Filling in a Gap in the John Carter Story – How Paramount Became Disney

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As I was writing John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, the transition from Paramount to Disney was a piece of the story that eluded me — and faced with a ballooning page count anyway, I covered the transition “efficiently”  by doing it primarily from Andrew Stanton’s point of view.  Specifically, the beats that are covered in the story are that Andrew Stanton heard in 2006 that Paramount had allowed the rights to revert back to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc; that he got a call from Disney studio chief  Dick Cook and in that call told Cook that Disney should pick up the rights and if they did, that he (Stanton) would be interested in directing.  Then, in a “be careful what you wish for” moment, Stanton got a call a couple of months later from cook saying Disney had the rights and they were now being offered to Stanton as director.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but there is more to the story and over the last week I’ve been able to track it down.  The core fans of ERB who have been following the story through each studio’s participation may know all or most of this; for others there may be some new tidbits in here.

First, the rights lapsed were back with ERB, Inc. for more than a year from early 2006 until March 2007 and during  most of that time the producer pursuing them was Don Murphy.   Murphy had been a producer on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Transformers, and whose credits also include Natural Born Killers and From Hell.  He was aligned with Waldenmedia and Universal and for much of 2006 it appeared likely that Murphy and Waldenmedia would acquire the rights.  One of the key elements in the Murphy/Waldenmedia offer was a commitment to go into production within 18 months — a significant commitment given the 100 year history of false starts for the property.

During the early “getting to know you” stage of the discussions it was primarily Danton Burroughs who was in touch with Murphy.  Later David Nachimson, an attorney representing ERB Inc., and Jim Sullos — who at the time was a Board Member and not yet President of ERB Inc — handled the negotiations.

On January 16, 2007, The Hollywood Reporter reported the following:

Walt Disney Co. is in final negotiations to acquire the film rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels known collectively as the \”John Carter of Mars\” series.

The 11-volume series began with the story titled \”A Princess of Mars,\” published serially in All-Story magazine in 1912 and in novel form in 1916. Burroughs wrote it in longhand, and the original manuscript lies in a vault at a Bank of America in Tarzana, the Los Angeles municipality that takes its name from Burroughs’ more famous creation, Tarzan.

The series told of a Civil War officer named John Carter who is transported to Mars and finds himself a captive of the savage green men from Thark. Carter eventually rises to become a great warrior, marries a princess, raises a family and embarks on numerous adventures.

A representative of the Burroughs estate said the studio was acquiring the live-action rights for a possible franchise. However, sources at Disney believed \”Mars\” to be headed for animated adaptation through its Pixar unit. Disney declined comment.

Disney had the rights to the series through most of the 1990s, when then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to turn it into a cartoon. At one point, the project morphed into live action, and John McTiernan was involved as a director.

Paramount Pictures nabbed the rights to the series in 2002, and more directors came and went, including Robert Rodriguez (\”Sin City\”), Kerry Conrad (\”Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow\”) and Jon Favreau (\”Iron Man\”).

Sources said Paramount let go of \”Mars\” about a year ago, and it was without a home until about a month ago, when Disney and Pixar came calling.

This prompted some of the journalists who had been following the story to contact Murphy. Devin Faraci at wrote:

Some projects never go away. For a while John Carter of Mars, the other famous series of books from Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, was in development with Jon Favreau as the director and Aint It Cool News’ Harry Knowles as one of the producers. That fell apart, though, and Favreau moved on to Iron Man.

Now gossip site TMZ is reporting that the Burroughs estate is about to sell the film rights to the 11-volume series, beginning with A Princess of Mars, to Disney. But is that really the case? Knowing that legendary producer Don Murphy has been involved in the efforts to get this movie to the screen over the last few years, I gave him a call to see what’s what.

I caught Don on location in Vancouver, where he’s on the set of While She Was Out, a Kim Basinger-starring indie thriller he described as “hardcore.” Don happily gave me the inside poop on just where a potential A Princess of Mars movie is at the moment.

The Burroughs estate hasn’t finalized a Disney deal, Murphy says, and he doesn’t see why they necessarily would. Don’s working with Walden Media, the folks behind The Chronicles of Narnia movies, and he says that part of their offer is a guarantee to have a film in production in 18 months. Disney, meanwhile, is making no such offer, and is in fact interested in sitting on the film for Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo. Apparently Stanton wants to do a live action movie, and John Carter is what he fancies… but he’s lined up to do Pixar’s post-post-Ratatouille film, meaning he wouldn’t get started on John Carter, at the earliest, until next decade.

Whoever ends up with John Carter’s rights, we’re going to see a PG/PG-13 version. Don told me that when Fox was interested, they wanted to do a Conan the Barbarian-style R-rated movie, but Walden’s whole mission is about family-friendly fare. Disney, meanwhile, is refocusing on only making blockbusters, and you have a better chance of making John Carter of Mars a blockbuster if you keep it PG or PG-13.

Will we ever see A Princess of Mars on the big screen? My gut tells me that if Disney gets it, and holds it for Stanton, we might not. Who knows whether Stanton will still be interested three or more years from now? This film has languished in development hell for years, and may yet linger there longer.

ERB Inc decided to go with Disney and the rest is, well, history at this point.

Given all that happens and the disappointments that ensued, it’s intriguing to look back and think about what might have been.   What direction would Murphy and Walden Media have gone with the project?

Stay tuned for more on this . . . . .and on a previously undocumented effort by Sony Pictures to acquire the rights to A Princess of Mars.


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  • I did a long interview with Don Murphy yesterday and will be processing that into a follow-on to this. I also talked to Jim Sullos of ERB Inc last week .. . . . some interesting dynamics between Murphy and ERB Inc. . . .

    Murphy says that he was involved prior to Paramount — back when Disney still had it in the late 90’s — and that’s when Fox was involved. Long story about that one. Then Paramount got it and he says he didn’t have anything to do with it until just about a year before the Paramount option was going to come up for renewal. Says he called ERB Inc just once and was told to call back in a year, which he did, just as it was expiring from Paramount.

    Anyway, I’ll have a lot more on this in coming days. The big “news” part to me was the whole Murphy/Fox piece back in the late 90’s when it was still with Disney and before Paramount got it. I had not heard that part before.

  • It’s all fuzzy now, as in I don’t really remember where the info came from, I think it was one of the nameless spies floating around. Well one went by ‘deepthroat’… During the Conran/Favreau era we heard several times that Don Murphy was very aggressively gunning for the project and was doing everything he could to sabotage the Paramount version. I believe he was working on Transformers around then, or about to.

  • Very interesting! It seems many more people were interested in the property after all, more than I knew of anyway. But when was Fox interested in the project? Did they have the rights at some point? I don’t remember reading about that before.

  • Here’s another ERBzine page that has some additional background on the project while it was at Paramount . . . .

  • The Conran Brothers’ Vision of John Carter of Mars:
    Paramount, intrigued by the Conrans’ homeage to the genre of SF adventure in the style of the classic pulp magazines and their command of the new film technologies showed an interest in picking up the JC torch. The Conran team started pre-production and art director Kevin Conran wowed everyone with his vision of ERB’s Barsoom. Danton Burroughs was very excited about the project and shared the promotional DVD with me at the time.

    Last summer we met with Kevin in Tarzana and we were tremendously impressed with his artistic talent and his knowledge of pulps, comics and modern film-making. Recently the 7-minute promo video has somehow been leaked all over the Internet. So at last ERB fans have a chance to appreciate just how close the Conrans came to bringing the project to fruition before it was skuttled due to a series of unfortunate events.

    Since ‘the cat is out of the bag’ we’d like to share the video and scores of screen captures from it. This can only increase the excitement leading up to the release of Disney’s John Carter on March 9 — what is promising to be a blockbuster landmark film
    . . . and a dream come true for all ERB fans:

  • One other piece of this is that ERB Inc always sells the rights to whoever will pay the most, not who promises to do the best movie (they’ve heard all those promises before and they never pan out). Paramount lost the rights to John Carter because when their option expired they would have had to pay 2 Million dollars to renew it. Instead they offered ERB Inc two hundred thousand, so they were so far apart that there wasn’t even room to negotiate.

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