When a wannabe blockbuster turns out to be a turkey of a film and flops miserably, we don’t need any explanations — it’s clear what just happened. A bad movie tanked. It’s simple. Mars Needs Moms, Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate all fall into this category. They were flops and they were turkeys.
But this year has brought us Disney’s John Carter, a film which flopped so badly that 10 days after its release it was officially certified by no less an authority than its own studio as the biggest flop in the history of cinema, causing a $200M write down in the quarter of its release. If its own studio classifies it as an epic flop, then it’s a flop. But is it a turkey? Directed by Andrew Stanton of Wall-E and Finding Nemo fame, John Carter has divided the critics 50/50, which is not a bad score at all for a sci-fi epic. Indeed, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey fared no better with the critics on their initial release. It has earned a 75% positive rating from fans, but perhaps more significantly it has spawned a highly motivated and organized fan base, many of whom will have seen it 10 times by the time its theatrical release is complete. An economic flop? If Disney declares it so, it must be so. But a turkey of a film? No.
So how did this happen? How did a well produced, lovingly directed movie which will in all probability end up eventually being regarded as a beloved sci-fi classic end up as the #1 economic flop in cinema history? No one has all the answers, but after three months of studying every aspect of the film, the production, and the release itself, it’s time to venture the fruits of the analysis, and essay an explanation of: What really happened with John Carter?
Disney Gets the Rights to A Princess of Mars at Andrew Stanton’s Behest
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 classic A Princess of Mars had been in one form of development or another as a film for 95 years when, in early 2007, Andrew Stanton reached out to then Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook. Stanton, a Pixar stalwart who was in the last year of work on Wall-E, had been introduced to the material through the 1970’s comic books; he had read and become a passionate fan of the underlying Burroughs material. When he found out that Paramount’s production of A Princess of Mars, with Jon Favreau at the helm, had fallen off the rails and the rights had been allows to lapse, he had a phone conversation with Dick Cook: ‘You know that property that went back? Maybe when I finish ‘WALL•E’, if I’m not a one-hit-wonder, would you consider letting me make it? It’s just a crime that it’s not going to get out there.’
Cook looked into it and a month later Disney acquired the rights to the first three books in the 11 book series, singing Stanton to direct shortly thereafter. Because of the way the project came about, it had Cook’s personal imprint on it — it had not come up through the development mill at Disney. It seems to have had no Disney champions other than Cook himself — a fact which would become significant later. As for Cook’s thought process — First of all, it was a familiar property — Disney had held the rights throughout the 1990’s but the technology had not been up to the material and the rights had lapsed, eventually going to Paramount. Secondly — Disney was in need of “boy franchises”. The studio had proven itself adept at girl franchises, but in the “boy franchise” category it was a problem, and this could be a solution. The Burroughs IP had stood the test of time, having inspired much of the major science fiction of the last century, and in the hands of Stanton it was possible that it could blossom anew as “Star Wars for a new generation.” Today, with the benefit of hindsight, many have questioned the viability of the material, which had been strip-mined for the better part of a century via everything from Superman to Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar. Would the original inspiration for all these classics — coming out after the clones had already had their run in the public consciousness, result in the paradox of the original seeming to be derivative of the imitator? If Cook was worried about this, he never went on record as having such concerns.
Aside from the actual merits of the property, there was also the matter of Stanton, Pixar, and the Disney-Pixar relationship. Pixar had developed into Disney’s golden goose, and Stanton was a key player there. If Stanton wanted to venture into live action film-making, it was clearly in Disney’s interest to keep him in the Disney fold than have him venture off to another studio. Disney had substantial equities with Pixar; it made perfect sense to create an ‘in-house’ vehicle for Stanton to explore his live action ambitions was a sensible thing to do.
John Carter was a go.
The Fateful Decision to let the Budget Increase to $250m
According to comments by Producers Lindsey Collins and others, Cook and Disney had in mind a budget of $150m to a max of $175m — which meant that a global box office take in the range of $300-400m would be considered an acceptable outcome. The film could achieve this without being anything more than an average-to-good blockbuster–not a slam dunk to achieve, by any means — but Stanton would not have to capture lightning in a bottle for the project to succeed, he’d just have to deliver a good, entertaining film.
But $150M budget wasn’t a budget at all — it was simply the back -of-the-napkin price point analysis that a studio exec like Cook would apply to a project before there was a script to be broken down and budgeted. When the script was complete, Stanton brought in–presumably with Cook’s blessing– his Pixar team of producers Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris, who crunched the numbers using Pixar-like assumptions about the amount and nature of CGI that would be needed. The film as envisioned by Stanton included more animated shots than either Wall-E or Finding Nemo — and that was just the animation. Working off the actual screenplay, Collins and Morris came up with a substantially higher number than what Disney had in mind–and it wasn’t about star salaries or any other big ticket items that could be easily slashed. It was the cost of a Pixar scale army of 3D visual effects artists working for three years, coupled with the wind and grind of a large scale live action shoot, that drove the budget to $250M.
When Stanton got the news from Morris and Collins as to where the budget had landed, he had to make a decision — either voluntarily go back to the drawing board and rewrite with budgetary constraints in mind, or defend the budget and push to get it through. By all accounts Stanton never hesitated — he wanted to make the movie that was embodied in the screenplay that he and his writing team had labored over for a year. Indeed, from Stanton’s perspective the higher than expected budget was “no big deal” at all. Every movie he’d been involved with had had a huge budget, and every one had succeeded, so why should he compromise? At $250m instead of $150m, it would now need at least $500m global box office to be labeled a success. But Wall-E had made $592 on a much more challenging (for a film-maker) premise, and Nemo had done more than $800M. For Stanton, it was an acceptable gamble.
And so it was that the production went back to the studio with its $250m budget in hand and basically said this is what it will take — we can’t make the movie Andrew, Michael Chabon, and Mark Andrews have written with anything less.
There are indications that even at this early point, John Carter was somewhat isolated at Disney. The project hadn’t quite been labeled “Cook’s folly”, but with the budget at $250m, it was trending in that direction. The decision as to whether or not to accept the Pixar team’s requirement of $250m was fully on his shoulders, and Cook accepted the responsibility that came with the decision to approve the budget.. He knew that this one was on him — he had brought in Stanton and the IP; he would stand by it.
As with the decision to acquire the property in the first place, it seems likely that the Disney-Pixar relationship entered into Cook’s analysis. In a sense, Disney owed Pixar one — the animation studio had certainly brought in Disney infinitely more rewards than “budget gap” that was now under consideration, and at this point it was still under consideration that John Carter would actually enter the marketplace as Pixar’s first live action project. How could Disney not give the film-makers the resources they said they needed to do the job right? So while in a normal situation, the director could have expected some pushback from the studio on the budget — Stanton got none. The budget as put forward by Stanton’s team of Pixar producers was approved, and the film went into prep with a price tag of $250M.
In retrospect the decision to green light at $250m, rather than send the production team back to the drawing board with a mandate to bring it in at a lower price point, was the single most fateful decision in the chain, because once made it could not be undone, and it changed the business model for the film in ways that were profound. There is no reason to believe that Cook was unaware of the implications of his decision; but as events would unfold, he only had control over half the equation. He provided the production team with the money they needed — but when it came to devising and approving a marketing program appropriate for a $250m film, Cook would find himself not in a position to complete the cycle that began with the production.
The Unraveling Begins
By the spring of 2009, John Carter was in full-scale pre-production en route to a principal photography start date of January 2010. On the Disney corporate front, however, there were changes in the wind. On a conference call in May, Disney CEO Robert Iger described the studio unit’s performance as “disappointing” — a rare public slap at longtime studio chief Dick Cook in which he criticized both the choice of films and their execution. Not only did this signal that change was coming — it established a critical narrative that Cook’s choices were subject to open questioning, not just within the halls of Disney Studios, but publicly by the highest officer of the Disney parent corporation. Cook’s days were numbers; it was only a matter of when.
Two months later August 2009, Disney acquired Marvel and with it, a plethora of “boy franchises” which were far easier to mount than John Carter. Marvel characters had a large, active, existing fan base that went to movies, while John Carter’s following was limited for the most part to the boomer contingent that included George Lucas and James Cameron who, like the boomer fans, had become followers of the Mars novels during the Burroughs reboot in the 1960’s and 70’s when Ballantine Paperbacks were widely available. John Carter might have looked like a reasonable play at $150M budget and without Marvel in the Disney fold; at a budget of $250M and with the Avengers et al on the horizon, it was beginning to take on the aura of an albatross dangling from the studio neck.
Had Cook’s position been strong as it had been for most of his tenure at Disney, none of this might have mattered. But Cook’s position was anything but strong–it was widely rumored in the wake of the May conference call rebuke from Iger that he was on his way out. Then on September 19, 2009, it was over. According to some sources the end came without warning, Cook was called into a meeting with Iger and told that his services were no longer needed — that the studio “wanted to go in a different direction”. Other sources claim that Cook did in fact know the end was coming; that he was given an opportunity to chart a course more in line with Iger’s vision and opted not to – even choosing the date of his departure. Either way, after 38 years at Disney, Cook was gone, and John Carter was suddenly and completely an orphan.
Weeks later Rich Ross, head of global operations for the Disney Channel and thus a consummate Disney insider who had Iger’s trust based on the exemplary performance of the TV unit, took over as Chairman of Disney Studios with a mandate to apply the lessons learned from his global TV operation to the Studio — lessons that did not include taking on what the experts inside Disney considered to be a foolhardy high-risk $250M high stakes gamble on a first time live action director and IP that, while much loved and respected, was hardly a sure thing and brought with it only modest numbers of fans. From Ross’s perspective, John Carter had multiple strikes against it; it was too expensive; it didn’t have a built-in fan base on a scale that tracked with the budget; and it was a distraction from the far what senior advisors considered a far more promising set of properties — the Marvel collection, and the Pixar portfolio.
It’s possible that Ross may have considered pulling the plug on John Carter or forcing a re-think at a lower budget — but indications are that he concluded it was too late for that. By the time he came on board in October 2009, the film, although not yet in production, was fully mounted– contracts were signed with all the major players including all the VFX houses that would be the main money drain. It was too late to re-tool at a lower budget, and in any event Ross wasn’t inclined to do that for any number of reasons, not the least of which was the equities with Pixar that would be affected–not to mention that pulling the plug on his predecessor’s pet project would register as callow, even by Hollywood standards. Better, he reasoned, to let John Carter run its course at the $250m budget that had been agreed to. So Ross made no intrusion into John Carter production airspace; he left Stanton and his team alone and allowed them to continue without intervention from the studio.
The merchandising, licensing, and cross-promotions that didn’t happen
While Ross did nothing to interfere with the production of John Carter, he made several key decisions in the marketing arena which greatly shaped the outcome of the project. First, he brought in an outsider, MT Carney, to take over as head of marketing. Carny, a Scottish 42 year old exec from a New York marketing firm that specialized in packaged goods, was considered an odd choice, and perhaps a threatening one, by most of Hollywood. As a former television exec Ross himself was not a “movie guy” — and his choice of Carney underscored the fact that there was a mandate to shake things up at the studio. Cook’s previous quarters had been uneven; and the costs of advertising by traditional means were becoming problematic as global theatrical revenues were flat, and DVD revenues declined, and the effectiveness of TV spots –the mainstay in motivating audiences–was in question as the internet and other forms of entertainment diminished the reach and effectiveness of TV ads. New approaches were needed; partners were needed; business as usual wouldn’t suffice and Ross believed Carney was the solution for Disney.
Against this background – the issue of how to approach the marketing of John Carter was high on the agenda at the time Carney came on board at Disney. As a $250m investment in a potential franchise, John Carter was a prime candidate for creative, cutting edge marketing techniques. Going all out for a creative marketing campaign could generate a wide array of merchandising and licensing deals, cross-promotions, and creative marketing tie-ins with partners shouldering much of the expense.
Yet with Ross in command and Carney on board, none of this happened. Why?
There is no definitive record available yet of the thought processes and discussions that led to the decision to deny John Carter the full range of merchandising and cross-promotions, but in light of all that followed, analysis would suggest that Ross and company made a decision as early as the first months of Carney’s tenure that John Carter was going to be allowed to proceed to its release without the benefit of anything other than the traditional, stripped down, basic marketing package: lots of TV spots, plenty of billboards, a standard internet package, a bit of radio and that would be it. The TV buy would be substantial, and that would be the backbone of the marketing. No merchandising, no licensing, no cross-promotions, no partners spending millions to help boos the movie.
What was the logic for this decision?
On one level – the answer is obvious: Ross chose not to throw “good money after bad”. He was being counseled on all sides by advisors who had no stake in John Carter and who were convinced it was Titanic sailing towards its iceberg. The only true champion of the project, Dick Cook, was gone — and the whole premise of Ross’s ascension to the helm of Disney Studios was that Cook had lost his mojo in terms of the projects he had approved. John Carter was, in effect, radioactive. It had no friends at Disney.
But there were other layers to the decision as well.
It placed the responsibility for the outcome squarely where, from Ross’s perspective, it probably needed to be — on Stanton’s shoulders. The Pixar director had been seriously indulged by Cook — he’d gotten the project he asked, for the budget he asked for, and now the studio was up to its ears in the John Carter swamp. True, an inspired, creative marketing campaign might make the difference — but it might also burn up valuable partner assets and relationships just at a time when Disney had truly attractive product coming into the pipeline, and that was a problem.
In the end, the policy that was agreed to came back to Stanton. Disney had indulged him thus far — getting the rights to John Carter, and giving him the budget he said he needed. He would also get a full traditional marketing campaign — but no frills, no extras. The campaign would be enough to launch the film and the rest was up to Stanton. If, as he had with Wall-E and Nemo, he could deliver a film with 90%++ critic and audience ratings, then it would be able to climb past $500M and beyond , regardless of whether or not the opening weekend was hit the $60-70m level normally thought of as necessary to achieve a $500M global revenue point. And if he didn’t — well, the Ross and Carney regime would be able to point to their $100M campaign and say we did the right things — didn’t spend too much, but gave it enough of a boost to give it a fighting chance in the marketplace.
Seen from the perspective of the director and film crew–not to mention the fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs–it was a heartless plan designed to do just enough to ensure that the film would probably fail. But seen from Ross and Carney’s perspective — it a plan that threaded the needle in that it could be defended to shareholders or media observers as a prudent allocation of resources–and it put the onus where it belonged, on Stanton’s shoulders.
In the end, was the decision to limit the marketing push and leave the success or failure more on Stanton and less on the studio a reasonable one? Could John Carter have succeeded without the all-out creative merchandising push that Carney had been hired to produce — but which was now going to be deployed not for Carter, but for other titles in the pipeline? One longtime Disney observer put it this way: “There was in some fashion a “wild-card” or “x factor” component to the situation that made it unique. Stanton wasn’t just any film-maker; he was the guy who turned movies about a fish and a waste processing robot into global success stories. There was undoubtedly a sense that, given free rein and full resources, Stanton might well come up with a movie that defied conventional expectations based on the property, and soared with both critics and fans. If that turned out to be the case, the marketing push would be enough and everyone would come out a winner — and the merchandising and cross promotions would kick in with the sequels.
But that didn’t happen.
(Part 2 Will Follow Next Sunday, April 22nd)
UPDATE : Part 2 is delayed until April 29th so I can incorporate new info coming in as a result of Rich Ross leaving Disney on April 20th. So look for part 2 on April 29th.