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Guest Essay: A ‘flop’ does not mean ‘bad film’ especially for John Carter

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This was submitted to us by the author –thank you Charles, we’re delighted to publish it!

by Charles Gerian

On March 9th, 2012, Disney Studio’s “John Carter” was released in theaters. Met with divided reviews from most ‘major’ critics, and labeled a ‘disaster’ weeks before it was even released, it found love and admiration from those who saw it and didn’t listen to most mainstream media. The public heralds “John Carter” as a bad film because it didn’t make back it’s estimated $250 million budget; but does that mean really is a bad film? Does that mean if a movie doesn’t break records that it is a bad film that should be written off? Not necessarily.

In Hollywood, the key to success is making money. This is true in the case of almost every film released to the general public. Very rarely does a movie get made because it has a deep enough story to tell, or interesting worlds, characters, and themes to show off. If a movie makes money, odds are good enough that everyone is happy with it. Directors, stars, crew, producers, all get their checks and the studio now has more cash to put towards more of the same. Even if the film itself is objectively ‘not good’ recently with such hits as “Transformers”, “The Twilight Saga”, and “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” the films have made millions in Box Office returns but with dismal reception by critics on sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

When films ‘flop’ critics and movie-goers always jump to ‘because it was bad’. In most cases, yes, the film probably was bad and will instantly forgotten about. Films like “Gigli”, “Green Lantern”, and “Battlefield Earth” are all notoriously bad films that tanked worldwide in terms of Box Office numbers; but in some cases the films that flopped, in the long run, turned out to be ‘classics’ by today’s standards.  Movies like “Blade Runner”, “Fight Club”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and even “Citizen Kane” were all flops and now are some of the most iconic films ever made. (Dotar 1)

Since “John Carter” was released, the internet has been in a fury over defending it. Many journalists in both print and online have fiercely defended the film. Most people have not even seen “John Carter” based on the fact that it didn’t make money, or got less than favorable reviews from mainstream critics.  “Which proves my entire argument! Judging a film without seeing it is not only self-defeating, it’s also cruel! Give the bloody thing a chance before you slag it off – it’s the decent thing to do! After all, Blade Runner was a flop too. Flop doesn’t automatically equal turkey.” (SFX 2) is a statement calling out the very people who haven’t even seen the film for themselves, which is a common trait amongst the general pubic once a movie is labeled a “flop”.
“I know quite a few science fiction writers and professionals, and many of them are flummoxed by how poorly John Carter was received; the general line among the scifi cognoscenti is that it’s a fun adventure film that doesn’t deserve the abuse it’s gotten” (Scalzi 3)

In the case of Walt Disney’s “John Carter” a majority of the blame for why it ‘failed’ has gone to Disney itself and it’s marketing team for the way they handled promoting this century old hero, and for most films, marketing and promotion can mean life or death for a film that doesn’t come with a built in audience like “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games”. In fact, the most buzz “John Carter” still has is from the flurry of examinations and articles written about it’s marketing blunder, and as Eamon Murphy of AOL’s Finance section states, “Even all this bad, bottom-line crazed press could be beneficial, stirring up some curiosity. It’s a better ad campaign than what Disney devised.” (Murphy 4).

The main critique of it’s marketing catastrophe is the fact the film had so many viable selling points. A space-age fantasy romance, a bare chested muscular hero, a beautiful princess, a supporting A-list cast, and the benefit of having over 100 years oh history behind it. The Two-time Oscar winning director, Andrew Stanton, was not even mentioned in the trailers, nor was the fact the story comes from the mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who Disney recently had a hit off of with their animated “Tarzan”.

Even the very first trailer sent ripples of uncertainty through the community. “No, this high-leaping hero was grounded from the moment the movie’s first disastrously impotent, muddled, and largely action-and-effects-free teaser trailer debuted last July and left audiences saying, “What was that?” “ (Claude 5).  Quotes one online writer. The trailer was a slow moving emotional piece showing Princess Dejah, portrayed by Lynn Collins, and the titular character John Carter, as played by Taylor Kitsch interacting with small dialogue from both set to “My Body Is A Cage” by Peter Gabriel (a cover of the Arcade Fire song). The trailer itself was well received by fans of cinema and the stories, and sparked a new interest in both the song itself and the novels; but was chided for not showing or telling much of the films’ plot (as most teaser trailers go). “At the beginning of the teaser, a man (winkingly named “Burroughs”) learns that his Civil-War-soldier uncle John Carter has vanished; we then see Kitsch wake up in the Martian desert. There were flashes of effects (a spaceship here, an alien there) and the occasional waving of a weapon, but it felt more like an old-tyme swords-and-sandals romance, with hovercrafts instead of chariots.” (Claude)

Disney was under immense pressure from Burroughs fans and anyone interested in the story. The Marketing executive was even fired and replaced midway through the films marketing run hoping it would change things. Sadly, Disney seemed to have dropped the ball, and it wasn’t until just weeks prior to the release, with tracking numbers low, and the film destined to be a ‘major flop’ by all publications, that John Carter fan-site The John Carter Files, showed off a fan-trailer made in the vein of how the film should have been marketed.

When the film finally came out, it was buzzed on the internet by a flurry of positive reviews from advanced screenings, citing rage towards mainstream critics who seem to have even just forgotton about what makes movies wonderful. Robert Levin of Film School Rejects writes

“And that’s a shame, because it’s actually quite good. It’s sad that we’ve reached a cultural place where a bold, imaginative science-fiction effort like this, a film with beautiful imagery and a well-founded allegiance to gloriously pulpy source material, is so easily dismissed. Not to get all Armond White here, but the contemptible gleeful scorn being heaped on the film by Nikki Finke and others just reemphasizes how little so many people who write about movies actually care about movies.” (Levin 6). It seems to be true though. The film, lauded as a financial disaster and a flop has reached such an audience who call it an emotional spectacle and an exciting homage to pulpy science-fiction films of ole. These things surely were not said about “Battlefield Earth” or many other flops. “John Carter” may not have broken records or shattered the box office with it’s might, but despite all of the negative buzz, weak advertising, and prejudice, the film has touched almost everyone to see it with it’s spectacular special effects, it’s rich and storied presentation of ‘Barsoom’ (Mars), it’s conflicted and tragic hero and his quest for redemption, his struggle to be with this gorgeous woman who has seemed to save him from his heartbreak and injuries of the past.

Today’s films are usually no more than big-budget toy commercials, with no discernible plot, or heart put into it by it’s film makers. “John Carter” is not “Transformers” with vulgarity, a brainless plot, and by-the-numbers characters. “John Carter” is a good old-fashioned tale that draws you in from it’s first frame, and holds on to you even after the credits have rolled. This is not what a flop is, or what a “disaster” should be referred to. A flop would be a forgettable experience and a waste of price of admission. Money makes the world go round is a common term, well money makes Hollywood go round, and the money in the business is all used to finance ‘safe’ sells like sequels, prequels, spin-offs, remakes, and reboots. When a project like “John Carter” is made out of sheer personal devotion by Andrew Stanton, a long time fan and admirer of the character and his stories since childhood, money is not the goal; but a means to an end. Andrew wanted to bring this tale to the big screen to share with others the wonder of Mars, and all of those who inhabit it.

A great number of believe believe “John Carter” to be nothing more than an awful rip-off of sci-fi films such as “Star Wars”, “Avatar”, “Dune”, and many more; but those that went to actually see it and not pay attention to “the critics who seem inexplicably determined to strangle the movie in its crib” (Kain 8) had more than enough fun and enjoyment out of it.
“My son and I just finished seeing “John Carter”. We had the most fun we have had at a movie in a long time. My son said, “John Carter is better than “Avatar”, and I have to agree. Everything about the movie is very well done, but best of all it is a movie you can simply enjoy from start to finish. It is rare for a movie to be so well done and also so enjoyable to watch. When I looked down at my watch at the end of the film I was surprised so much time had passed.” (Kain 7). Writes a commentator from Eric Kain’s Forbes blog.
More than enough journalists have staunchly called out the critics to defend this movie, made of heart and not of recycled boring logic, “It seems you pick these little “negative narratives” in advance, without any regard for accuracy, and you all hop the bandwagon to be sure and parrot that narrative until it sounds like the same review over and over — and, if anyone cares to look closely, the same phrases and words lifted right from one another (like “rooting interest” and “flat/inexpressive”), making me wonder if reviewers are seriously getting paid even if they just read other people’s reviews and do some quick cut-and-pasting instead of watching the film themselves” (Hughes 9).

It is true. The reason “John Carter” has been bashed and bloodied is not due to it’s quality as a film; but what it represents. As a film, it has some flaws, every movie does; but “John Carter” harkens back to a classic time that didn’t need offensive characters, explicit swearing and content,  giant robots, or sex and drugs to be “cool”. Think “Star Wars”. When films were still magic and an art form, not a majority of trash dribbled out with a clean budged slapped with a brand name and labeled on bottles of Mountain Dew.

Many people thought “John Carter” was dead. The numbers weren’t good in the States, Disney and just about everyone else had written it off. But like it’s titular hero, the movie won’t stop fighting, and neither will it’s fans.
Carol Pinchfesky writes on Carter’s still growing and probable success“Unsurprisingly, most of this coin has come from overseas. While John Carter earned over $66 million here in the United States, international markets have pulled in over $188 million.” (Pinchfesky 10).  Also worth noting is it’s popularity in DVD/Bluray pre-orders on Amazon.com.
“John Carter has earned $254.5 million, a $4.5 million over its budget—currently not much of a profit, but it’s far better than the epic loss that many had feared.” (Pinchfesky). The film has also yet to open in Japan, and if usual trends should suggest it’s aimed to make a killing in the Japanese market, as it had gone number one for two weeks straight in China just weeks ago.

Success is measured in money, this is true in everything; but it shouldn’t be. Just because someone isn’t rich, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good people. In fact it could be argued just because someone is rich. It doesn’t make them bad people as many would assume. The same is true for films, and “John Carter” is a standing and proud example of that. Some say in a few years, sequel or not, “John Carter” could be the “Blade Runner” of the new millennium. Ultimately opinions belong to their rightful owners, and can’t be necessarily wrong; but sometimes people are unfair, and don’t give things the chance they deserve, In the case of “John Carter” anyone who frees themselves of prejudice and sits down to go to Barsoom…won’t want to come back to earth. John Carter has been labeled as a flop, yes; but it’s a flop that provides two solid hours of thrill, heart, laughs, tears, and pure unadulterated escapism.

Works Cited

1.   Sojat, Dotar. “John Carter and big-budget Schadenfreude, or how 100M gross in the first 3 days gets instantly labeled an iconic Hollywood flop.” The John Carter Files. N.p., 13 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://thejohncarterfiles.com/2012/03/john-carter-and-big-budget-schadenfreude-or-how-100m-gross-in-the-first-3-days-gets-instantly-labeled-an-iconic-hollywood-flop/>.

2. “Isn’t It About Time You Gave John Carter Another Chance?.” SFX. N.p., 01 Apr 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.sfx.co.uk/2012/04/01/isn’t-it-about-time-you-gave-john-carter-another-chance/>.

3. Scalzi, John. “5 Lessons from the Hit “Hunger Games” and the Flop “John Carter”.” AMC Film Critic. AMC, 28 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.filmcritic.com/features/2012/03/5-lessons-hunger-games-john-carter/>.

4. Murphy, Eamon. “‘John Carter’ of Where? Disne’ys Bad Marketing Mars Launch of a Fun Sci-Fi Romance.”Daily Finance. America Online, 12 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.dailyfinance.com/2012/03/12/john-carter-of-where-disneys-bad-marketing-mars-launch-of-a/>.

5. Brodesser-Akner, Claude. “The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer.” Vulture. New York Magazine, 12 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.vulture.com/2012/03/john-carter-doomed-by-first-trailer.html>.

Works Cited

6. Levin, Robert. “Review: Box Office Be Damned, ‘John Carter’ is a Cinematic Wonder.” Film School Rejects. (2012): 1. Print. <http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/reviews/review-box-office-be-damned-john-carter-is-a-cinematic-wonder-rlevi.php>.

7. Kain, Eric. “John Carter: Better Than Avatar?.” Tech. Forbes, 12 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/03/10/john-carter-better-than-avatar/>.

8. Kain, Eric. “John Carter Is A Throwback To Classic Adventure Movies – And You Should Seriously Go See It.” Tech. Forbes, 10 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/03/10/john-carter-is-a-throwback-to-classic-adventure-movies-and-you-should-seriously-go-see-it/>.

9. Hughes, Mark. “Why ‘John Carter’ Is Loads Of Fun & You Should Ignore Cynics Who Can’t Have Fun At Movies.” Tech. Forbes, 09 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2012/03/09/why-john-carter-is-loads-of-fun-you-should-ignore-cynics-who-cant-have-fun-at-movies/>.

10. Pinchfesky, Carol. “John Carter’s Trip to Mars Is Finally Profitable.” Tech. Forbes, 02 Apr 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2012/04/02/john-carters-trip-to-mars-is-finally-profitable/>.

5 comments

  • I’m full on board with the statements made here (and there could be plenty more made)… but…

    >>>…but “John Carter” harkens back to a classic time that didn’t need offensive characters, explicit swearing and content, giant robots, or sex and drugs to be “cool”.<<<

    The _only_ thing that made me cringe about this movie was to set in the theater with my wife and three young boys, and suddenly hear the Lord's name taken in vain. Your mileage may vary, but in any case it was unnecessary.

    … especially from a Disney movie.

  • This article, in my opinion, is well written, balanced and shareable.
    For me, the movie – a quite good compromise with the book – well reflects all the characters met in ERB novels. I cant’ wait to buy the DVD.
    Greetings from an italian fan of the saga of John Carter.

  • This article nails all the right points. It was a damned fine read.

    The main crux of it is true–“flop” does not equal “bad film”. After all, are THE WIZARD OF OZ, A CHRISTMAS STORY, and THE IRON GIANT bad films? No. In fact, they are films that can be watched again and again….and they were also box office flops. The same goes for John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of THE THING, and today, no movie fan worth his or her salt would ever say that that movie is garbage.

    I read a comment on a website that claimed that “no one will remember JOHN CARTER a year from now.” I would give a one-word answer to that claim: bulls**t.

  • Very intersting informative and balanced article, i quite like how the author states the case for what truely is considered a “flop”, sadly it really is the amount of Big Bucks yardstick that gets measured…which is a shame, i feel sorry for movie fans who missed out on this wonderfull film with a big heart, just because of the initial reveiws, time will tell, and indeed is telling already, for once success well be measured by how much love this film has and will generate

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