Following is the Foreword to the work-in-progress book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. It’s a work in progress with publication date of August 1, 2012, if I can make it to the finish line by then.
In the 1960’s, countless minds of my generation encountered the extraordinary imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs through the Ace and Ballantine paperback reprints that were published monthly, and which eventually resulted in easy availability of more than 60 novels written by the grandmaster between 1912 and his death in 1950. By the time he died, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the best known author on the face of our planet; his works had been published in 58 languages; his character Tarzan was the best known literary character in history; and his Martian series featuring John Carter was considered the Rosetta Stone of modern science fiction.Already half a century old, the books felt as current as if they had been written yesterday, and we collected them all, 40 cents a copy, and read them multiple times.
Discovering Burroughs was not a lonely or isolated pursuit — the fans were legion. Gradually a long list emerged of scientists and storytellers, politicians and spiritual leaders, all of whom said that it was Burroughs who had caught their imagination and inspired them in their youth, among them Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Carl Sagan, Ronald Reagan, Jane Goodall, Billy Graham, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron.
Burroughs’ writing was extraordinary vivid and detailed. The planet that he created seemed so real that many of us felt almost as if we had lived there, or could live there–more than that, it induced a yearning to want be there and experience the world of our dreaming, and thus it was that for decades a movie of Barsoom played in our minds, while Hollywood attempted to create a real movie. But Hollywood couldn’t quite pull it off — the imagination of Burroughs, for decade after decade after he wrote A Princess of Mars in the fall of 1911, continued to exceed Hollywood’s capacity to create. Meanwhile some of our greatest film-makers made liberal use of scenes, images, and ideas from Burroughs’ Barsoom: Star Wars and Avatar in particular drew heavily upon Burroughs, mining it for creative inspiration.
But they were not the original, and we still yearned for that.
Then in 2008 Disney announced that Andrew Stanton, Director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo, would be directing a film version of A Princess of Mars and in January 2010 filming began — and with the knowledge that filming had begun, all of those who had been waiting for decades through one false alarm after another, knew that at long last this cherished source-work of imaginative fiction would finally make it to the screen. The cinema that had lived only in our minds for all these years was now about to be realized on the screen by a film-maker who had been smitten by its unique charms in his adolescence and carried it with him through adult life in the same way that we, the fans of Burroughs, had been. It felt like a dream come true and the thought of finally being able to share our special world with the larger universe of filmgoers thrilled us. We owed Stanton and Disney a deep debt of gratitude for bringing a film such as this to the screen, and to the world.
But then the dream slowly, and inexorably, turned to a nightmare.
The first warning sign came when word leaked out that the film’s budget was $250 million, making it among the most expensive films ever and, because of that, raising the bar for success to an extraordinary height. Just to break even, it seemed, the film would need to perform at the very highest level, a standout among all films in its year of release. But we kept faith.
Then, in the months before the film hit screens worldwide, the promotional campaign kicked in. To those who knew the underlying source material, the trailers and TV spots were sufficient to demonstrate that Andrew Stanton and his team had succeeded in creating the world of Barsoom on screen. But there was something disturbing as well …. the trailers had a lack of coherency, a failure to evoke the characters and relationships and sense of wonder that were an undeniable component to the underlying, cherished source material.
But we kept the faith and believed it would get better.
As the release date approached, with an eye on the need for a box office “home run” in order for the expensive film to be declared a success, we waiting anxiously to see the expected merchandise arrive (this was Disney, after all), and the cross promotional tie-ins, the creative advertising that would proclaim to the world that Disney, having made the film at the highest level of production investment, was supporting it with an equally all-out marketing campaign.
But it was not to be.
The media smelled blood, and an advance narrative of inevitable epic failure began to develop — the film wasn’t catching on with potential audiences; the budget and hence breakeven point was too high; the marketing was a mess; box office doom was imminent.
In the closing weeks as the campaign foundered, a secondary storyline developed as fans, desperate to see Disney right the ship and do justice to the material, took to the internet using the modern tools of creation and connectivity to make their voices heard — they decried the marketing mishaps in blogs, on social media, and anywhere else they could make their voices heard.
Fans who were artists (and there were many of them, because Burroughs inspires the creativity within each of us) began to create alternate posters and banners that entertainment sites like Ain’t It Cool News and industry journals like The Hollywood Reporter claimed far exceeded anything that the official campaign put out.
Fans who were film-makers took to their editing bays and created entirely new trailers for the film and posted them on YouTube. One of these caught the eye of the film’s director, who began to speak about it via Twitter and in interviews, saying that it was this trailer — a fan-created one — that “captured the DNA of the film we made”.
Fueled by the director’s endorsement and coverage of the fan trailer on more than 400 outlets, during the closing weeks of the campaign the fan trailer garnered more views online than the official trailer. A fresh wavelet of much-needed positive buzz hit the internet, but the internet is the 5% tail that wags the 95% dog that is the vastly larger audience that is only exposed through the classical medium of television, and on television, the ads never changed, and the fan-driven internet wavelet was swamped by the Tsunami of the $100m worth of ads that continued to plug the movie as a soulless CGI laden, ape-jumping thunderfest. The fan-and-film-maker alliance pushing the “true DNA” was too little, too late.
Release day came and the film fared poorly in the US, while being embraced overseas. The film itself delivered all that should have been necessary for success — earning a respectable split from the critics (as such films typically do), and resonating powerfully with the audience who saw it. But the audiences weren’t large enough for a $250m tentpole, and word of mouth could not save it. A worldwide box office approaching $300m was achieved, a number that for almost any film would be considered enough for it to be regarded as a hit — but in this case, because of the epic level of the production investment, an epic box office was needed and the numbers fell short.
Then on March 20, 11 days into the theatrical run, Disney in an in unprecedented statement (unprecedented because studios typically bury such announcements in the subsequent quarterly report instead of trumpeting it as a standalone statement while the film is less than halfway through its theatrical run) announced that it would be taking a $200m writedown due to John Carter — the largest writedown in cinema history and making John Carter the biggest flop ever.
Meanwhile, the fans who had anticipated the film’s release based on their knowledge of the source material were joined by fans who only newly discovered the material based on a viewing of the movie. The Burroughs magic, it seemed, had resonated through Stanton and the film, while not generating the kind of return on investment it needed to make, had already begun generating a passionate and committed fan base who coalesced on Facebook and blogsites dedicated to the film, and who began to agitate in favor of the film via social media. They increased their output of art and videos; they reached out worldwide; they connected with the film-makers; and they succeeded in establishing a beachhead in the war that had as its overt objective the greenlighting of a sequel; but which found its underlying meaning in garnering a measure of respect for the movie, and in so doing rehabilitating the image of the underlying source material. Their story is a 21st century story of the power of ideas, community, and the tools of social media.
In the aftermath, surveying the wreckage and near destruction of a 100 year old cherished piece of creative genius, the question inevitably arises: How did this happen?
What were the forces at play that caused what by any reasonable measure should have been a manageable literature-to-screen process to become a humiliating disaster to the film-makers, the fans, and the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a fertile mind that inspired much of the best creativity of the century that followed him?
Hollywood vs Mars is a serious investigation by a 25 year film industry veteran into “what really happened” in the creation of Hollywood’s greatest disaster in its history. It is not a rant; it has been undertaken not with the intent to prove a conspiracy theory, nor to satisfy any particular group or constituency. It seeks not blame, but understanding, not just of how the disaster happened — but also how with the modern tools of creation and connection, the fans who are fighting back may have a fighting chance to achieve their objectives.
The fans and their fight for the legacy of the film are a legitimate part of the ongoing story about the film, and they contributed significantly to this book. The cover art is a piece of fan art by Bryan Bustard, and within the book itself are many examples of fan art, and links to the fan videos that demonstrate that ideas, creativity, and connections can make a difference.
The film-makers who labored for many years to bring Barsoom to life on screen have also helped by opening up privately to help the author piece together the story of what happened. For the most part it has not been possible to officially recognize them because with few exceptions they remain under the strictures of Non-Disclosure-Agreements, and could not provide comments with attribution, although they did speak frankly and in detail with assurances that this would be used by the author for background purposes.
And finally there have been some from within the studio structure who have come forward privately to shed light on “What really happened”, and the author is particularly grateful to them, who must also remain unnamed for the same reason as the film-makers.
This has been a strange–and strangely rewarding–journey for the author. On the one hand, the thought frequently has presented itself: It’s just a movie – get over it. But then a counterargument presents itself: No, it’s more than that. It’s a cherished piece of Americana that has been trampled underfoot and left for dead. Also: It’s the single biggest disaster in cinema history, a fact which by itself makes it worthy of study. And: It’s a story of a spontaenous global community emerging in the digital age and asserting itself with digital tools, and that’s worth studying.
But beyond all of that, there is something that makes this deeply personal, and that is the connection that was forged those many decades ago between the mind of the master, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the mind of the student who writes this. Burroughs has shaped so many destinies that Ray Bradbury called him “the most influential writer in the history of the world”, and yet for all that he has never been fully recognized for his unique ability to not only transport readers to another world, creating “escape”, but to implant within those readers values that prepare them for the battles of life and indeed, sustain them when those battles seem overwhelming. I felt, but had never paused to examine, that Burroughs touched us in ways that were both primal and intellectual; that he sensed things that were lacking in our lives and in our culture and supplied a deeply resonant version of these lacking things–and that this, rather than simple “escape”, was the reason for our intense connection to what he wrote. But it never rose to the level of something that I pursued other than idly, an occasional contemplation that flicked through my consciousness.
It was only the injustice and effrontery of what happened in 2012, and the stirring defense from fans who were touched by the movie as I had been by the books, that caused me to do what ERB himself did in the earliest days of his writing journey–find the time within the numbing grind of daily existence and write the best I know how, and tell a story that I want to tell, and would want to read.
The old grandmaster has been kicked to within an inch of his life and left bleeding by the side of the road. This book seeks to know why, and how it happened, and to hold accountable those responsible for the beating, but it is also meant to help nurse old Ed, my grandfather in spirit if not in bloodline, back to health and in the process restore his dignity, and maybe — just maybe –contribute in some small way to helping the old master inspire a new generation of admirers for another 100 years.