had harvested approximately 60% of it’s likely total box office revenue — so another $100m or so remains to be captured, and the announcement will surely have the effect of depressing that remainder by at least 10%.  So let’s start with $10m there; then add in diminished DVD/Blu-Ray value, diminished TV values  …. and clearly you end up with the timing and nature of the announcement costing some tens of millions of revenue dollars to Disney. Why throw that money away unnecessarily?  The argument, being put forward in some quarters,  that public company disclosure requirements demanded that Disney make such a statement right now is ridiculous and is not supported by the actions of other publicly owned studios in similar situations.  There are wars of choice and wars of necessity; in corporate terms there are announcements of choice and announcements of necessity and this was the former, not the latter.

So we wondered yesterday — why make the announcement now when it wasn’t really necessary to do so?  Why not, if an announcement was deemed appropriate, say something to the effect that Disney is grateful that audiences worldwide continue to enjoy the film and support it in theaters, and while results aren’t what Disney had hoped for, Disney remains confident that Andrew Stanton and the film-makers have made a film that will stand the test of time, with longterm revenues and asset value helping to offset near term losses, which will be substantial, but which in any event will not be enough to substantially affect the overall bottom line at Disney where the motion picture division in total only accounts for 7% of revenue.

In other words, why not acknowledge there will be a near term loss, meet your disclosure obligations, set up your next quarterly report so you can “beat expectations” (that’s the game, right?) — and get all this done without negatively impacting the remaining theatrical run — and without throwing the movie, the filmmakers, and the fans under the bus.

But that, as noted, is if you are looking at it from the frame of reference of the economic interests of this movie.

Time to zoom out a bit.

Clearly there was much more in play than just the economics of one movie, or even the economics of the motion picture division at Disney.  This all has to do with the larger corporate scheme of things.

The announcement from Disney was was timed so that it came after the stock markets had closed — giving investors and analysts overnight to put the news in perspective.  Then this morning, when trading started,  Disney stock was hardly affected, trading down 0.7% at $43.12, which is a lot closer to the 52 week high of $44.13 than the low of $28.19 registered last October.

One analyst – Drew Crum of Stifel, Nicolaus was quoted as saying that the motion picture division of Disney is “financially not that important……..While the studio serves as a creative engine for Disney’s intellectual property, it comprised only 7 percent of fiscal year 2011 segment operating income and is only 6 percent of our fiscal year 2012 estimate. While discouraged by another large film loss (last year, it was Mars Needs Moms), we’re not deterred and continue to focus on the positives including media networks and parks – nearly 90 percent of estimated fiscal year 2012 segment operating income.”

Another analyst, Nomura’s Michael Nathanson, put it this way:  “One-off charges at the studio segment are not indicative of the overall health of the company’s core businesses, namely the media networks and [theme] parks.  We view any pullback in the stock around this higher film loss as an enhanced buying opportunity.”

An “enhanced buying opportunity”?

Now — put those numbers in perspective.  The studio comprises  only 7% of operating income for Disney, who is much more in the business of theme parks and cable TV networks.  So, looking at from that perspective, which is of course the perspective that top Disney management would be looking at it, it was clearly better to pull the plug on hospice case John Carter and eat whatever fallout (minimal in the overall scheme of things) this produces, even if doing so meant losing some 10’s of millions in unharvested revenue and forever branding an otherwise worthy film that will make $300m worldwide at the box office as the “biggest flop ever”.  Larger corporate interests were clear — pull the plug, minimize the damage to stock prices, and move on.

So … the announcement does make sense.

Cold, calculating, corporate sense.

I would how Walt Disney would feel about that calculation?

Just as the decision to make the announcement makes more sense now — so too do some other things make better sense.

Such as the fact that with the execs who originally greenlit John Carter gone, and with MT Carney (marketing head and author of the removal of “of Mars” from the title) , no one at Disney really had ownership of this property — no one was, within the studio — a true champion of the project nor did anyone at the studio have a great deal personally at stake. The heads that would have rolled were already gone; those that remained would remain intact no matter what happened to John Carter. In the absence of any champion, what evolved was a stodgy “going through the motions” promotional campaign that was remarkable for its uninspired one-note artlessness, and which included none of the cross-promotions, merchandise tie-ins, or other “very Disney” types of components that were expected, but never materialized.

Meanwhile, the campaign never adapted — never even attempted the kind of course corrections that were clearly indicated after the first round of TV ads in December failed to ignite interest. Prior to the release we kept wondering — do they know something that we don’t’? Does Disney understand the Disney audience in some unique way? It was baffling then. Now it’s clear — no one was really seriously trying to get the promotion to work. Hospice care – that’s all it was.

In sum, it now seems clear that Disney made the judgment some time ago that the patient could not be saved, and at best could just be made reasonably comfortable and allowed to continue until the moment came when Disney could make the announcement which — in the overall corporate scheme of things where the motion picture division accounts for 7% and John Carter is a subcomponent of that –would best serve the larger corporate interests.

That day came yesterday; Disney did what its executives felt it was in the company’s best interests to do; and the results prove one thing for sure: Disney has proven to be much, much more adept at managing its stock price than marketing John Carter.

And so it goes.

Edgar Rice Burroughs deserved better.

Andrew Stanton deserved better.

Fans of both ERB and Andrew Stanton deserved better.

And all the 1000 or more people who worked on the movie, busting a gut for four years and putting their heart and soul into it — they deserved better.

But in the end, the Walt Disney Corporation is not in the business of making movies – they are in the business of making profits, of generating value for shareholders. John Carter is a momentary blip on that radar, and if the film, filmmakers, fans, and good old ERB himself all had to be sacrificed on the altar of earnings per share, so be it. It makes sense.


This is not the end for John Carter.  Andrew Stanton has made a wonderful film whose stature will grow as time passes. This is no Heaven’s Gate; no Ishtar; no Water World.  Cinema history may have labeled it “flop” for the moment — the longer term evaluation will be quite different. It will eventually take root and the film’s passionate fan base will gradually elevate it out of the muck and mire into which it has been so unceremoniously deposited.

In the meantime — it’s a pretty damn dark day on Barsoom.

UPDATE 11:00AM  103 Facebook shares in the first hour this post has been up.  I think perhaps it just speaks to the frustration that people are feeling, and the search — or need — for answers.  I’m going to embed our two fan trailers here –not sure exactly why, except that my own spirits are lifted when I watch them.  It’s definitely a “what might have been” kind of feeling — but it just  reminds that there is an actual excellent movie out there.


Fan Trailer 1

Fan Trailer 2 “Heritage”

74 thoughts on “Our view: It’s now clear, after yesterday’s announcement – Disney viewed John Carter as a hospice case all along

  1. I still can’t understand why disney made the statement that that the film was, in effect a flop, after only one weekend in release?

    When the reality was that it was rather successful ( in the world market ) and a bit of support could have helped?

    it was certainly one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of movies.

    on a plus- everyone i know that has seen the movie loves it amd i am sure it will be remembered and talked about long after transformers 3 and iron man etc, have been forgotten.

  2. The new Disney executives viewed this film all along as only a tax write off and did not want it to succeed. Hence the sub -standard marketing.Shame if it actually becomes a cult classic and makes money. The fans will be screaming for sequels!

  3. I am terribly conflicted. I believe more people deserve so to see John Carter (of Mars). However, after Disney’s treatment of a legendary franchise, I don’t want to see them earn another red cent for their stupidity.

  4. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this piece! Since Disney made their announcement, I’ve been hoping someone with more insider knowledge than I would do a detailed, investigative article on how and why Disney would deliberately kill one of its own products. There was very little online marketing; a series of deliberately bad–and vague–trailers and tv commercials; no online contests; weakly-designed movie posters and banners; no toys, shirts, action figures, or licensing. It’s my belief–and I’m not in L.A., so I can NOT back this up with facts–that Disney made a financial decision well over a year ago to do exactly what you said in your article. I believe they started spreading all the bad buzz themselves, to all their contacts at the Hollywood Reporter, Variety and, especially, the L. A. Times. You’re on target with your conclusions, but I would love to see a much more detailed and lengthy investigative piece proving how this lovely movie–and perhaps the potential trilogy–was murdered by corporate concerns. That might be an article you can sell to a national mag…or maybe a book idea. GO FOR IT.

  5. This all sounds eriely like General Motor’s abandonment and the subsequent demise of the Corvair, way back in the late 60’s; a theme that has run rampant throughout history since the dawn of social mythology and Greek reality: Leave unwanted progeny to the elements, but pray like hell they
    don’t survive and come back to kick your ass into oblivian. Ask Jason how that works out.

  6. Thanks for the response. Okay, I get all of what you said there. What I still don’t get is how it does less damage to the stock to announce a gargantuan flop with $200 million in box office than it does to announce a lesser flop a few weeks (or months, at the end of the next quarter) later with $300M in box office. The rationale for this–the explanation–is what I don’t see in the article or your response. And I really would like to understand it, because I know the movie business fairly well, and I’m having a hard time seeing the whole thing, from marketing to floposity, as anything but sheer lunacy.

    If films are such a small part of the overall, why would the stock take a big hit in the first place? Where’s the precedent for that? And–as mentioned above–where’s the logic even so?

  7. I having trouble following your logic about having trouble following my logic. 😉
    My basic point was that if they had followed the “usual” procedure, they would have waited until the next quarterly report comes out (early April, by which time 90% of theatrical revenue would be in) and incorporated the discussion of the write down into their overall financial reporting. That would have a) allowed the film to run its course without the extra headwind created by the “bomb” announcement, and b) been consistent with what they have done in the case of other flops.

    The only argument for making the announcement when they did was that disclosure rules required it – but if that’s the case — why didn’t they do the same thing for Mars Needs Moms, etc?

    As to why they really did it — I think it was a stock play. They felt that by getting it out of the way now, they could minimize damage to the stock price and that in fact is what happened — it had only minimal effect. They ended up sacrificing some theatrical and DVD revenue, but they protected the stock price.

    In the process, they threw the film, the director, and the property under the bus and branded the film forever as a “worse than Ishtar/Heaven’sGate/Mars Needs Mom flop”, which has economic implications ….. but is just also very upsetting to those who feel the film, the director, and ERB deserved better. But

  8. DOTAR: Interesting piece, but I’m afraid I’m not following your reasoning. The whole thing is predicated on the implication that the stock would have taken a bigger hit in the absence of Disney’s announcement–but you never actually lay out the reasoning behind that.

    I for one would like to know: What (specifically) do they think would have happened had they NOT made the announcement, and what evidence is there that whatever they feared WOULD happen, or ever HAD happened in the past? By the very logic cited in the article, they might have been able to cite a smaller loss had they waited. In fact, with dvd sales very often tripling or quadrupling the box office take, it is extraordinarily unlikely this project will lose money as reckoned in the real world (as opposed to the world of studio accounting).

    I see no possible benefit to declaring it a clunker at nearly $200M in 10 days. I’m trying, but I just don’t get it…

  9. One thing is for sure, the film does not in any way merit the lable “biggest flop”. I can think of at least 3 films that are way way worse – I’m looking at you Michael Bay.
    So even though this is not a genre defining master piece like Blade Runner. I do believe that parallels can be drawn. The critique BR got in 82 was just unfair and not substantiated. The way it has risen to become the phenomenon we know and love today is proof of that.
    And i can see what you mean that many people will properly wait until it hits Blu-ray and VOD. I know i’ve tried since the premiere to get my wife to see it, but she doesn’t want to see it in theaters. But has agreed to see it when it hits iTunes.
    So yeah your properly right that this talk of biggest flop and what not will generate a bizarre interest coupled with some shcadenfreude for good measure, but they will still wait for video.

    It’s really a shame with the marketing. Look at a film like Hunger Games. I know it has a bigger built in crowd. but my wife knows nothing of it and just because the manage to get some sort of twilight feel in the campaign she’s hooked to see it. I cannot for the life of me fathom why.

  10. I love (or I guess hate, but you know what I mean) the image of crowds gathering to view the dead whale on the beach. We’ll see — my sense of it is that it might attract gawkers but I doubt they will be curious enough to pay to see it theatrically. If they are curious, they might rent the DVD when the time comes to see what the fuss was all about. If the box office shows a surprising “hold” this weekend, then I’ll begin to think maybe it is somehow helping, in some weird way, for the film to be labeled “Flop of the Century”. It’s an upside down world, isn’t it?

  11. Bare with me, if this has been mentioned earlier.

    But i keep thinking if this is a trick move by disney for several reasons.
    First if you look at it. How much are people talking John Carter now?
    I live in denmark, where the film was not a big hit either. Even though there were a good campaign with TV commercials etc. people just didn’t seem to notice. Which i think is safe to say happens in a lot of countries. For some reason they just didn’t take notice.

    But when disney came out and said this is the biggest flop ever we will lose 200M$ everyone is talking about it. There talking about it on national TV even here. People are wondering why is it really that bad. It has actually spurred a bit of bizar interest. Like the big animal has washed up on shore and is going to die – Let’s go see!

    If the International boxoffice continues to be strong or even advances from the last two weekends then i think this is actually the case. – Talking about putting a positive spin on just about everything haha 😉 .

    And look at the numbers 40M$ more internatiolly and were well above 200M$ and on the way to 300m$ which i think i will generate. Thats not bad. i know it’s nowhere near enough but still. I don’t consider 300M$ a flop.
    If has long legs it might even end up af 4-500M$ all though i know its a bit of a long shot.

    I do however believe that if for some reason it climbs slowely to 500M$ that a sequel will not be out of the question. Off course Andrew Stanton will have to prove for disney he can make a sequel for 50-100M$ less but they also know what NOT to do marketing wise. it could actually work…

  12. Henreid:

    I’m curious as to what you would have used to drive the narrative? Apart from the shrinking audience for pure SF, not only the storyteller and cast, but also the producers, audience and critics want a story that involves conflict, “stakes”.

    Now, personally, I think the failing atmosphere factory would have been a stronger threat for a film. But that’s me.

    But from where I see things, in order to get this into a 2 hr movie, there had to be some kind immediate conflict. The Therns were no more distracting or hard to grasp than anything in any other genre movie that has made mad money and garnered positive reviews. LotRs had a prologue (one infinitely more overcomplicated than JC’s) as did Star Trek (2009). Most SF/F movies get slapped with an “explanatory prologue”. JC’s is brief and moves fast. I don’t think it hurts the movie.

    One thing though: if anyone was expecting this movie to get good reviews, they were dreaming. The first big genre movie of the season usually gets murdered by the critics. It’s like a seasonal feeding frenzy. There was no way to do a period set JC that wasn’t going to get a critical mauling. And looking at the reviews, I’m doubtful some of these critics even saw the movie. Even if JC had been 100% perfect, it would have been dogfood for ravening critics.

    And the Ninth Ray subplot *does* go somewhere. It is what creates the “damage control” situation for the Therns. They see an opportunity not just to contain two societies under one dictatorship but to also discredit the “Ninth Ray Theory”. It’s pretty easy to see why: it’s the one real advantage they have over the Barsoomians, once the Therns are flushed out, they can be outmaneuvered. The plot is explicitly stated in the movie, I don’t know how anyone can miss it.

    Is it any more complicated or abstract than Thor, Fellowship of the Ring, Avatar, or other recent genre movies? I don’t think so.

    Was it the strongest possible conflict for this story? I dunno, really. JC isn’t a single unified epic, its a serial adventure story. Consolidating the tangle of mysterious ancient peoples of GOM and WOM into the Therns was actually pretty sharp. And I personally like the interplay between Sab Than’s “hot” and Matai Shang’s “cool”.

    But I’m curious as to how you would have structured the film, it sounds like you already had it worked out, as we fans often do (I certainly have my version). Share!

  13. “There really was a clever genius in the way ERB did it, and at least half the bad reviews would have turned into good reviews if this one issue had been dealt with.”

    Agreed, amigo. Had he simply deleted the introduction scene (opening instead with ERB recieving the telegram) and the other one that cuts to Helium for Dejah’s Science Project, the biggest gripes would have gone away for most critics.
    Everything we learn in those scenes is addressed again more succinctly later in the film.

    Let us experience the world as Carter does! Allow Barsoom to expand as Carter moves through it. His perspective is how we experience the novel, but every time I start to connect to him in the film, it cuts away to Throne Rooms or villainous plotting. Stanton’s new Thern concept isn’t terrible as an idea, but it gets waaaayyy too much screentime and the characters are forced to pay for that. I think that subplot might have worked better if it had remained more mysterious. I also suspect studio decrees on the opening because of how weirdly forced it is.

    Raja –
    Agree to disagree on those points, and I’m glad you enjoy it so.

  14. It’s been two weeks now since I’ve seen the movie, and it still feel “unfinished” to me. The editing and pacing is odd, especially the Thern temple scene that stops the movie dead on its tracks. How come nobody saw this coming?

    I’m glad so many people seem to love it, but to me it still feels flawed on a purely cinematic level. Was the final edit rushed in some way? Was there no test screening? Is there a longer cut that allows the exposition to feel more organic? Is there a shorter cut that gets rid of the sci-fi bogus (Dejah’s knowledge of the ninth ray that has no payoff whatsoever) to concentrate on the love story?

    I don’t know what happened exactly, but there is far more than political decisions that affected the movie. Again, I’m happy John Carter has all these followers, I wish I could be one of them, but if the movie was that good, nothing would have stopped it from succeeding, doomsayers or not.

    I agree the movie is good, but it could have been great.

  15. I believe in John Carter. If you do too, here’s an image you can use as a way to show your support:


    Maybe if enough of us put it out there it might help. I’d love for this to end up being the little movie that could. Heck, maybe we need to have a National Bring Your Friends to See John Carter Week. It’d be wonderful to see this film make money in spite of Disney’s best efforts to the contrary. :)

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