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Star Wars Logs the Biggest Opening Ever — and Reboots a John Carter Argument

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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:

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

JCGOH 3dThree 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.”[1]

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.[2] 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.

[1] 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>

[2] Walt Disney Company Staff, “Robert Iger, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,” accessed 5 Nov 2012, <http://thewaltdisneycompany.com/about-disney/leadership/ceo/robert-iger>

17 comments

  • Dear Harry Knowles couldn’t resist the urge to plug in some John Carter love in his Star Wars Force Awakens review. Love it. :)

    “He [Finn]’s a pacifist inside, unless it is to protect the person he loves… an emotion he’s never felt before. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ PRINCESS OF MARS – you get the idea about John Carter that the reason he didn’t single handedly win the Civil War was because… his heart wasn’t in it. He’s only been taught fear and obedience – and with free choice, individual initiative – he can be more than anyone could imagine.”

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/74026

  • I’ve seen The Force Awakens yesterday, and boy was it good for me! I found it amazing, it really goes back to basics, namely the pulp roots of ERB and Alex Raymond, and the serials that ensued. The background is restricted to what is useful to understand the story, the characters are well acted (note that the two leads are reluctant heroes!) and defined mostly through their actions, the rythm is restless… And there is plenty of Iain McCaig wonderfulness in the Art Book. Makes me nostalgic for 2012… Sparky Santos on Facebook says that Lucasfilm would be a great solution to produce the John Carter sequel, I now can see why.

  • You may be right that Iger’s silence may have had something to do with Star Wars and it is only one piece of this films failure. But I don’t believe Iger’s input would have made any difference. Iger needing to step in would imply that those involved in the film were not doing their jobs to the best of their ability already and I don’t think that is the case with John Carter or the other films I mentioned. As I tried to convey in my prior post there are consequences for these types of massive failures in jobs lost and reputations damaged for anyone involved for them not to give there all because of political purposes.

    Have a Happy Holiday.

  • Well we can certainly agree that too much money was spent on John Carter and to some extent those other movies as well. John Carter at a budget of $150m is disappointing but not a bomb. At $267m where it ended up, it’s a disaster.

    As for the rest of it . . . seems to me that in some discussions, when I try to enumerate various factors that played a role and contributed to something happeening … there are those who argue back at me by creating an oversimplified version of the argument I made and then throwing that oversimplifed version back in my face as if it were my main or only argument. If I say “contributing to Iger’s silence was the fact that he had Star Wars and Lucasfilms in his sights” all I’m saying is that was one of a number of factors that played a role. I’m not saying “that’s the explanation”….. If you want to say — no, it didn’t play a role at all, there wasn’t even an element of that in the situation, not an ounce of it in the equation — that’s fine, of course. But I’m not saying it’s a simple equation or that was the only or even driving force … just that it was yet another nail in the John Carter coffin, one of many.

  • (and the point was that Iger’s favoring of acquiring existing franchises like Lucasfilm and Marvel helped ensure that there was no message from on high along the lines of “failure is not an option”. There may have never been such a message anyway . . .)

    I doubt Igers acquisition of existing franchises made Disney decide to abandon or give the short shrift to any of the films they spent so much money on. Sometimes films will fail no matter what you do. Even the Pixar name couldn’t save the Good Dinosaur giving that company its first financial failure.

    TomorrowLand, The Good Dinosaur,The Lone Ranger, Mars Needs Mom and John Carter probably cost Disney more than half a billion dollars in losses. I don’t think anyone involved in the making of those films including those at Disney are so stupid that they believe you can throw that much money away without consequences. The former head of Disney studio’s Rich Ross lost his job because of the John Carter debacle, Disney ended its business relationship with ImageMovers the company that made Mars Needs Moms after that bomb and they ended their relationship with Jerry Bruckheimer save for the Pirates of the Caribbean films. after the Lone Ranger failure (as well as the failure of Prince of Persia and Sorcerers Apprentice in 2010). Bird,Stanton and Pixar will be fine after making so much money for Disney and the Finding Nemo and Incredible’s sequels will wash away any mistakes from their live action failures. They will get another chance to do more live action films for Disney, just not sequels to John Carter and TomorrowLand.

    Disney main problem with all these films is that too much money was spent to make them and they don’t seem to have learned their lesson from the John Carter failure. You only spend $200 or more on sequels or adaptions of already popular franchises like Harry Potter. The first Pirates film only cost $140 million it was only after its success that the budgets for the sequels ballooned.

  • sure, it’s an absolute fat that Disney studios only accounts for 7% of Disney corp revenue so Iger doesn’t ride herd on every movie — but John Carter, as the BIGGEST BUDGETED FILM IN THE HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD would certainly merit some attention. That said, the focus on Iger was the issue of acquisition of franchises (Lucasfilm) vs development of homegrown franchises (John Carter) . . . . and the point was that Iger’s favoring of acquiring existing franchises like Lucasfilm and Marvel helped ensure that there was no message from on high along the lines of “failure is not an option”. There may have never been such a message anyway . . .

    UPDATE: After writing the foregoing I went back and read what I actually wrote about this. It’s not really all about Iger at all . . . .here:

    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.

  • What made John Carter so special that you think Bob Iger needed to intervene in the creation and marketing of that particular film. Disney has had a quite a few expensive flops in the past 5 years alone and I don’t believe Bob Iger intervened in any of them either. In 2015 both TomorrowLand ($190 million production budget) and the Good Dinosaur ($200 million production budget) flopped hard. In 2013 the Lone Ranger flopped with a $200+ million production budget and in 2011 Mars Needs Mom flopped with a $150 million production budget to go with John Carter’s $250 million flop in 2012. Was it benign neglect on the part of Iger to let those films flop as well or maybe its just not Iger job to personally intervene in every movie project.

    Iger is the CEO of a huge conglomerate in Disney whose main source of income as you have previously pointed out is actually ESPN not its movie division. I think he has better things to do with his time than micro manage the creation and marketing of each big budget movie that comes down the pike at Disney.

  • “The fact that JC was such a piss-poor movie just made it all that easier to engage in benign neglect (gave Iger the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – a non-owned franchise that would be rendered impotent as competitor for some time to come AND knock the heads at Pixar around a bit and take them down a peg or two. See what happens when you give a director full creative reign? They lose money and destroy properties….)”

    Well said. And no — I’ve never seen any gran conspiracy…. just human, political, and economic forces working against it . Conflueence of studio politics, economic hardball, and hubris.

  • It was clear as clear can be to me that once Disney had determined to acquire Marvel that franchise properties that were NOT wholly -owned by Disney would get short shrift. Discovering that Lucas would sell just sweetened the pot.
    When ERB Inc made it clear they would not sell out to Disney, fates were sealed.
    Two things though:
    The fact that JC was such a piss-poor movie just made it all that easier to engage in benign neglect (gave Iger the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – a non-owned franchise that would be rendered impotent as competitor for some time to come AND knock the heads at Pixar around a bit and take them down a peg or two. See what happens when you give a director full creative reign? They lose money and destroy properties….)
    This was better than simply putting out a movie and then hanging on to the option(s) for sequels, which would have been another way to kill competition from ERB. Now Disney can say, with a straight face, that they put their best on the project, funded it like nothing else at the time and it was rejected by the audience. Sure, ERB, you can have your options back. Lets see you get backing for anything related anytime in the next 20 years or so.
    But all of that smacks of grand conspiracy centered on the JC film and, while all of those elements were, I’m pretty sure, present, that’s not what the focus was. The focus was to obtain high-earning, high-popularity properties that Disney alone could control – and, bonus, deal potential competition a dirty along the way if possible. Since ERB Inc would not sell, JC and its sequels no longer fit into the grand scheme.
    We’ll never know, of course, but even supposing that ERB did sell at least the Martian franchise to Disney and Disney put both good faith and dollars behind it, we’d STILL be talking about what an awful movie it was – we might even be calling it “the franchise killer”….

  • Yeah, the usual Back to Barsoomer reaction-that movie sucks! John Carter is the best movie ever!

    How many times have I heard that from you people. Gravity was awful, The Avengers was an insult, Guardians of the Galaxy was painful, etc. Now I’m sure there will be a backlash but I do think it’s funny you find the glowing reviews suspicious but still can’t face the reality of the poor reviews and word of mouth John Carter received. Is it some sort of selective ostrich syndrome?

    Also it’s hilarious that Norman is taking JJ Abrams to task for his movies “falling apart” yet John Carter couldn’t even hold together well enough to tell a competent story without dull exposition and badly handled characters. I guess if it was Andrew Stanton’s The Force Awakens it would have been a masterpiece. If only Abrams had made the lead character a moping whiny jerk…

  • There is a wave of positivity from the critics that almost reminds me of Avatar …. but as with Avatar, when it crushes at the box office, theere will inevitably be a backlash. I’m a little suspicious of all the positive reviews for many of the same reasons you point out. For now it’s at 95% fresh and audience is 93%. I bet the audience number will fall a bit.

    Actually I’m going to be psyching myself up all day today to like it . . . . . I’m going to go in there with the most positive attitude I’ve ever had since seeing the first one in 1977 . . . .

  • Star Wars The Force Awakens will probably follow the other Abrams movies template: a shiny visually impressive product when seen on the screen but which falls apart when the viewer computes what he just saw, later on. It happened on his Star Trek movies. If you look the Rotten Tomatoes score of Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s at 87%, but it was voted later on as the worst Star Trek movie by fans, even worse than Star Trek Nemesis. There are already mixed reviews that pop up. John Carter is just the opposite template. I don’t see why a studio would sabotage the release of its movie, but it happened for John Carter. They also proved unable to market properly Tomorrowland.

  • Ah, MCR, nice to hear from you. We’ve had this argument before so I’m going to mostly just lay down for you. I will, anemically, in my defense state the following. 1. I don’t dislike Star Wars although I have a “meh” reaction to it. From the first time I saw it on opening day in 1977 it just feels like a kiddie Saturday morning matinee to me — not like ERB or any of the great sci-fi I grew up reading. But I’ve got my ticket and I’m going to see it tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. But what really baffles me is your presumption that because I feel that way, I can’t think clearly about what was going on at Disney. That’s a completely different part of my brain. I believe the evidence is clear and I’ve submitted the evidence. You’re unconvinced, let’s leave it at that. As for all this “infallible Stanton” stuff, you’re not directing that at me, are you? I haven’t given Stanton a pass . . . . I just don’t have the deep bitter hostility at him that you have. Anyway, Happy Holidays. Glad you agree the Tarzan trailer looks promising. At least we can agree on that!

  • “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?”

    Actually no it’s not a theory. It’s sour grapes from someone who has admitted time and again a dislike for Star Wars and a need to blame someone other than Andrew Stanton (because we know he’s completely without blame) for John Carter’s failure. But beyond that let’s take a look at your theory. First A). if Disney wasn’t big enough for “two interplanetary franchises” then why did Iger allow Guardians of the Galaxy to go forward? Have you even seen Guardians? It pretty much owes much to Star Wars-from a cocky smuggler to a massive scale final battle-more than it does its fellow Marvel properties. Yet Iger allowed it to proceed and the result? A big hit popular with both critics and audiences and a franchise to boot that so far isn’t tied in to Marvel’s Avengers and its spinoffs. The second theory that Lucas would want a clear playing field is far fetched because Lucas isn’t involved. He sold Star Wars and so far has expressed no interest in what Disney itself does with its other properties. I mean if we go with your theory why did Lucas take Raiders of the Lost Ark to Paramount, the home of Star Trek, the main rival at the time to Star Wars? Clearly he doesn’t mind competition and I find it doubtful he would go so far to say “kill John Carter or you don’t get Star Wars.” Where’s the proof? Where is the smoking gun? There isn’t one.

    “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.”

    Again where is the proof there? Other than some vague comments Iger made there is no proof of that. There is statements that the infallible Stanton rejected much of the promotion Disney pitched to him and that he made choices, like changing the title, because he was again the Infallible Stanton and knew how to do everyone’s job better. It wasn’t Lucas or Star Wars that killed John Carter, it was a walking ego named Andrew Stanton and his complete lack of respect for anyone (from marketing to Edgar Rice Burroughs) that did it in.

    “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.”

    Well that’s a difference of opinion there. The extension and development of the legacy of ERB should not have to be tied in to a Heaven’s Gate/Ishtar disaster and the raging egotists behind its creation. John Carter of Mars should have been in the hands of people who cared and that includes the director and the studio chief. It wasn’t in either case.

    Maybe you should consider this-if John Carter is such a great masterpiece then why does The Force Awakens-a film you hold as responsible for killing such a great “classic”-got a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an A CinemaScore rating, higher on both counts than Carter? Could it be that, oh dear, JJ Abrams made a film people like while Stanton didn’t? Because making a film people like has nothing to do with conspiracy theories about evil studio regimes and selling a studio.

    In this case if you want to extend the legacy of ERB it’s time to forget Mopey Carter and look to the future. Because A) there was no conspiracy and B) Legend of Tarzan looks way better than Stanton’s debacle. Just hope David Yates and company hit it out of the park and maybe John Carter of Mars will return in a proper film made by people who do care.

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