The MovieGuys: An Open Letter to Andrew Stanton

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Dear Andrew Stanton,

It amazes me how much pre-release hoopla has been made over your new movie JOHN CARTER, and not in a good way. For all the negative articles that littered the internet, I would have thought you had waltzed into Disney studios with heavy firearms and held key studio executives for ransom.

Why else would so much negative ink be spilled regarding your passion-project had you not somehow duped one of the largest movie studios in Hollywood into giving you $250 million dollars to make a movie that’s been languishing in development hell for the better half of 75 years, and then failed to deliver the typical, bombastic, over-the-top, plot-devoid, idiotic, 2-hour toy commercial / happy-meal tie-in for a safe, familiar product?

Was it too much for these reviewers and audiences not to be treated to the typical popcorn movie fare they’ve come to expect lately? Have we fallen that far as a movie-going society that everything we see must fall into that same bucket of expectations, and when we’re suddenly treated to something different and out-of-the-ordinary, we rebel against it and secretly hope for it to fail? Is it job security? Do the risk-averse studios fear they might have to change their green-light policies if something not based on a known property is somehow successful? Ah well, better to pan it beforehand then, lest we’re proven wrong.

My condolences to you, Andrew, and the rest of the audience members like me, who long to see great throwback spectacles like JOHN CARTER. If the early returns are any indication, the negative press and botched marketing campaign may have condemned us to the realm of wishful thinking, should we hope to see something so wondrous and original ever again. Instead, we’ll be cursed to endure more lack-luster creations based on board games, children’s toys, bad teen novels and increasingly obscure comic heroes. Memorable characters will take a back seat to more explosions and wiz-bang effects, and any semblances of narrative will seem like it was spit out of a random story-generating computer.

That most reviewers complained of getting lost in the details of JOHN CARTER’S plot is testament to the fact that movie-going audiences are getting ever more stupid. Having read this complaint on many a review, I was prepared for a confusing mess. What I witnessed, however, was far from that. I saw a science fiction movie that was both rich in detail and layered with plot. Did I see the same film so many others said they couldn’t follow? Was I biased and/or better informed having read the books as a kid? I asked my wife, who also saw the film and had no familiarity with the 100-year-old source material. She followed the story just fine, and couldn’t understand where that negative thread had come from. It bothers me that this has become a frequent complaint with your movie, Andrew. I fear it will only further relegate movies toward the lowest, most simplistic form of story structure, or eschew it altogether in favor of a higher effects budget. Indeed, one need only look at some of the more recent big-budget summer movies to see this is already becoming a trend. Really, how hard was it to understand this film people? I know the trailers made it look like a mindless action flick, but it’s not. I’m sorry you couldn’t waltz in 10-minutes late with your face full of popcorn and your butter-stained fingers endlessly fumbling over your cell phone, and not be able to figure out what’s going on. It’s called attention. If you pay it, you’ll get it.

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  • I have followed this movie since I knew it was greelighted. I still am following it, along with the rest of Barsoomian Nation.

    I can understand one’s issues with the Disney brand placed on this movie. But though the Disney name is on it, this is the brainchild of Andrew Stanton.

    I like what he did with it. The flashbacks give Carter a back story and is designed to give the character depth, something he lacks in the books.

    He created a crumbling civilization-a bleak, dying world. He presented an alien world the way a person would have perceived it in 1912. He also infused some current sensibilities with the characters: e.g., Dejah Thoris. And he did it with loving detail.

    Most of readers’ reminisces of the books I have read hearken back to when he/she was 12 years old. I felt Stanton was attempting to recreate that same youthful sense of wonder that that same 12 year old felt when first reading these books.

    Stanton is an artist, and he put his individual stamp on it. Unfortunately, it did not resound with enough people.

    A friend of mine told me I was only person he knew that had even heard of John Carter.

    This, in my opinion, is where Disney dropped the ball (I’m hardly alone on this, it would seem).

    When Marvel released the prequel four issue comic book series I thought “The hype begins. By the time March 9 rolls around everyone will will know who John Carter is and just how imaginative Edgar Rice Burroughs was.”

    It never happened. Why does a company spend $250 million on a product and then not promote it? Why would they spend money on such a project and show no confidence in it?

    Personally, when I saw that second trailer I was stoked. Tharks, Woola, airships, Warhoons-it was all there. In other words, I don’t share other’s dissatisfaction with those trailers.

    And of course, the critics. So many riddled this with bullets before it ever hit the ground. Some of the diatribes seemed “phoned in.”

    But, some criticized it on artistic grounds without being being so excessive.

    And what the hell-unforgiving, self-serving critics never hurt Neil Diamond’s career.

    But even if it did, would this movie be on its way to making $600 million? Let’s face it, we have to ask ourselves that.

    The point about District 9 is well taken. Well done movie done pretty cheaply.

    Star Trek: The Motion Picture cost $40 million. It was nearly the end of the franchise.

    But too many people wanted to try again, primarily out of sheer love.

    The Wrath of Khan was made for $12 million and the future of Star Trek was ensured.

    This could very well happen with John Carter.

    If we do get a sequel, I may not live long to see it. In the meantime, I will go the theatre and watch it a third time this week.

    This movie doesn’t deserve to do this badly. I mean, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon grossed over $1 billion! I am not saying whether it was good or bad, but John Carter is not even pulling a fraction of that?

    Oh, well. Let’s hope Barsoomian Nation can keep the dream alive.

    When it becomes available on CD I will purchase it and watch it again and again.

    And I will marvel again at the loving touch an artist put a classic American piece of work.

    I’m finished. Thanks for your indulgence.

  • Saw the movie with two other friends–we are college/grad school educated, two have worked in theater and opera, and I’m on the faculty of a small college—so not a “dumb” audience. I was the only one who had read all of the John Carter novels as a kid. None of us had difficulty following the plot, or felt cheated out of our ticket price, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the movie. If it seemed cliched, it was only because Burroughs himself created many of the tropes we now take for granted in big budget flicks. The characters didn’t seem like cardboard cutouts to us, and we especially appreciated that there were tongue-in-cheek moments. The movie was FUN. It was meant to be entertainment. I think it succeeded. Critical negativity about the film seems more about studio politics and resentment of Disney’s (or even Pixar’s) successes, and a chance to take gleeful potshots. I’ve seen critically hyped movies that weren’t nearly as enjoyable as “John Carter”–it is hardly an “Ishtar” as it has been called by some.

  • I completely agree with the problem regarding modern audiences and storytelling. I’m not used to repeat that “old movies are better” because I’ve seen many wonderful films in the last 10 years: the LOTR Trilogy, Tron Legacy, The Last Samurai, Stanton’s own Wall-E etc. But it’s also true that most of the big blockbusters are mindless sequences of explosions and CG effects with little regards for story or characters (two of the worst examples are Thor and Transformers 3).
    John Carter is a different kind of movie: there are more dialogue and interaction scenes than action ones, and even the exciting battles and fights are there to help the story, not just to show more CG “wonders”

    Critics and audiences are complaining that this film isn’t original or a simple rip-off, but it’s far more original than most recent film just for being “old-fashioned” and concentrating on story and characters.
    Stanton has given us a simple but great gift indeed.

  • Thank you Aniket! Please keep talking to people. It’s very nice to hear from someone so far away who didn’t now about ERB …. enjoying it so much. That’s what those of us who loved the books are hoping for, and have been dreaming about for many years.

  • I watched the movie & it was really good as I am from India I am not familiar with the ERB’s work but I tell you I have already have a great respect for that man & what he created a 100 years ago it has to be master storyteller boy it was great ride to Barsoom , hoping to take a voyage to Barsoom once again & I am doing my best to tell anyone who asks me or even they don’t ask to go watch the movie at least once before judging the movie on the basis of what those so called mindless critics they have ruined the excitement of the movie that was there about it & worthful movie.I am just keeping my fingers crossed hoping that it would do good internationally allowing to green lit the sequel of it…

  • Well .. that’s another interpretation (that he saw his stuff was floundering and reached out) …..actually if that were the case it would show him to be humble and not filled with hubris so either way it’s okay and not quite the guy depicted in Vulture. 😉

  • I wondered about that, especially since he expressed some much-deserved gratitude for your fan trailer. It’s clear there was an ongoing battle over how to sell the film, and we’ll never really know which ideas belonged to whom.

    Certainly the cold, negative widespread reception to the Disney trailers factored into his praise of yours, though – which had already been embraced by Burroughs fans but hadn’t yet gone viral.

    What I’m saying is that, by that point, he had seen the marketing of his film falter – whether his ideas or Carney’s team were at fault – so embracing your better trailer doesn’t necessarily mean he deserves any credit for your approach.

    The Vulture article is far from perfectly trustworthy though, as the author doesn’t seem to have read the book, and actually asserts Stanton might have been ‘too faithful’.

  • The film was so fun, and had such a sense of awe. To me it was better than Star Wars.

    Judging by the success of the transformer movies, which are complete pieces of garbage with no redeeming value at all, audiences have become incredibly stupid.

  • Also, by many accounts in the VULTURE article and elsewhere, it was Stanton himself who FOUGHT for the trailers to be the way they were [at least that first, and admittedly best, teaser]. It was Stanton who didn’t want to sell the film with Burroughs name, or his own, it was Stanton who fought to use ‘Kashmir’, and to keep the premise mysterious and confusing.

    I thought the Vulture account was pretty good but Stanton’s reaction to our fan trailer (and comments he made to me when we met) seem to go agains the idea that he was the driving force behind anything but he first teaser. He did put forward the idea for the Peter Gabriel song and the haunting approach to the teaser …..and he did put forward the suggestion for the Kashmir music. But why would he have embraced the fan trailer, tweeted about it, and asked for more if the trailers that were out there reflected his own thinking. When we met, without being at all disrespectful to Disney, he clearly said he felt that the fan trailer captured the movie ‘we thought we were making” far betting than any other trailer and he asked for more, if we had them. This doesn’t sound like the egotistical guy depicted in the Vulture piece — it sounded like a film director who was not in control of the marketing and had concerns, and didn’t have control — but was also being professional and not stirring up a stink with Disney.

    I’m just not sure about blaming the marketing on Stanton. To me that feels like studio people trying to shift the blame.

    I do think that he made what turns out to have been a miscalculation and that was overloading the audience with too much exposition too quickly. I went back re-read how Burroughs did it and ERB was a genius. Stanton famously has said that you shouldn’t underestimate the audience’s intelligence and I think that factored into his approach.

    What really surprises me is that the test screenings didn’t catch this problem. Question number one at every test screening is — was there anything unclear, anything you didn’t understand?

  • Exactly. Everything that could have seemed fresh or unique about a film of this novel was traded in for something standard or cliche’. I couldn’t believe just how accurate the Disney (and superior fan) trailers turned out to be.

    It’s not that the story was so complicated, or that audiences are so stupid. It’s that Stanton jammed too many things into a two hour film and then hacked them together into an awkward mess. He seemed far more in love with Barsoomian terminology than in the story or the characters. If you know and love jeddaks, thoats, banths, etc., you’re predisposed to being wooed by this, but everyone else is left listening to silly words with nothing to care about. Even a good dense story, poorly told, has the effect of seeming overcomplicated.

    Also, by many accounts in the VULTURE article and elsewhere, it was Stanton himself who FOUGHT for the trailers to be the way they were [at least that first, and admittedly best, teaser]. It was Stanton who didn’t want to sell the film with Burroughs name, or his own, it was Stanton who fought to use ‘Kashmir’, and to keep the premise mysterious and confusing.

    Whatever has befallen the film, Stanton brought upon himself: 1st by letting his own storytelling ego override the source material, and 2nd by misjudging the way to sell it.

  • Sorry to say… Personally, I think the problem is that people WERE treated to typical popcorn fodder that didn’t challenge them, when this should and could have been one of the best films in years…

    I agree that the reviewers complaining about the ‘complicated’ plot are idiots. It was anything but. It was a mindless action flick with a story that unfortunately too many needless elements crammed into its running time, which meant not enough time on character or the core story. I think that’s where the problems came in for some people.

  • I too am utterly baffled at all the critics saying the plot was confusing or incomprehensible. HUH?!

    My wife knew nothing about John Carter going into the movie and her comment after seeing it was, “I liked it a lot more than I expected”. During the film I heard her laugh many times. I think she also really got pulled into liking the characters and thought Dejah was a cool, refreshing female.

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