Does John Carter have to reach 700m Global Gross to greenlight a sequel? Really?

John Carter News
For the last week or so various media outlets have been reporting on the one hand that John Carter director Andrew Stanton is prepping for a trilogy, but on the other hand Stanton is saying that it might take as much as 700M to get a greenlight for a sequel. First of all, let’s be clear – Disney optioned the first three books; the first three books are a cohesive trilogy; and Stanton’s John Carter screenplay is basically the first book, A Princess of Mars. For Stanton to have ignored the structure of a potential trilogy would have been reckless.

The thing is, it’s pretty clear that Stanton throwing out the huge figure of 700 M is clearly an effort to manage expectations and make it clear to one and all that he’s not assuming he’s got a trilogy to make — to do so would be the height of arrogance and Stanton’s not arrogant, at least not overtly so.

But that brings up the question — what is the real number that John Carter has to reach in order to greenlight a sequel?

Let’s take a look.

First of all, the “word on the street” is that the budget of JC is 250m, or rather the production investment is 250m, the budget having been somewhat less. Stanton has made much of the Pixar way of making a movie “four times”, and it’s clear that his reshoots went beyond the original budget.

But just because making the prototype cost 250m, it does not follow that future films would cost that much. First of all, there is a big development burden on this film–Disney spent as much as 7m between 1989 and 1998 when they had it the first time, and no doubt that’s tacked on; and then there are all the “making a prototype” costs that will not be experienced in future films. Future films would presumably not need as many re-shoots as the prototype required to “get it right”. Because of all this, you can be assured that the bean counters and the suits at Disney — who of course want it to become a franchise –are thinking that if JC becomes a trilogy, at least 50m of the 250m will get amortized over the three pictures. So the effective budget for the purposes of greenlighting a sequel is probably closer to 200m to 215m.

700M? I don’t think so……

Let’s take a look.

What’s the Buzz?

The concensus, if there is one, on the message boards and chat rooms is:

  • The most consistent term used to describe John Carter is “wild card”, which I take to mean that while people concede there is a substantial upside, there is also a great deal of risk.
  • It makes most of the “most likely to bomb” lists, somewhere between second most likely to bomb after “Battleship”, and is in almost everyone’s top 5 of potential bombs.
  • It does not make any of the “Top 10 of 2012” lists, at least none that I’ve seen.
Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly has JC ranked as the #1 Gamble of the year:
John Carter — [budget] $250 million (or possibly $300 million)
The original title was John Carter of Mars, but Disney chopped off that last part not too long after Mars Needs Moms bombed. The film is based on a series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I am a big fan of the Of Mars books, but only because my grandfather had a huge collection of them. Since most people didn’t have nerdy grampas, John Carter doesn’t come gilded with very much brand recognition. With a swing-for-the-fences budget and a curious mish-mash of genre tones — half sword ‘n sandals fantasy, half space-faring science fiction — this one is definitely a gamble. We’ll have to wait and see if it pays for Disney.

So, there is no doubt it’s a gamble, and there’s no doubt there are many out there saying the gamble won’t pay off for Disney.

What is Disney Shooting For?

First, make no mistake — even with a March release, it is clear that Disney is looking upon this with “franchise eyes”.   By involving valuable assets Pixar and Andrew Stanton, and spending $250m, Disney is signalling that it’s serious and that the default option is to move forward with a sequel as long as the film performs well enough to justify it.   Additional insight into Disney’s state of mind:  Robert Iger told stockholders at the 2011 meeting that Disney had spent 40% of it’s production spend on franchises in 2010, and intended to spend 80% of its production investment on franchises in 2011.  Iger’s comments make it abundantly clear that Disney is pre-disposed to keep moving forward unless the results clearly indicate otherwise.  So the default option is to move forward with a sequel unless the numbers for the first film would make such a decision be clearly reckless.

What is the “Sequel Green Light Threshhold”?

Let’s look at some of the other recent first time action/fantasy pics that have generated a sequel:

There’s Clash of the Titans — $163m US, $499M worldwide, budget of $125m — sequel.
Closer to home, Disney’s own Tron Legacy — $173m US, $400m worldwide, budget of $170m  — sequel.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief —  $88m US, $226m worldwide, budget of $95m — sequel. (!)
In all these cases, the budgets are lower than JC, so it’s reasonable to assume that JC would need to go at somewhat higher.  But how much?
Let’s look at it another way — what “franchise designed”  action/adventure/sci-fi first films have done $150m or more in Domestic Box Office and NOT generated a sequel?
I can’t find any. (If I missed something, let me know.)
Those that have fallen short have all been well below $150m Domestic Box Office.

Prince of Persia, budget of 200m, US BOG of 94m, worldwide BOG of $335m — no sequel ordered by Disney. There was a slight flirtation, but in the end — no.   Other numbers to keep in mind with Prince of Persia — opening weekend of $30m; and 28% of the total came from US BOG, and 72% foreign.    JC clearly needs to beat these numbers to generate a sequel.

The Last Airbender did $131m domestically and didn’t get a sequel, at least not yet — but while it managed $131m domestically — enough to get it into “sequel territory” — it didn’t fare well overseas, getting only to $333m total worldwide gross.  That means it took 41% from the US, 59% from abroad– the point being, that a film doing $131m domestically with that only representint 30% of the overall take (a la Prince of Persia) would be much more likely to get green lit for a sequel than one doing $131m where that represents 41% of the overall. Other factors — this is a film by M. Night Shyamalan, who might be perceived as a “diminishing resource” on a downward trend with his best box office days behind him, while Stanton/Pixar would be viewed having an upward trend.

Golden Compass didn’t get a sequel and only $71m domestically — but that was only 18% of it’s total, it did $372 total, meaning 81% of its biz was overseas — and no sequel.
Green Lantern, widely considered a mis-fire, did $116m domestic and only 103m foreign (a dismal Domestic/Foreign ratio) yet there have been persistent discussions of a possible sequel — although no green light has been given.
What does all this mean?
I think it boils down to the fact that JC  becomes “sequel-able” it needs to do the following:
$45m Opening Weekend (30% of domestic total)
$150m Domestic Gross (30% of global total)
$500m Worldwide Gross
How Does John Carter get to $150m Domestic and $500M worldwide?
How does JC get there?
Box Office Punditing relies heavily on opening weekend grosses and there’s a reason for it — with rare exceptions, the first weekend gross (and certain trends that are discernable within the first weekend, such as the Fri/Sat/Sun ratios which give clues about the positivity or negativity of word of mouth) can often make it possible to project within a few percentage points of where a film is going to end up.  For example, a big action blockbuster with so-so reviews and so-so word of mouth with typically do 37-40% of its domestic gross on the first weekend.  An average action pic will do about 35% of its total on the first weekend.  Films where the first weekend ends up being 30% or less either have “legs” (great word of mouth” or were ineffectively promoted int he first place.   A classic example is Avatar which opened at 77m which turned out to be only 10% of the total.
While the average for  Action blockbusters is around 35%, the average for Andrew Stanton’s previous pictures is more  like 25% — meaning his film’s, and Pixars, have a track record of having great “legs” (28% high, 20% low).   But for the sake of modeling, let’s be conservative and assume that the “legs” factor won’t be as good as for Stanton’s previous films, but will be tetter than the action blockbuster average — let’s set it that the opening weekend of JC will represent 30% of the overall total — slightly better than the norm for an action pic, but not as good as Stanton’s prior pictures.
And note — this assumes a 30/70 split from Domestic-Foreign.  If Domestic ends up being 40% instead of 30$, then 45m/150m won’t be enough.   But this much I know — if it opens at 45M and has reasonably positive reviews and good word of mouth, it’s not a lock for a sequel, but a sequel is very likely.  If it opens at 50-60m, a sequel is almost assured.  If it opens below 35m, fugedddaboutit.
How is it Tracking?
The next question is — how is JC tracking at this point, 87 days prior to release, and is this consistent with an opening weekend of $45m?
Answer:  Disney marketing has a lot of work to do.
There are some objective ways of measuring “buzz” — some of them proprietary and costing $$, and some available to anyone with an intenet connection.  Three measures that are easy to monitor are:
  • IMDB Movie Meter:  This is basically a once a week snapshot which reacts to how many people are clicking on the movie’s IMDB listing. It’s interesting to look at what rank a film has now, and what rank was the highest it reached.   You can also look at trend lines on a graph.
  • IMDB Message Boards — number of pages of comments — the more pages of comments, the more buzz.
Here is a chart showing all of the March releases:

Some observations:
First, in terms of advance buzz, The Hunger Games (teen sci fi romance — same audience as Twilight) is clearly the class of the field, having reached number three and having 58 pages of comments — 5 times as much as the closest follower.
The good news, or fairly good news, is that John Carter is the closest follower.  It’s the only one with more than 10 pages of comments, and it’s at 135 and peaked at 67.  But clearly, that’s a pretty distant second to Hunger games.
What films could be problematic for John Carter?  Fortunately, it seems to have a pretty clear field on March 9 — none of the other films that weekend seem to be much of a challenge, and that would bode well for the opening weekend.  But come 16 March, both 21 Jump Street and Mirror Mirror could be a problem – especially the latter as it may draw some of the same audience that JC s vying for.
And then comes Hunger Game on 23 March.  It seems certain that Hunger Games will suck all the air out of the box office room on the 23rd, as it is tracking toward a 60-70m opening.
The bottom line, however, is that the field is not terribly cluttered in March, and JC is positioned reasonably well as long as the Disney maching truly puts its foot to the floorboard.
Other factors —
Disney’s releases are spaced out nicely — January 13 Beauty and the Beast 3D, then Feb 17 The Secret World or Arriety.  This makes for a stable internal situation at Disney in which JC — which is by far the biggest investment of the first three releases of the year for Disney — gets the attention it deserves.
Bottom line — 45M is “do-able” for opening weekend and the overall equation of 45/150/500 is achievable — but it will take a great push by Disney and the delivery of a great film with legs by Stanton and company.
Stay tuned……we’ll continue to track and adjust the judgment accordingly.  As of right now — JC has a fighting chance to make 45m opening weekend — but only a fighting chance.  The over/under is around 30+M.
We’ll see.

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