Update on “Hollywood vs Mars” — 75% of the way there; questions for the JCF Braintrust

Other Stuff

I thought I’d provide an update on my progress on the book “Hollywood vs Mars”. I’ve been working on it 3-4 hours every morning and making good progress. The word count now stands at 79,262 and it’s looking like it should end up around 100,000 words, which people in publishing tell me is optimal. That would be 350 pages in a typical printed book format.

One of the things I’m struggling with, and could use some help on, is the subtitle. The main title, “Hollywood vs Mars” seems to be working well and I’m not envisioning changing it.

Here is what I have right now:

The subtitle I started with was :

  • How Hollywood Hubris Doomed John Carter and and unlikely fan-filmmaker alliance is fighting back.

I had a couple of people say they weren’t sure what hubris means, and there were questions about whether it’s an advocacy “hatchet job” or a legitimate inquiry, and my intention is the latter.

Here is the chapter breakdown of what I’ve done thus far.  It will come out as an eBook first but will be available in hardback a few weeks later.

  1. Intro
  2. Edgar Rice Burroughs 
    1. ERB’s backstory up to the point he sat down to write APOM.
  3. Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess 
    1. An 8,000 word abridged version of the 65,000 word APOM, with key scenes excerpted to showcase Burroughs writing style, John Carter’s character, handling of of exposition, and other items that are important for a later analysis of Stanton’s adaptation.
  4. The Burroughs “Magic”: What was it, exactly?  
    1. An analysis of what caused ERB’s stories to catch on the way they did.  (Not just my own analysis — scholars are cited).  Purpose of this is to further establish a framework for the analysis of the adaptation that will be part of the book later.
  5. ERB and Hollywood 
    1. Covers Burroughs move to Hollywood, then Tarzana, covers the ease with which Tarzan found his way to the screen, then covers the Clampett animated John Carter project, how it was greenlit by MGM but then MGM pulled back after getting feedback from their bookers in the heartland.  This chapter gets us to Burroughs’ death in 1950.
  6. The Imitators and Development Hell 
    1. Traces the history of the imitators, starting with Flash Gordon , up through Star Wars and Avatar, then the legitimate development from Harryhausen through Disney 86-2000 and Paramount 2000-2006.  (Request for help: There was a UK development in the 1980’s that I’m having trouble getting details on.  Anyone have any resources for that?  I remember during the buildup to JC’s release, there was artwork for this available online — but I can’t find it now.)
  7. A Phone Call With Consequences 
    1. Stanton’s childhood in Rockport, his initial exposure to ERB; his reaction (including coolness to the John Carter and Dejah Thoris characters, but fascination with the world and the situation), up to the phone call with Dick Cook in 2006 when Stanton brought up the idea of directing APOM, which had just come back on the market after Paramount dropped it.
  8. Adapting a Classic 
    1. Inside Stanton’s adaptation strategy — the why’s and wherefores of his approach; the team he recruited.
  9. Breaking Down Stanton’s Adaptation
    1. A critical analysis of Stanton’s adaptation with a clear look at the major changes, why he made them, and their impact.  (This does not go anywhere near far enough to make the MCR’s of the world happy, but it explores  all of the counterarguments and delineates what Stanton did in executing his strategy at the screenplay stage.)  This is done in such a way as to make sure that later, when the critical response is presented, readers are familiar with the choices so that the “actions have consequences” basis is established.
  10. Epic Budget: Fateful Decision
    1. Traces the process by which the approved budget went from $175m to $250m after the screenplay was complete and a “true budget” could thus be prepared.   Examines the reaction by all parties — Stanton, the production team, and the studio to this situation which, as it turned out, was a fateful moment of decision.
  11. The Unraveling Begins
    1. A look at Disney during the period starting in May 2009 when Disney CEO Iger publicly chastised Dick Cook for the studio’s results in a conference call with directors; then the acquisition of Marvel in August 2009 with a look at it’s implications for JC; then the firing of Dick Cook in  September, and the early months of Ross’s tenure  — all of this happening in the final months before JC would start filming gin January 2010.
  12. A 250M Production Experiment
    1. Examines the production itself; Stanton’s avoid “Pixar process” orientation; what the implications this were for the way the production period was approached; and a look at whether Stanton was in fact able to use the process that he was committed to — or whether “live-action” factors intervened and left him with half-measures only. Includes a critical look at the thought processes that were in play — and the conflict between the Utopian “Pixar Process” and the reality of how much of that could actually be incorporated into a live action film.
  13. A Marketing Strategy Programmed to Fail?
    1. Within Disney, looks at decisions made by Iger, Ross , and MT Carney in 2010 regarding the title change to “John Carter”; the decision to not pursue cross-promotions and merchandising; and contrasting that with the situation regarding other films at the same budget level as John Carter — particular any films (there really aren’t any) at this budget level without a “built-in audience”.   Presents the positive logic for the decisions that were made; and the counterarguments for why these decisions contributed to the “programmed to fail” scenario that would ultimately unfold.
  14. Post Production–The Rough Cut
    1. Back to the production for the first rough cut, up to the 170 version that was screened for the “Braintrust” at Pixar plus Disney execs in December 2010.  Details the specifics of the feedback that was given — and not given. Looks into the issue of whether the studio’s reaction as given to Stanton was the actual reaction reported back up the chain to Iger, and looks into the reaction as the Ross/Iger level.  This is a critical juncture because it was in the next month, January 2011, that the decision was made to move the release date up to March 2012 instead of June 2012.
  15. Reshoots — The Marketing Kicks In
    1. Covers the period in the first half of 2011 when Stanton was doing the first round of reshoots in Playa Vista and Disney marketing was working on what would become the first teaser trailer.  Examines the way that Stanton interacted with MT Carney and the marketing team;  how the first trailer came to be what it was; and clarifies the nature of the relationship between the director and the marketing team.
  16. The First Test Screening
    1. After the “Braintrust” screening in December 2010, the next major screening was an official Nielsen test screening before 400 “regular moviegoers” in Portland, Oregon, attended by Stanton and his team and senior Disney execs.  Covers the reaction to the film and what this meant to what followed.
  17. “Zero Complacency”
    1. This chapter gets it’s title from the words Disney production head Sean Bailey used to describe how Stanton reacted to the  very favorable results of the test screening by continuing to attempt to “plus” the film with additional reshoots in London and Los Angeles — all generated by Stanton (none by the studio).
  18. Team Disney
    1. This takes a look at the Disney team — dropping back to provide additional background on MT Carney, and basically goes into everything I’ve been able to turn up on their reaction to the first trailer (released on July 14, 2011) and their strategy and approach to the promotion that was kicked off in earnest by the release of that trailer.
  19. The ERBophiles
    1. Introduces Jim Sullos, ERB Inc, and the universe of Burroughs fans and scholars who were a very interested constituency as the first trailer was released.  Traces the relationship of ERB Inc to Disney; its expectations from Disney; and the general mood and expectations among the Burroughs community.
That’s where I am now — about 80% of the way through it.  Lots of big stuff ahead.
The main question I have is how much “backstory” to leave in.  As it is now, the Stanton-Cook phone call that starts the ball rolling on the actual Disney 2012 release happens on about page 100 — roughly 1/3 of the way into the book.    There’s a lot of fascinating stuff leading up to that point, but I’m thinking it may be necessary to grim some of this.   Welcome any comments readers might have on this — do the backstory topics seem relevant and compelling enough to justify occupying up to 1/3 of the book?
As for what remains:
  • The marketing; what was the strategy (themes and messaging); who was calling the shots; what were the beats; how did they react to tracking and other forms of feedback?
  • The film itself; test screening reactions, opening weekend;  critical reaction (with an analysis of what the negative reviews cited — referencing that back to the adaptation choices) audience reaction; comparison of audience and critical response
  • New info on Disney’s  reaction to the opening weekend and the thought process that led to the
  • Analysis and Conclusions
  • Afterword: The fan trailers and emergence of a fan movement — analysis of what happened; what opportunities exist the modern tools of social media and social referral……a realistic assessment of possible paths to a sequel or reboot.
There are also a handful of “Special Features” that come after the main body.
Anyway …. It’s going to be a challenge to be ready by May 30 but the deadline hasn’t slipped yet.  Hoping I can make it.



  • Just a thought… I’d be interested in the history of the various attempts to bring Princess of Mars to the big screen that were scuttled for whatever reason, leaving us with the the only two that exist so far.

    In particular, it is fun to speculate on how Clampett’s animated version, had it been completed, would have influenced animation in general in the years following. It would have been released prior to Disney’s Snow White!

  • There’s a great New Yorker profile of James Cameron (www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/10/26/0911026fa_fact_goodyear) that gives many examples of how studio heads/producers were afraid of James Cameron and how he is well known for this. One example involved the making of the Abyss:

    Before beginning production on the Abyss ….he went to see Leonard Goldberg, then the president of Fox, which was financing the film. “He said, ‘I want you to know one thing-once we embark on this adventure and I start to make this movie, the only way you’ll be able to stop me is to kill me’, ” Goldberg told me. “You look into those eyes and you knew he meant it.”

    The entire profile is basically how hard it is to work with James Cameron and how he makes no apologies for it. There’re many other expletive laced examples though out the article. Compared to James Cameron, Stanton seems like a perfect gentleman to me. And I like James Cameron and his movies!

  • (1) TAME – Hollywood vs John Carter of Mars: A Case Study in Unrealized Box Office Potential
    (2) “FAN VICTIM” – Hollywood vs John Carter of Mars: How the Edgar Rice Burroughs Classic Fell Prey to Industry Politics and Super-Sized Egos
    (3) HISTORICAL – Hollywood vs John Carter of Mars: How Industry Politics and Egos Sabotaged a Film One Hundred Years in the Making

    These two are more for fun-
    (4) “INSIDERY” SARCASTIC – Hollywood vs John Carter of Mars: How to Lose a Cave of Box Office Gold
    (5) DRYLY SARCASTIC – Hollywood vs John Carter of Mars: A Case Study in How to Wreck a Classic and Lose Big at the Box Office

  • Critics were saying all kinds of crazy things… that it was racist, predictable. One picked on the funny names as if Lord of the Rings could have them, but that’s old news now… why not Bill or Sally or Bob and Tom. One critic said it was too bloody and violent. Then you had the nitwits who couldn’t follow it.. so called intelligent reviewers. I know kids who had no problem and people older than me who had no problem. I can understand the purists having problems with the story, but that’s the case with most any adaptation. At least Ebert didn’t trash it, but he falls into the trap others do of not paying attention.

  • I feel that some of the concerns surrounding the criticism need to be addressed. There is a simple fact . . . the critics got lazy!

    Predetermined to hate the movie, nitpicked things that didn’t even make sense!!!

    You gotta bring up Ebert as an example, in his review he asked “Why do they ride rhinos if they have airships” (not an exact quote)

    . . . even though, they specifically showcase Thark paranoia concerning flight.

    there is also teh constant talk of John Carter beign some sort of “white messiah” even though her murders the thark leader, and takes control of their armies to get his girlfriend back.

    crticis were looking high and low for reasons to hate the dang thing

  • Dotar Sojat wrote:
    “I came across a comment on a discussion board about the book from “The Vile One”, another one of our more challenging commenters here, who makes the point that it’s a biased account if you start out from the proclamation that it’s Disney’s fault or it’s all on the marketing.”

    The VIle One? Man that’s a cool user name!

    Besides that I can sort of see his point of view. A lot of the blame for this movie has been pointed at Disney and the marketing. But-and I’m not defending them, just offering a perspective-look at it from their point of view. The marketing people had a movie based on in their eyes a little known property. They had no major movie stars. And a director who-even Stanton himself has admited this-was not easy to work with when it came to the marketing or for that matter much else (I don’t know. Has James Cameron or Spielberg ever said a studio feared them?) But what about Stanton? As you pointed out Dotar he didn’t deliver those big critic or audience numbers as he did with his Pixar movies (and I’m still convinced remove the Pixar logo and those films would have been less rated). It seems too many he could do no wrong and to those of us who didn’t think this film was a masterpiece it seems some just want to turn a blind eye towards his failings with this film.

    Paladin wrote:
    “Something like:
    Hollywood vs John Carter of Mars
    the astonishing story behind cinema’s biggest flop
    the astounding story behind cinema’s biggest box office failure”

    Would “How a Blockbuster Shape Shifted Into a Bomb” be too insidery? 😉

  • Okay, I know you’re not the cold blooded type, so if you want to mollify it some:


    the astonishing story behind cinema’s biggest flop
    ….……as the fans fight for justice

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