In an interview given while touring Disney California Adventure published on August 9 by Business Week, Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked about whether there would be John Carter attractions at the theme park, and he had this to say:
I take it we’re not going to see a John Carter attraction?
No, no, no. You know, you try things creatively all the time, and while you want every one of them to be great, and you set out to do that, that’s not always going to end up being the case.
This comment was consistent with his other recent public comment on John Carter, which came in May when he spoke on the record about John Carter to Bloomberg’s Carol Muller:
Iger: They’re all our babies and we root for all of them to do well….we’re relatively realistic about the prospects of our film when we see enough of each film…i mean, you get a good sense if you’ve been in the business long enough whether something is going to do well or not, before it comes out, research aside — it’s more…it’s an instinct. There was a point before Carter came out that I had a very strong sense that it was going to be very challenging……
Muller: But at that point you were just too way in, right? you have to run with it?
Iger: Yes. we weren’t going to not distribute it. nor did we really run away from supporting it fully because i felt that given the size of the investment, we owed it to ourselves, to at least give it the shot that it deserved.
Muller: And you never know…..
Iger: No, you never know…..but we had a strong sense…i was very worried about it … not that I wasn’t cheering for it …..but I was worried about it.
Now, one would think that the CEO of Disney Corp would be a bit less of a bull in china shop and come up with a reply that shows a tiny modicum of respect to the Pixar team that made and championed John Carter and who are still important to Disney — I’m referring to John Lasseter who championed the project, Andrew Stanton who directed it, and Pixar GM Jim Morris who produced it, and Pixar producer Lindsey Collins who produced it — not to mention a large group of Pixar employees who worked on the film. But Iger doesn’t seem to feel any need for that, and perhaps it really doesn’t matter — he holds all the cards. But without breaking a sweat he could have just as easily answered with a comment along the lines of, “You know, this is a complicated business and everything has to come together for a film to be a success — production, marketing, all of it. That just didn’t happen for John Carter even though some very fine people did their very best.” Instead, he once again places it 100% on the shoulders of the film-makers. Imagine how Stanton and Morris and Lasseter and Lindsey Collins sitting in their offices at Pixar feel when they hear Iger say something like that — knowing what they know about how Disney didn’t support the film with a cogent and well executed marketing campaign? No wonder there are so many rumors floating around about an Iger-Lasseter feud. Problem is – that’s too one-sided to call it a “feud” — all the firepower is on Iger’s side given the fact that Disney Studios just supplies just 7% of operating revenue to the overall Disney Corp. Still, it’s the Studio IP that is the “wave generator” through the rest of the eco-system, and Pixar is a pretty important piece of that puzzle.
Anyway — setting that aside, there is the issue of – – what is the takeaway from Iger’s comments and how does it affect anyone who is interested in the status of the rights to John Carter going forward? It’s time to acknowledge that with two possible long-shot exceptions, there will be no John Carter sequel on Iger’s watch — his comments have truly shut the door on that. What are the exceptions? One would be the emergence of a Marvel-type structure under which ERB Inc. obtains independent financing, presumably from Chinese and Russian co-producers, leaving Disney with the requirement to only finance the marketing cost and to handle the distribution, as they do with Marvel. That’s a long shot because ERB Inc has never done that sort of thing — and if they were to find coproducers they might well prefer to align them with some post-Disney US distribution partner, given Iger’s attitude and the history with Disney. But anyway — having production financing from a source other than Disney, leaving Disney to just distribute, is almost certainly the only possibility of moving the franchise forward on Disney on Iger’s watch. And that’s a long shot. the other would be John Lasseter deciding to in essence go kamikaze in support of it. Lasseter is alleged to be feuding with Iger and he’s pugnacious enough that it’s not impossible to envision something like that happening. But it’s a longshot, and Lasseter, as important a player as he is, probably just doesn’t have the firepower to make much of a difference to Iger. Rememer Disney Studios, including Pixar, only account for 7% of operating revenue of Disney Corp…..and even if you buy the argument that the studio is the IP “wave-maker” and thus has value greater than its relative contribution to operating income …. it still leaves Lasseter with not enough firepower to exert a lot of influence on Iger.
Iger is scheduled to retire in 2015 and the rights revert back to ERB Inc, as we understand it, on March 9, 2015.
Bottom line — those hoping for a Disney produced John Carter sequel are pretty much down to either John Lasseter deciding to become the champion of lost causes and put it all on the line, or someone pulling a rabbit out of a hat in the form of a foreign coproduction scenario that provides all or most of the financing, leaving Disney as the distributor with only the marketing investment. Neither are very likely, but the whole John Carter sequel issue has never had any aspect of it that is “very likely” except that it’s “very likely” a sequel won’t happen through Disney.
Should the Agenda Change?
Iger’s “no, no, no” clearly signals that Iger’s Disney is done done done with John Carter. That’s a given. The question then becomes — should ERB Inc seek early termination of the contract with Disney, or at least portions of it? As it is now, ERB Inc. can’t do any number of things that would be natural at this point if it could do so — commission graphic novels, novels, perhaps an animated series, merchandising, all manner of smaller, do-able things that are doable because, worldwide, John Carter did earn $285M and 30M people did see it in theaters and it does have a following. But ERB Inc can’t do any of that because Disney has all the rights — yet Disney has no intention of doing any of that. Has the time come where ERB Inc might be starting a conversation with Disney about early termination or conversion to non-exclusive status? Perhaps so. Seeking such things from Disney is completely within ERB Inc’s rights, and it is not uncommon in the industry for such discussions to take place.
I know there are those who will say forget it, Disney will squeeze every single drop of blood out of it and ERB Inc can take a hike. I’m not quite willing to concede that. I think that there are areas within the overall rights package where Disney might be cooperative.
Even if such a push were to not produce early termination, it might be successful in getting Disney to make a definitive declaration that they do not intend to extend the rights beyond March 2015. That would allow ERB Inc, for example, to at least begin dialogue with potential licensees and partners both in the US and overseas. Given how long it takes to set things up, 2015 would likely be here by the time something tangible had been lined up……
Anyway, it’s clearly time to start thinking about these things.