It’s both fascinating and secretly a bit frustrating to see Star Wars The Force Awakens crush historical box office. Why? Well, most would agree that Star Wars can trace its ancestry back through Flash Gordon to Barsoom and Burroughs. Yet Disney has left us with the John Carter debacle, while with Star Wars …. well — there you have it.
So, Day 1 numbers are in and it’s beyond impressive, though not unexpected:
- Largest Thursday Previews: $57 million*
Previous Record: $43.5 million (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2)
- Largest Friday, Opening Day, Single Day: $120.5 million (estimated)
Previous Record: $91 million (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2)
- December Single Day: $120.5 million (estimated)
Previous Record: $37.13 million (The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey)
- Widest December Opening: 4,134 theaters
Previous Record: 4,045 theaters (The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey)
- December Opening Weekend: $120.5 million… and counting
Previous Record: $84.62 million (The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey)
- Fastest to $100 Million: 1 Day
Previous Record: 2 Days (Jurassic World)
This takes me back to one of my favorite arguments with one of my favorite interlocutors (code for critics) here, and I wonder if I can flush him out by bringing it up again.
In John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, I make the case, which I think is supported by the facts, that Robert Iger’s quest to buy LucasFilm and acquire the Star Wars franchise contributing to the bungled handling of John Carter because, very early in the game and even before the John Carter promotion was clearly in trouble, Iger already had his eye on Star Wars and felt a) the Disney universe wasn’t big enough for two interplanetary franchises, and b) even if that weren’t true, Lucas would reasonably expect to have a clear playing field at Star Wars’ new home studio, without in-house competition. Is this a reasonable theory?
Now that we’ve seen how Star Wars has opened, I would argue that this theory is reinforced. On a purely business level (and that’s the only level that Iger operates on) the acquisition of Lucasfilms and Star Wars utterly dwarfed John Carter. It was worse than Apollo Creed and Rocky,and although at the time we might have felt like John Carter could in fact be a plucky Rocky and knock off the champ, the truth was — to Iger, LucasFilms and Star Wars was a prize that would justify junking John Carter if it came to that.
But it didn’t come to that.
All it took was a little benign and justifiable neglect on the part of Iger. As long as there was no strong “failure is not an option with John Carter” message coming down from the top of the studio, the promotion was in sufficient disarray anyway as to make the situation take care of itself in favor of Star Wars.
Now …. what do I think of Iger for doing what I think he did, which is to intentionally neglect John Carter and alow the promotion (and the production itself) to run aground without intervention from on high at Disney? I’m not happy. But it’s not the Star Wars piece that makes me unhappy. That was the final nail in the coffin. Even before all this happened, John Carter was an orphan at Disney, and even without Star Wars, chances are that Iger would have done nothing to intervene in the disastrous rollout of the film. But Star Wars — that was the clincher. And he was right to see it as such if your frame of reference is generating value for Disney shareholders. If, however, your frame of reference is extension and development of the legacy of ERB — well, not happy.
Here is relevant section from John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (which by the way is still Top 20 in the Kindle Store three years after release, in Business and Money/Sports and Entertainment!)
Iger and Lucas: The Dance Begins
Three days before Disney announced the John Carter title change, on May 20, 2011, Disney Chairman Bob Iger was in Orlando at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park for the grand opening ceremony of Star Tours 2, a Star Wars Themed ride that, in its newest incarnation, was about to go 3D. Also present at the event was George Lucas, creator of Star Wars and the principal owner of Lucasfilm Ltd.
The ceremony brought the two men together with lightsabers in their hands, and according to Iger, “George had to show me how to use it.”
It was, however, substantially more than a bit of coaching in lightsaber technique that was on the agenda between the two men. Iger, fresh off the $4B acquisition of Marvel, had his eye on the Star Wars franchise and took advantage of the relaxed access to Lucas to begin a dialogue about the possibility that Disney would acquire Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise.
For Iger, Star Wars was a perfect acquisition target that reflected the core values and vision that he had nurtured during his tenure as Disney Chairman. Although Iger’s official Disney bio lists “generating the best creative content possible” as the cornerstone of his vision for the company, his tenure had been marked more by the acquisition of creative content than the internal generation of it. First it had been Pixar, then Marvel. “We proved with our Pixar and Marvel acquisitions that we know how to expand the value of a brand,” Iger would later say in an interview. And it was this ability to take a stable and reliable brand and optimize it across multiple platforms and in every territory around the world that differentiated Disney and was, ultimately, the company’s core competence in the Iger era.
By contrast, John Carter was an example of a film, and prospective franchise, being built from the ground up in the “old school” Disney way at a time when the “new model” for Disney that Iger had created and was continuing to develop was one of acquisition, not creation, followed by enhanced exploitation of the creative intellectual property acquired.
What did Iger’s eye on the Star Wars prize mean for John Carter?
At the working level and even up to the level of MT Carney, it did not have a direct effect since the discussions between Iger and Lucas were very closely held. Rich Ross was aware of them, but it is unlikely the knowledge of the negotiations went further down the chain than that.
But while the closely held nature of the discussions meant that knowledge of the prospective acquisition did not reach troops in the field, it certainly became a factor affecting the attitude at the highest levels of Disney (Iger) and Disney Studios (Ross). Step by step, John Carter had become a very costly $250M outlier in the Disney universe, and was a project which did not fit the CEO’s vision.
In fact, with Star Wars in play, it had at least the potential to become an impediment to what Iger considered the far more important strategic acquisition of Lucasfilm. A deal with Lucasfilm would still be possible even if John Carter was a hit — but Lucas had spent a lifetime building the Star Wars franchise and asking it to share studio focus with a nascent and successful John Carter would make any offer from Disney less attractive. Was this potential impediment enough to cause Iger or Ross to take active steps to scuttle John Carter? No. But did it lessen any remaining shred of motivation to “go the extra mile” for the Stanton film? Absolutely. It was one more piece to the puzzle of Disney’s increasingly detached handling of the film.
 Ronald Grover and Lisa Richwine, “Disney $4B Lucasfilm Deal Began With Light Sabres in Orlando,” Reuters, 30 Oct 2012, 5 Nov 2012 <http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/31/disney-lucas-iger-idUSL1E8LUGV020121031>
 Walt Disney Company Staff, “Robert Iger, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,” accessed 5 Nov 2012, <http://thewaltdisneycompany.com/about-disney/leadership/ceo/robert-iger>