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John Carter and Big Budget Movie Schadenfreude

Film Industry, Other Stuff, The John Carter Files, What Really Happened

“To the schadenfreudist, an epic fail is the only just reward for such epic hubris, and thus the narrative is pre-determined and nothing short of an outright “win” at the box office will derail that narrative.”

Our old friend Mr. Webster defines schadenfreude as enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others and it would seen that Andrew Stanton, Disney, and Edgar Rice Burroughs fans have all found themselves on the receiving end of an epic convulsion of schadenfreude as journalists, media analysts, and gleeful internet “trolls” trip over themselves to label a film that brought in 100m in its first three days a “bomb”, a “flop”, and the “new Ishtar”.   Meanwhile the film itself, while splitting the critics more or less down the middle,  has garnered a passionate fan base that, while not as large as may have been needed given the enormous budget and marketing cost, is  giving the film multiple viewings, exorting one another to support Stanton’s vision, and vowing to give the film the legs it will need to gradually change the perception of flop that has been hung around its neck in the wake of its less than stellar domestic opening weekend gross of $30.1M.  Where, in all of this, is the reasonable truth about the status of the film?  And what are the psychological forces at play in the way the story is being reported?

A pre-established narrative prior to the release

The truth, most reasonable observers would agree,  is, the  flop/bomb/epic fail label had already been taken out, prepped, and was ready to be affixed to John Carter before opening day ever arrived.  Report after report of “soft tracking” led to pre-release headlines like: “John Carter set to crater”, “Bomb in the making John Carter set for anemic opening”, and so on.   But why such gleeful delight in announcing the projected weak domestic opening?  And once released — why  is there so little acknowledgment of the healthy $70m in foreign gross which, coupled with the $30m domestic, gives John Carter $100M in its first three days?    Are the reports comparing John Carter to epic failures Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate accurate or fair, based on these actual numbers?

The pre-release buzz regarding John Carter was negative in part because it is inevitably so.  Whenever a studio invests “tentpole” dollars in a film that does not come with a built in “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games” fan base,  questions about the judgment exercised in taking such a gamble are just too easy to ask,  and the target is just too inviting to pass up.   The gleeful anticipation of failure is so strong that there seems to be an underlying psychological sense that the overall order of things will improve if risky,  mega-budget movies fail.  When the moment of truth comes, the narrative has already been set — and nothing, it seems, can derail that narrative  one the trigger is pulled unless the film in question vastly outperforms expections–as happened with Titanic, Avatar, and a few others.

In this case, the gun was cocked and ally he trigger that was needed was a less than blockbuster opening weekend of  $30.1M  which, while not “flop” territory for a “normal” film, was deemed to be a “flop” because of John Carter’s high budget and marketing costs.  Instead of referencing actual recent films which opened around 30m,  the reference point for John Carter was Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate.  Are such comparisons reasonable?  Not really.

“Those movies lived and died on domestic box office,” says Vincent Bruzzese, president of the Worldwide Motion Picture Group, a research firm employed by many major studios. “Unless someone knows the details of John Carter’s financials, the foreign sales, the DVD, pay TV, all that, it’s very difficult to comment.” But he adds that Disney’s huge investment in John Carter placed unrealistic pressure on the movie’s box-office performance. “If you have to be Avatar or Titanic to break even, then good luck.”

International grosses might be John Carter’s saving grace: The movie has already taken in over $70 million overseas. “Visually stunning movies translate into any language. And international audiences love the 3-D component as well,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office analyst at Hollywood.com. “I’m still saying wait and see. Nobody makes a $250 million movie hoping for a $30 million opening. But the $100 million worldwide was not a bad result.”  Entertainment Weekly

But if actual expert are saying “$100m worldwide was not a bad result”, why is it that virtually every major media outlet has joined in the feeding frenzy labeling the film as a disaster, a bomb, a flop of epic proportions?

The Psychology of Schadenfreude

If the actual facts of John Carter’s business situation are as Paul Degarabedian has stated — and they are — then why the feeding frenzy?  If it cannot be explained logically based on the business outcome, is it better explained psychologically?  What is the psychology of the enormous feast of schadenfreude that is on display?

James Shenton writes: “There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing a big-budget movie flop. Whenever we hear about these ambitious, special effects-laden extravaganzas going down in flames we get an odd feeling of schadenfreude. But why is this? Does it stem from the fact that we feel manipulated, almost exploited, by the movie industry? Perhaps. After all, movie studios make a lot of coin from tweaking our emotions, be it through adrenaline-filled action films or mawkishly tear-jerking weepies. Perhaps the best reason for our guilty pleasure at seeing a big-budget movie flop is the fact that we feel like we won a battle. We caught Hollywood trying to pull a fast one by releasing a bad movie and trying to hype it anyway — and we weren’t fooled. Gotcha. Better luck next time.”

Does this mean that film journalist schadenfreude is somehow tied up with the notion, psychologically at least, that with such a high profile failure, a kind of rough justice is achieved?

Norman T. Feather in a study in Australia in 2007 analyzed “Envy, resentment, Schadenfreude, and Sympathy: Reactions to Deserved and Undeserved Achievement and Failure” among college students.  The key finding of this study was that schadenfreude about a previously high achieving student’s subsequent failure was predicted by resentment and not by envy. Sympathy was not predicted by either resentment or envy. Deservingness was a key variable in the models that were tested.  In other words, schadenfreude kicked in most clearly when the person suffering the failure had previously experienced what was perceived to be undeserved success.

Is such psychology in play in the response to Disney and John Carter?

Is it more than ironic that the very journalists and analysts rushing to classify John Carter as an iconic Hollywood bomb are the same ones who complain that studios are too conservative, relying to heavily on sequels and failing to take risks?  An Irish blogger observes:

So, what happens when a major studio actually takes a chance, rather than spending money on a sequel to a tired franchise with no creative vision? We pounce on it. We mock it. We turn it into a joke as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not a box office prognosticator, but I am genuinely worried about the box-office returns on the film – but those numbers are so uncertain precisely because it’s not a safe bet, precisely because it’s an”out there” choice. I think that producing John Carter was a very brave move from an institution that we tend to mock for being staid and conservative, and I just find it odd that we are so quick to preemptively punish that sort of bold creativity and risk-taking, especially when we claim that’s exactly what we want.  The M0vieblog.com

What has all the empathy gone?

If Schadenfreude is the taking of pleasure at the misfortune of others, is it not the opposite of empathy?  And if so — where does empathy factor into the equation?  Andrew Stanton stepped out of a perfectly successful career as an animator to spend five years of his life lovingly crafting a film adaptation of the book series that captivated his mind as a child.  Why no empathy for him?  More than a thousand film-makers labored heroically to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs vision of Barsoom to life on the screen?  Why no empathy for them?

Even Disney, an easy target to be sure,  stepped out of the conservative mold and made a risky big bet on a piece of classic literature and a director whose genius was acknowledged in the animated realm, but was stepping into live action for the first time?  Why no empathy for Disney?

The answer, it would seem comes back to the notion that schadenfreude erupts when there is a felt perception that the failure restores balance, that a form of justice is achieved by the failure.  In this case, Disney is seen as being properly rewarded for foolishly investing mega-dollars in a questionable property, and then shoving the resultant product down the throats of unwilling potential audience goers with  mind-numbing, relentlessly obtuse marketing.  To the schadenfreudist, an epic fail is the only just reward for such epic hubris, and thus the narrative is pre-determined and nothing short of an outright “win” at the box office will derail that narrative.

Why do studios make themselves targets like this?

One has to wonder, knowing the psychology – why do studios trumpet the budget of a film like John Carter?  It is as if in the early stages they think that announcing a huge budget will bring glory to the film, make it seem more of an event, and so they rush to leak the budget — in this case $250m — even though doing so immediately and inevitably stokes the what one blogger called “pre-schadenfruede” — the gleeful anticipation of failure?  Why?

Given the fact that “announced budgets” are always a quasi fiction whose main purpose is to position a film in the marketplace, not truthfully report financials (that happens incorporate reports, and even there actual individual film budgets are obscured), wouldn’t it be better, particularly with a gamble like John Carter, to avoid triggering the pre-schadenfreude in the media by avoiding having the film labeled as a “mega-budget” effort.  I mean — with Hollywood Accounting and all, did Disney really have to peg the “budget” at $250m?  Is that, after all, actually the budget to get the film shot under Andrew Stanton?  Or is that the total production investment including all the development costs going back to 1989, and interest on all the 1990’s development, accruing for 15-20 years?   My point is–there is enough fuzzy math involved in budget-talk around Hollywood that Disney could surely have tamped down the pre-schadenfreude by simply avoiding the impulse to trumpet the film at a “biggest budget ever” blockbuster.

In truth — wouldn’t John Carter have been much better off entering the marketplace as the underdog it actually was — a labor of love, no big stars, animation director, heartfelt and made with passion.  If Disney had achieved that kind of positioning, we wouldn’t now be seeing the film written off repeatedly as a colossal flop – we would instead be hearing that it’s off to a slow start in the US, but with good international Disney’s investment in Andrew Stanton and Edgar Rice Burroughs may well pay off, just give it time?

That is, after all, the reality — it’s not a complete bust by any stretch of the imagination and is headed for global numbers in the $350-450M range that have never previously in the history of cinema been called a flop.   But a “flop” it is — just google “John Carter flop” and see for yourself.

Flops Turned Classics

It’s too early to tell, of course, but it is entirely possible that John Carter will eventually join the ranks of films that were considered box office failures when they were released, but which eventually went on to achieve cult and in some cases, classic status.

Anyone following the intensity of the fan-love for the picture, with multiple viewings much passion being expressed for the movie from those who, as Andrew Stanton has said, “get it”, could not help but wonder if Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate (which were, after all, monuments to actor and studio egos – not lovingly crafted sci-fi epics based on beloved source material)  ever got the kind of fan love that is emerging for John Carter.

What of others in the sci-fi genre who may have followed a similar pattern?

Blade Runner, after all, opened with a disappointing $6.1M and split the critics, only later emerging as the beloved classic it has become.

2001: A Space Odyssey split the critics when it was originally released and only made $56M at the box office — a figure which, when adjusted for inflation, comes out to $335m in today’s dollars, a figure which quite probably is at least $50m less than John Carter will eventually make.

If John Carter is a flop, it may well turn out that it’s in good company.

3 comments

  • Someone in a Facebook group posted the following link during a discussion about the business aspects of Hollywood: http://www.mpaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/MPAA-Theatrical-Market-Statistics-2014.pdf

    I found it to be a cool resource.

    From it, I gather that over fifty percent of the money at the box office is made from the 12-40 age group. That group is the most likely to go to the movies for social reasons – to hang out with their friends – rather than for artistic reasons. They go to whatever is showing that piques their interest the most. Few in that group are motivated to get to a theater solely because a film has great storytelling. Their attendance is not a very accurate indicator of their satisfaction with the quality of the films. If a film is rotten, they’ll be more likely to avoid it. If a film is said to be awesome, they’re more likely to see it again with friends who didn’t make it the first time, perhaps several times.

    Those who are younger than 12 generally go only when their parents take them to a “kid movie.” Those over 40 years old have generally entered a different social frame of mind and are more interested in quality or in niche genres.

    So, we have most filmgoers (ages 12-40), who more or less go to the movies no matter what is showing, as long as they haven’t caught wind of a film being a stinker. Hollywood takes this demographic for granted and makes very few efforts to provide them with anything of exceptional quality. The mediocre quality of mass-market films, coupled with the myriad new technologies available for watching movies, is resulting in a decline in cinema attendance in North America since 2012. Is the current decline inevitable? What would it take to reverse the trend?

    The budget of a film is a secondary consideration, or even a non-factor, to the vast majority of filmgoers. The answer is not to make cheaper movies which require less box office to be considered successful in the business sense. Few films are disparaged solely because they were expensive, and few are celebrated solely because they were inexpensive. When the budget of a film is held up as what determines success or not, the conversation has moved to defense and will neglect the much more compelling solution of increased quality. Budget efficiencies can move some borderline projects from the red into the black, but doesn’t the more intriguing question have to do with how to move a project from the red or the black into the GOLD? The ideal business model is to provide an excellent product or service and get paid a premium for it. Defensive thinking, which focuses on minimizing production costs, rather than on earning a premium purchase price, is essentially a stalling tactic, and doesn’t fix the root problem.

    The solution to the fading box office involves two elements, both dependent on the industry releasing better movies. First, movies need to be good enough that the 12-40 demographic will be eager to attend repeat viewings with other members of their social circle. The should be excited about taking a friend to a given movie who hasn’t seen it yet. This requires a well-made film which dispels concerns about embarrassment during a recommendation. A truly excellent film which ignites genuine enthusiasm can hope for an average of three ticket purchases per filmgoer. That increased quality can turn a $500 million-at-the-box-office film into a $1.5 billion film. If it is a phenomenal success, as was the case with Avatar, $2 billion to $3 billion is not out of the question. James Cameron doesn’t play defense in the making of his films, and the potential results have been demonstrated many times over.

    The second element of the solution is for films to not only resonate with the core 12-40 demographic, but also to resonate with those over 40 years old, and draw them to the theater in extraordinary numbers. When this is achieved, a film can move from a roughly 50% market share to an 80% market share. The final 20% is composed mainly of those too young for a mass-market PG-13 film. (A great film can also compel parents of young children to arrange for a babysitter, thus freeing up a portion of the young family demographic.) Winning over the 40+ demographic requires more than cutting-edge technical achievements. It requires more than a raising of the bar in what is considered dark, edgy or gritty. Captivating the 40+ audience demands a timeless, rather than trendy, focus in the storytelling. Such films must delve deeply into archetypes, legends, history, tragedy, and bittersweet romance. The story can be as big and groundbreaking in the technical aspects, which typically appeal to the 12-40 crowd, as it wants to be, if it also includes a character-centered emotional core and commentary on the human condition which transcends time and culture.

    A story with spectacle and heart, which breaks new ground and mines timeless themes, can appeal to young and old, men and women. This type of film becomes a cultural rallying point that demands to be seen in the amalgam of society which only the cinema can provide. Such a film rekindles enthusiasm for the modern world’s pinnacle format of creative expression, renewing in us appreciation for its synthesis of all the art forms. This can only happen at the movies.

    Excellence isn’t available from a vending machine. There have been many routes to it. Many varying structures have achieved it. Certain environmental conditions are more conducive to it. It can rarely be rushed, and needs time and patience for refinement. It requires investment, nurture, and tough love. It needs the support, hard work, and trust of many. For all that it needs, the mountain to be climbed does not loom so tall when the climbers remember that their efforts help feed humanity’s timeless and ever-present hunger to know itself.

    Filmgoers will pay a premium once or twice for each new distraction. They will fall in love and lose count of their ticket stubs when paying for self-knowledge and edification.

  • I’m all for reasonable measures to save money when possible. Efficiency and creativity can prevent a lot of waste. Experience and skill can get a virtually identical product out of a budget tens of millions of dollars lower. That’s the ideal result of lowered budgets, and increases the chances of financial success. At the same time, arbitrary budget reduction that doesn’t fully take into account the needs of the material can result in diminished production values, less appeal, and lower box office, resulting in a revenue shortfall of roughly the same proportion as if the project had been given more funding and had higher production values.

    The only thing that’s going to turn the budget into a footnote is an excellent script. Expensive-looking films with amazing scripts can draw an enormous initial audience and set in motion the word-of-mouth and repeat viewing that ensures undeniable success. But excellent scripts are very rarely derived from risk-management formulas.

    Some genres of film are better suited to become breakout successes in the theater. Other genres find their legs better on TV or video. People who pay to see a movie in the theater are more likely to want to be taken to a different world – out of their homes, out of their mundane, everyday lives. The psychology of going to a different physical place to experience storytelling, even with all of today’s stay-at-home options, gives a clue about what kinds of stories they’re looking for. They want to live a different life for a couple hours, explore a new dream self, be filled with wonder, and sent on their way in high spirits. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar are compelling examples of this supply-and-demand principle being fulfilled. People love those movies, and turn them into box office successes because they deliver on an experience that is uniquely suited to the grandeur of the cinema house.

    There are some intrinsically low budget movies that can become huge financial successes, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241m from a $5m budget), but they are rare. That film never tried to buy its way to success, but rather WROTE its way to success. That’s a wonderful result for a romantic comedy.

    Other genres, especially those that deliver transportive cinema, are intrinsically more expensive. To skimp on science fiction, fantasy, or historical epics, runs a much greater risk of looking cheap, regardless of how well written the story is. There have been a few great examples of transportive cinema matched with an excellent script. That combo results in the kind of wonderful experience that can only happen in the theater.

    The more expensive a project is, the more its script needs to have been put in the slow cooker. Every script in every genre should get the investment of time and effort needed to get the story into the best possible shape. Films can be expensive, they just need to earn it with their script – and then make the quality the center of attention, rather than the cost.

    Hopefully the days of trumpeting big budgets are waning. It’s a bit of bragging that just seems to invite a morbid, sadistic response. It is far better to brag about how LITTLE was paid for something – especially something that looks expensive. If a film has the appeal of looking expensive, let the focus be on the story that calls for wonderful visuals and an immersive world, rather than on a dollar amount meant to sound impressive.

  • Excellent article/analysis, Michael! Yeah, I do hope JC achieves Cult Classic status one day at least. It’s a really good film and not deserving of all the hate, IMO.

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