Research: Why John Carter is a Fascinating Disaster

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From Indiewire, March 6.  

Note that this article also contains links to all of the major Stanton interviews.

You could see Disney’s “John Carter” (March 9) shaping up as a misfire from a long way off. No studio has projected “disaster” so loudly since Sony’s misbegotten remake of “Godzilla” in 1998. For a $250 million movie to be tracking near a $25 million opening is shocking.


It was always going to be a challenge to pull audiences into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian fantasy world on the red planet Barsoom. As a kid I read and reread Burroughs’ “Tarzan” and Martian novels (he published his first book, “Princess of Mars,” almost a century ago, in 1917). I loved escaping into this exotic universe of warriors, princesses and six-limbed Tharks. But bringing that world to the screen was impossible until James Cameron’s “Avatar” successfully brought to a new level live-action mixed with digital environments and multiple performance-capture characters.

Disney optioned the rights to “A Princess of Mars” for director John McTiernan (“The Hunt for Red October”); then producer James Jacks gave it a whirl at Paramount with Guillermo del Toro and digital techno-whizes Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”), Kerry Conran (“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”) and finally, Jon Favreau. When Paramount let go of the rights, Favreau went on to direct “Iron Man.”

Watching like a hawk the entire time was Pixar writer-director Andrew Stanton, now 45, who grew up on the Marvel Comics Martian novels, and waited 36 years to grab the rights. Disney’s then-chairman Dick Cook scooped them up and green-lit a $250 million feature to be adapted and directed by Stanton. (He eventually brought in writers Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews.)

“When you’re 10 or 11 years old, and you’ve discovered girls, but they haven’t discovered you yet,” Stanton said at a recent Q & A, “and you’re reading about this ordinary guy that’s suddenly extraordinary on another planet, he’s got the coolest best friend, the coolest pet, and he’s winning the heart of the most beautiful girl in the universe, that’s like a checklist of everything you’ve ever wanted.”

But as great a writer/director/animator as Stanton has been at Team Pixar, he’s unproven in live action and he’s no Spielberg, whose brand name pulls audiences to a movie. And “X-Men: Wolverine” co-stars Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, with underused “Rome” supporting players Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy, aren’t marquee movie stars who put butts in seats like Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie.

Giving Stanton, despite the credit he’s due for his crucial participation in Pixar’s unprecedented run of 12  blockbusters–Oscar-winning “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” earned $1.3 billion worldwide– a live-action movie of this magnitude to supervise was a huge gamble. At Pixar he was a vital part of a team who were reliant on rewrites and animatics and constant changing of the story until each film played perfectly. Animation is the last part of the Pixar process.

Live action is a whole other universe. When I saw “John Carter” at its LA Live premiere, I could see so many things that might have been fixed by an experienced studio production team. For the most part, Disney let Stanton do his thing until he showed them a rough cut. The frustration is that the main story elements–gravity-enhanced jaded ex-soldier Carter (Kitsch), who can leap across the barren Barsoom landscape (Utah), his romance with spoiled Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Collins), alliance with honorable Thark chief Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and various battles with Martian creatures and armies–work well. The best thing in the movie is his toothy pet Woola–animated, natch (see clip below). But so much also goes wrong.

For starters, the film (which gains nothing from retrofitted 3-D) opens badly in the middle of a Martian air battle, and takes far too long to bring Civil War vet Carter to red planet Barsoom. The crucial design of the green nine-foot-tall, tusked and four-armed green Tharks is misguided (too close to Jar Jar Binks), many of the large-scale air battles are murky and over-pixelated, and Collins as the Princess of Mars boasts a clearly fake Brit accent. These are fixable mistakes among many, many more.

At the after-party, Stanton explained his deep passion for the material, and said that the film couldn’t have been done any sooner with pre-existing technology, or any cheaper either. He also says he relied on pre-planned reshoots (no way Disney had eighteen days in mind). He pays no heed to news reports or critics, he just tunes into his own drummer. So much so that he has already written the second installment of his planned trilogy. Only if the first film delivers a near-impossible $700 million will that happen.

Jacks argues that Conran could have done the film for half as much. Check Conran’s pitch video below, which captures just the right feel for Barsoom. While cinephiles may know that George Lucas and James Cameron raided these novels as inspiration for “Star Wars” and “Avatar,” the fact remains that audiences are clueless about this world. (Here’s Stanton’s profile in The New Yorker and more recent interviews with the LAT’s Geoff Boucher and Harry Knowles; video of his recent TED Talk, “My Life in Story, Backwards” is below. )

In October 2009, incoming Disney chairman Rich Ross faced a project that was well under way, with millions already spent. And under boss Robert Iger’s directives, Ross let go of many of Disney’s experienced production, distribution and marketing professionals. When the studio tested the movie’s “materials” –characters, title, designs–they did not play well with audiences. Burroughs’ Martian novels are not as well-known as his “Tarzan” series, which fueled countless film iterations over the decades.

An inexperienced chairman like Ross–relying on a new marketing team run by industry outsider MT Carney– didn’t know how to place the movie inside the proper genre context, the male sci-fi fantasy universe. Instead the studio, with so much investment on the line, took the mass-audience “appeal-to-everyone” approach. Disastrously, in an effort to draw women, they got rid of the most commercial element of the project. By trimming “John Carter of Mars” to “John Carter,” they lost Mars. (More details at Thedailybeast.)

Whatever the pluses and minues of outgoing studio chief Dick Cook, he was an ace marketer who would never have so mishandled this campaign. “John Carter” was generic: its standalone JC logo meant nothing. And as terrific as Canadian hunk Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) is in this movie–and he’s going to be a star from here, with tentpole actioner “Battleship” and Oliver Stone’s drug cartel thriller “Savages” coming up–he’s hardly a marquee draw at this point.

Disney then made another crucial error, opting not to promote the movie to its prime demo at Comic-Con in July, but keeping it with the Disney line-up at D 23, where the presentation bombed. You could sense the chill in the room. It just didn’t feel like your cookie-cutter Disney movie.

Hollywood insider Ricky Strauss, Disney’s more experienced new marketing head, came into a tough situation and started to right the ship by admitting that yes, the core target audience was male–young males, the ones who tune into the fanboy demo, who should have been targeted at Comic-Con last summer. That was a start, and sure enough, Knowles, who had been a producer on the Jacks “John Carter of Mars” at Paramount, gave the film a rave.

But the damage had been done. Iger may have wanted to break his studio away from its hidebound traditions and practices. But he did so at a cost. The write-off on this movie will be one of the biggest in Hollywood history.

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