The news broke this week that Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney are parting ways in the aftermath of The Lone Ranger, which turned out to be a John Carter sized misfire for Disney with an estimated writedown of $190M. Meanwhile, on July 1, Disney announced that the Disney Board of Directors had extended Robert Iger’s contract as Disney CEO by fifteen months to summer 2016. Previouly Iger’s contract had been essentially coterminus with Disney’s rights to John Carer Sequels — with both ending in March 2015. All of this taken together creates a situation where anyone with an interest in the longterm literary and cinematic future of Edgar Rice Burroughs martian series has some new information to chew on. What follows is my attempt at some Sunday morning mastication.
What Do We Learn From Bruckheimer’s Departure?
Bruckheimer’s split with Disney is a side issue and not directly related to the fate of the ERB Martian franchise (and I’m calling it that intentionally instead of the “John Carter franchise” for a reason, which I assume you can discern) except insofar as it might shed light on Iger’s overall corporate strategy, and thus on what Disney under Iger will do or not do when the rights for John Carter come up for renewal in March 2015.
David Poland is one of the more insightful observers of Disney and he has written a good piece on Disney and Bruckheimer at Movie City News where he makes the case that Iger’s vision of what to do with his filmed entertainment division (i.e. the studio, which we must remember only accounts for 7% of Disney revenue but plays a relatively larger role than that in shaping opinion and perception of Disney) since taking over in 2005. Poland argues that Disney 1.0 under Iger, which ran from 2005-2009 and included the origination of the John Carter of Mars project, was to support Dick Cook, who was then the Studio head, in the quest to develop Disney Branded Products — and that this idea was overtaken by Disney 2.0 in 2009.
When Iger took over from Eisner in 2005, his first take on the movie business was to get behind Dick Cook and to make The Disney Brand the #1 priority. That lasted until September 2009, when Iger pulled the trigger on Iger’s Disney 2.0, which would be a distribution and marketing company led by TV guy Rich Ross. That first year of clearing out the pipeline had some lows and some big highs, including the Cook-generated Alice in Wonderland, the second $1b+ grosser in the history of the company and the car wrecks Prince of Persia (which did over $300m worldwide) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was taken on by Ross’ outsider marketing chief MT Carney as the first movie for whose marketing she would be completely responsible. It bombed. And both of those bombs were produced by Bruckheimer.
The philosophy of Iger’s Disney 2.0 was to bring in companies that were self-funded. Disney would only make/fund a few small Disney Channel-level movies and established Disney franchise films – including both Disney and Pixar animation – in-house… except for Bruckheimer. The new philosophy started, as Cook was being shown the door, with the purchase of Marvel. When Marvel was purchased they came to Disney with their own funding. Honestly, I have no idea how that may have been adjusted since. Disney also did a distribution & marketing deal with DreamWorks, their production funding coming from Reliance. But DreamWorks wouldn’t deliver their first film to Disney until 2011.
Poland then goes on to make the case that the Disney/Bruckheimer split needs to be seen in light of what is evolving as Disney 3.0 under Iger where Disney is once again funding major franchise movies instead of relying on outside funding — and is likely to be making and releasing at least three big movies with total investment in excess of $1B a year for the next few years.
My own sense is that he’s got a good point, but it may be a little too early to reach that conclusion. Iger was very committed to his Disney 2.0 vision of Disney as the marketing machine — but the acquisition of Lucasfilm and other developments, including the split with Bruckheimer, may indeed be causing the pendulum to swing back (in spite of Iger’s instincts) in the direction of Disney as the creator, not just distributor, of branded entertainment.
What Does Any Of This Mean for ERB’s Martian Series
I know there are diehard fans out there still hoping that Disney will have a change of heart and undertake a John Carter sequel. As long as Bob Iger was scheduled to leave Disney in March 2015, there was, perhaps, one could argue (I wouldn’t, but one could) that maybe there was a flicker of hope that some new management at Disney would, perhaps, somehow, reach a conclusion that a second John Carter film was something to be considered. But even if that flicker existed in reality (as opposed into the wishful thinking minds of fans who honestly want a sequel), it was extinguished by the news that Iger is staying on until the middle of 2016.
Because Disney under Bob Iger is never going to undertake John Carter sequely. Iger has gone way too far with his personal statements about the folly of John Carter to ever leave room for him to reverse himself and say ya know, John Carter actually makes sense if you do it at the right budget, etc. It’s just not going to happen.
Bob Iger is on record as thinking that John Carter was a huge Disney mistake and is not a viable franchise as a Disney branded product. One example: when he was asked by Business Week if there would be any John Carter attractions at the new Disney California Adventure theme Park:
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.
Then there was his earlier interview with Bloomberg’s Carol Muller: , in which he placed the failure squarely on the shoulders of the filmmakers and, perhaps, the underlying material itself, when Muller asked him about John Carter and he replied:
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.
Translation: Iger is saying he knew it was a turkey with no chance before it ever came out, and he does NOT in any way see lackuster and generally incompetent Disney marketing as being relevant to a consideration of the merits of John Carter. His analysis starts and ends with the property, both literary and cinematic, which he sees as deficient and not a good bet.
How Will Iger Play It In March 2015
So, anyone not in complete denial knows that Iger does not have the slightest intention of ever allowing Disney under his tenure to make another John Carter movie. That option is long gone.
So, when the rights for renewal come up three years after the March 2012 release date, Disney will pass and John Carter will be back on the open market, available to other producers and studios to develop and produce. Right?
Even though Disney has no plans to do anything with John Carter, if the company’s historical behavior is any indication, we should fully be expecting that come March 2015, Disney under Iger will be ready to pay whatever pittance has to be paid to extend the rights, not because there is any intention whatsoever of making another John Carter movie, but rather purely and simply to keep the ERB Martian Series off the market so as to bury it as a possible competitor that could emerge under another studio and impact his Star Wars franchise in the “interplanetary adventure” category.
Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Plus it’s an easy sell to Disney shareholders (not that it really has to be sold to them — it’s too small a transaction to really come up on the radar of analysts) to say that it’s prudent to “never say never” and thus holding the rights allows Disney to keep “all options open” at a relatively low cost. Such an explanation would not come right out and say “we’re holding the John Carter rights to make sure we don’t inadvertently allow a competitor to Star Wars to spring up” — but that would certainly be the understood subtext.
And the loser in this would be, of course, — the Burroughs estate, the Burroughs legacy, Burroughs fans, and fans of John Carter.
Can Anyone Do Anything?
Is there anything that anyone can do to change that equation which, as I see it now, will inevitably lead to Disney renewing the rights to John Carter in 2015 even though they have no intention of doing anything with them other than hoarding them and keeping them off the market?
I see two possibilities, neither of them very easy to pull off.
The PR Nightmare Scenario
If fans, journalists, ERB Inc, and other interested parties are able to shine a bright enough light on the cynical nature of such a decision, perhaps (and this is a long shot, admittedly) enough heat and light could be generated to make the PR downside big enough to cause Iger to reconsider.
In other words, if Disney is allowed to just quietly renew the rights, that’s what they will do. It’s a simple transaction. I don’t know how much it will cost them, but it’s got to be a tiny investment when looked at in the context of the overall scheme of Disney priorities. If the $200M writedown was a “pinprick” …. well, you get my point.
So if, for example, the John Carter Sequel campaign were to transform itself into “Free John Carter” by returning the rights, and if that campaign were to figure out ways to make enough noise to cause real embarrassment to Disney (keep in mind who founded the company, and what he stood for) for cynicaly hoarding rights it has no intention of exploiting — then perhaps this would persuade Iger that the PR downside is not worth the trouble of keeping the rights.
I realize that’s not an easy proposition to sell — but I’m putting it out there because it could conceivalbly work, and it’s an option that exists and is there to be grabbed and run with. Maybe it would end up being a futile gesture — but it would be a glorious futile gesture to rally the fans to “Free John Carter from the Disney Dungeon”……
Just Buy The Rights Back
The other option is more practical, but harder to pull off. It’s eighteen months until Disney has to make a final decision about the rights. If, during that time, ERB Inc and/or any producer working on behalf of ERB Inc and the franchise were to be able to cobble together a play from another studio or coalition of studio/foreign partner/financing resource . . . .then such an arrangement could include within its makeup some money to make Disney an “offer they can’t refuse” to relinquish rights. Is the precedence for such a play? Absolutely. In 2010, for example, Haim Saban bought back the rights to the Power Rangers franchise from Disney. How did he do it? Read this NY Times piece for the details but basically he wired the whole thing together in advance of the transaction with Disney as follows:
- He did an output deal with Nickolodeon to ensure that the franchise would have a home when he got it back.
- He used the existence of that output deal and the previous performance figures for the franchise to demonstrate the viability of the franchise, and by doing that was able to line up the financing necessary to reacquire the rights for $45m.
Can ERBdom (the collective that includes the ERBophile fan organization, ERB Inc, and the “new fans” of John Carter on Facebook and elsewhere) pull off something similar?
Can we afford not to try?