This part two of a three part series entitled John Carter, the Flop that Wasn’t a Turkey. You can read Part One here.
by Michael D. Sellers
John Carter: The Flop that Wasn’t a Turkey (How did it happen?) Part Two
On April 20, 2012 Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross resigned in the wake of the release of John Carter, a film that had earned $269M at the global box office in the six weeks of its theatrical run but which, because of its high cost of production and marketing, caused the studio to take a $200M write-down in the first quarter of 2012. Ross had not been responsible for greenlighting John Carter; but the marketing campaign in its futile entirety had unfolded on Ross’s watch. In his resignation letter Ross wrote:
…..the best people need to be in the right jobs, in roles they are passionate about, doing work that leverages the full range of their abilities. It’s one of the leadership lessons I’ve learned during my career, and it’s something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to as I look at the challenges and opportunities ahead……..I no longer believe the Chairman role is the right professional fit for me.
The question of whether Ross, a “TV guy” who had done extremely well managing Disney’s global TV operation, was the least bit passionate about or even fully grasped the unique complexities of theatrical movie marketing, would hang over his departure. As Jerry Bruckheimer famously observed, movie marketing offers a unique challenge in that it must motivate fans to “get off the couch” and pay twelve dollars during a particular window of time — a “call to action” that far exceeds anything in the channel-flipping TV world. Movie marketers live and breathe this challenge, and tend to believe, not without good reason, that it takes a certain breed of executive to successfully create a culture where the alchemy that is movie promotional campaign is executed consistently and imaginatively at a high level. Ross, by his own admission and the record he created, was not such an executive.
That fundamental challenge of movie marketing–motivating millions of people to get up off the couch and line up to see a movie on opening weekend– lies at the center of the question: “What really happened to John Carter?” It is by no means the sole factor in the failure of John Carter to become the hit that it had to be to break even. And we will deal with the other factors in the course of this series. But rarely in Hollywood has there been such a perplexing “epic fail” of marketing, and it was Ross who was at the helm when the Disney marketing machine sailed into its iceberg with John Carter.
While the actions of Disney marketing are difficult to fathom as seen from the outside, companies with the historic success of Disney don’t intentionally sabotage their own projects, nor do they enter into a release campaign without giving serious thought to the strategy behind that release. So what was the strategy? What were Ross and his brain trust really expecting and hoping would happen with John Carter, and why did they calibrate the campaign the way they did?
Most critically — why did Ross approve an A+ level budget of $250M, putting John Carter on the short list of most expensive films ever, then fail to support it with an A+ marketing campaign that included the full force of Disney’s ability not only to do the “usual”–trailers, TV Spots, print ads, billboards, etc — but to also bring in the kind of licensing, cross-promotional tie-ins, and merchandise that are needed to “feed the beast” of a tent-pole theatrical film at the highest budget level?
To understand, it is necessary to start with the production of the film itself.
The Production of John Carter — A $250M Experiment?
There are two vastly different versions of what happened during the production of John Carter. The version that dominated pre-release coverage of the film was captured in a Hollywood reporter piece by Kim Masters, who described it this way:
In the case of Disney’s March space fantasy John Carter, there was clear allure to taking a chance on director Andrew Stanton. He wrote and directed Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, which together grossed about $1.3 billion worldwide. But the 3D extravaganza has undergone a complete re-engineering [since the original shoot was complete], and the budget, originally $200 million, is widely rumored to have ballooned to $300 million. …. One source associated with talent on John Carter says Stanton, 46, initially was allowed to pursue his vision with “no checks and balances, no star, no producer, nobody to keep him in check.” In December 2010, when he showed a 170-minute cut to executives at Pixar and Disney, they found the story unclear and the characters not engaging. Stanton then began to re-engineer a film that already had been shot, creating storyboards of new sequences and cutting them into the footage. A few months later, he embarked on extensive and costly reshoots. Disney, which had anticipated John Carter as a trilogy, held off on discussing the next installment.
Master’s article, and others like it, painted a picture of a film which had started off with a reasonable budget, and had “ballooned” into a $300M final product due to “costly reshoots” which were undertaken in an attempt to remedy mistakes made in the original filming. This narrative of a confused, out-of-control production helmed by a first-time live action director who was in over his head dominated the reporting on the actual making of the film.
Disney was curiously detached and did little to dispel such accounts. There were no statements from Ross or Sean Bailey, Disney’s President of production, offering any counter-narrative. It was only when Stanton and producers Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris were on the final press tour in the run-up to the release, that the film-making team confronted it.
Stanton’s statement were the strongest of the three — claiming that the reshoots were part of the original shooting plan and not an ad hoc reaction to unexpected problems, and making the case that once a budget was agreed to, he stayed on budget and on schedule — so much so that Disney rewarded him with his request to have additional days added to the reshoot.
“I want to go completely on record that I literally was on budget and on time the entire shoot. Disney is so completely psyched that I stayed on budget and on time that they let me have a longer reshoot. …. That is just fascinating to me that people would think that’s true…[that the reshoots were unplanned and remedial] …I actually stayed on budget and on time because I knew that I had a reshoot.” (THR Link.)
So who has it right?
Re-shoots: Remedial Corrections or Part of the Plan from the Beginning?
To understand whether or not the production of John Carter was “troubled”, with a “spiraling” production spend due to “costly reshoots” , it is helpful to gain some perspective on reshoots and their role in major Hollywood film-making. Traditionally, the Hollywood approach to live action film-making emphasizes a lengthy pre-production that yields a “blueprint” for the film, followed by a single period of “principal photography” whose objective is to get everything “in the can”, followed by editing and post-production. Under the traditional model, reshoots are considered remedial and hence, logically, the existence of reshoots is empirical evidence that something is wrong with the production — that something went wrong during the principal photography and “costly reshoots” are necessary as a remedial and unplanned exercise.
But while this traditional view is understood to be the norm, most directors acknowledge that a period of reshoots (which are more properly thought of as “additional shooting” since the object is not to reshoot what you already shot, it is to get additional shots that clarify and enhance the story) can be invaluable because, at the point where the film has been assembled, instead of shooting 10 times what will actually show up in the film, the shots that are executed can be very carefully calibrated to fit within the actual edited film. Director Bill Condon, explaining re-shoots for Breaking Dawn, said: “A film is a lot like a puzzle, with each piece – each shot, no matter how brief – needing to fit exactly with the ones around it. Our Part Two puzzle is finally coming into full view, and in a few weeks we’ll be heading back north to pick up some additional shots – the last tiny missing pieces.” Red Tails Director Bill Hemingway, describing re-shoots for his film about Tuskegee Airmen, said: “We all knew there was going to be additional photography. It wasn’t a surprise.” He described the reshoots as ” little character moments and effects-driven scenes that were needed to “make things clear; to strengthen individual characters.” One director, a veteran of five Hollywood feature films, said: “I always program a 2-3 day mini-shoot that comes after the film has been assembled. It’s inevitable that by the time you get to that point, you will have a list of shots that can be obtained very efficiently and which will greatly help the film. Those 2-3 days can make as much impact on the film as two weeks of filming during principal photography because in the re-shoots, you’re only getting what you know you need, whereas in principal you’re trying to get everything you think you might need.”
Stanton went on record early on as being more passionately committed to re-shoots than almost any other live-action director, so much so that he viewed his approach as revolutionary for live action, yet grounded in what has been termed the “Pixar process”:
You know, I planned reshoots for after I got an assembly, so I had real objectivity about what it needed.
That’s all we do at Pixar. The truth is, we rip down and put up our movies a minimum of four times over four years. How I learned to make a movie by shooting it four times. That’s how me make them. People wonder what the magic elixir of Pixar is. It’s this: we shoot the movie four times!
To me, that’s just how art is formed….It’s like me saying to you, you can all go and write a piece about what we talked about today, but you only get to write it once. You don’t get to change a word once it’s set down. And that’s how movies are made, and it’s fucked up. It should be that you should somehow be able to balance economics and let the artist be an artist, and not be afraid of failure or trial and error.
Stanton’s producer Lindsey Collins says. “It’s the way we’ve always worked and certainly at Pixar that’s how we work – we get it all up there and put it up and we watch it and go, ‘That’s not working, let’s move that over here..So it doesn’t surprise me at all that that’s how Andrew worked on this one.”
So if the reshoots were — as credibly seems the case — part of the plan from the beginning, is there any other evidence to support the claim of an out-of-control production? For example, did the production fall behind schedule (the number one cause of over-budget performance)? The answer: No. Did the Studio display signs of concern and anxiety, hovering of the production and otherwise giving the impression that there was trouble in Utah? The answer: No. Quite the opposite would be the case. Neither the head of production Sean Bailey or Production Executive Brigham Taylor even visited the set in either London or Utah during the 100 day principal photography shoot. Even during the reshoots, which took place in Playa Vista, a brief 30 minute drive from Disney Studios, there was no regular studio presence.
What do those who worked on the film say about it? A number of crew members who worked on the film agreed to talk off the record for this article. (They are under a standard studio Non-Disclosure-Agreement which prevents them from commenting publicly.) All were in agreement that the production ran smoothly; was as harmonious as these things tend to be; and did in fact stay on schedule throughout the hundred days of principal photography.
Yet a nagging question persists, and that is — did the studio really lay off Stanton and the production precisely because he was being, as Stanton called it, a “good citizen” by sticking to the schedule and following the plan. Or did the “hands-off” policy reflect something else — a certain disengagement from the film, an indication that the film, as big as the budget was, simply wasn’t that firmly on the radar of Ross, who by that time had Marvel and with it, an entire stable of franchise worthy characters with built-in audiences, each easier to deal with and more likely to produce success than John Carter.
Or, was there an element of appeasement to Stanton and Pixar?
Stanton’s own comments shed some light on what Disney would have faced had the studio decided to tangle with him:
I was pretty hardball. To be honest nobody ever fought me, but it was the fan in me that gave me the guts. That, and I have a day job [as Head of Story at Pixar]. I just felt like if anybody had a chance of making this without it being fucked up by the studio, it might be me. They’re too afraid of me – they want me happy at Pixar. So I thought I should use this for good, and make the movie the way I always thought it should be made. If at any one of these points if they were going to push back, I would have pulled out. It’s the best way to buy a car – I don’t mind walking away. So it pretty much got me through to the end. I never saw a studio person on the set until the reshoots.
The Pixar Process Applied to Live Action Film-making?
There is no doubt whatsoever that Stanton came into John Carter with a strong commitment to what has been termed the “Pixar Process” of film-making, a process which emphasizes trial and error. “Make your mistakes early,” Stanton would repeatedly tell his team, echoing the Pixar philosophy that it is only through “getting it up there” and seeing its flaws, that the character and story will be revealed. Yet following such an approach at Pixar, where everything springs to life from the computers at Emeryville, is one thing — and doing so in a live action setting where massive resources must be mounted and where the daily “burn rate” of production cost is dozens if not 100’s of times more than the Pixar daily burn rate is, to say the least, a complicated prospect. It is because of this high “burn rate” for full-scale live action location production that under the traditional Hollywood live action system, the emphasis is on pre-production, with the shooting script becoming a complete blue-print for the film, followed by a production period that gets it all “in the can”, then an editing period where it all gets sorted out and the film is completed. Re-shoots are not typically built into original production plan — although Stanton would certainly not be the first director to do so and the mere fact that additional shooting days are scheduled for a film is not automatically reason to believe a film is in trouble–even a traditionally mounted one.
But while Stanton and company would repeatedly sing the praises of the Pixar process–would the film-making team in fact have the latitude to execute the film according to such a process? Objective reality would seem to say no — at least not in a very complete way. The production plan that Stanton and company agreed to called for 100 days of principal photography and only six days of reshoots — hardly comparable to the “reshoot it four times” system that applied at Pixar for Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Even with the reshoots expanded to 18 days, the production reality of John Carter it still falls far short of the kind of repeated “reshoots” that a Pixar film goes through. To even come close to the “Pixar process”, the plan would have to called for several extended reshoot periods as the film gradually revealed itself through successive renderings. Recognizing the impossibility of such an approach in live action film-making, Team Stanton never suggested anything of that sort, and Disney surely would never approved such a plan which would have driven the costs of production even more into the stratosphere.
And so the production was mounted with a general commitment to the philosophy of the Pixar process, but without the actual structure that such process required. It would be a hybrid production whose 100 day main shoot, 18 day reshoot arrangement was 90% “old school”, but whose spirit of collaboration and “building on errors” would be 90% Pixar.
How did the creative team respond to the approach? “Stanton was amazing to work for,” one top creative participant in John Carter said recently. “His interpersonal skills are among the best. He has a way of making you feel you’re on his level even if it’s unlikely that you really are. He encourages you to try things and constantly reassures you that no ideas are bad ideas, and that the process is an open, collaborative one–guided by Stanton’s overall vision to be sure, but really empowered by the rest of us.” Another put it this way: “It felt a little ‘scrambled’ at times, not as button downed as I’ve experienced with other director, but there was an underlying confidence that if there was a sense of things being slightly unfocused — that sense was on the surface, and underneath the surface there were processes at work that would yield something more profound than our usual way of working was likely to. So we bought into it.”
But as much as everyone “bought into it” — the fact remained, Stanton was relying on a process that was built on the notion of, in effect, four complete re-mountings of the story – four complete “reshoots” of the entire production …. when in reality, he was getting one shoot of 100 days, and a second one of 18 days, and that was it. Knowing the Pixar process, and Stanton’s commitment to it — and viewing the limitation of the 100/18 scenario, the question has to be asked: Did Stanton really have the opportunity to apply the “Pixar Process”, or was that an illusion, a dream that could not be achieved?
The Marketing Takes Shape — Who Was In Charge?
As the production continued, first through principal photography from January to July 2010 and moved into post production, the marketing plan for John Carter was being developed at Disney under the leadership of MT Carney, who joined Disney in April 2010 as the handpicked choice of new Studio chief Rich Ross. Carney, a Scottish born, New York based marketer with no experience in film marketing (her expertise was packaged goods), was brought in by Ross in the face of healthy skepticism both within the halls of Disney, and more broadly throughout the competitive but close-knit Hollywood theatrical motion picture marketing community.
Throughout the production period Rich Ross had little engagement with Stanton or the producers, leaving this to be handled on a long-distance basis by head of production Sean Bailey and production executive Brigham Taylor — as well as John Lasseter, the Pixar chief who concurrently ran Disney Animation and was a key player in Stanton’s “Brain Trust” of mostly Pixarians. One of the few times Stanton did meet with Rich Ross was in the spring of 2011 around the time of the reshoots. It was in this meeting that Ross abruptly asked, “So why hasn’t the name been changed yet?” as if it had already been decided that the title would be simply “John Carter”, rather than “John Carter of Mars” as it was still being referred to at the time. Stanton was taken aback. He had been the originator of the title change from “A Princess of Mars”, the title of Burroughs’ book, to “John Carter of Mars”, claiming that he felt that “Princess” in the title of a Disney made movie would drive the male audience away. But he had never contemplated dropping “of Mars”.
“Stanton wasn’t in love with the title change, but he accepted it,” said a production insider who was among the early group to hear from Stanton about the meeting with Ross. “From a creative point of view he felt that John Carter becomes “John Carter of Mars” through the course of the first movie, so the change worked for him on a creative level even though from a marketing perspective, he had his doubts.”
At the time there was panic about Mars Needs Moms. That wasn’t convincing to me to do anything. Then they did all this testing and found out that a huge bulk of people were saying no off the title. You can’t lie about that stuff, that’s the response you’re getting. I was like ‘Eh, that’s what the movie is.’ But I don’t want to hurt people from coming to the movie. Then I realized the movie is about that arc [of John Carter’s character], and I said, ‘I’ll change it if you let me change it at the end. And if you let me keep the JCM logo.’ Because it means something by the end of the movie, and if there are more movies I want that to be what you remember. It may seem like an odd thing, but I wanted it to be the reverse Harry Potter. With the latest Harry Potter they had Harry Potter and the Blah Blah Blah Blah, but you just see the HP. I wanted the JCM to mean something.
It is interesting to note that while the initiative came from the studio and was backed, according to Stanton, by market-testing — Stanton’s remarks also imply that had he wanted to , he could have dug in his heels and Disney would have kept “of Mars” in the title. This gets at the heart of what would eventually became a major question — indeed, perhaps the central riddle of the entire matter: “Who controlled the marketing?”
In the aftermath of the debacle, a narrative would emerge that suggested that Stanton was, if not directly in charge of the marketing, at least the main author of the disastrous marketing campaign. Yet virtually any studio executive in Hollywood would agree that the director, while he is an important figure in the overall marketing brain trust, is almost never regarded as the right person to be making major decisions about how to market a film. “It’s just two entirely different head spaces,” says one former studio head. “With every film there’s marketability, and playability. Marketability is the idea of the film as embodied in everything that comes out before the release: trailers, TV spots, billboards, publicity. Playability is the film itself — does it “play” well? The director is arguably in control of “playability”, at least up to the point where a studio has to exercise final cut authority. But the studio marketing department is in charge of marketing and the director, by virtue of his close association with the actual film as opposed to the idea of the film as embodied by the marketing, is almost by definition considered to have suspect judgment when it comes to marketability. He’s too close to the actual material, whereas the marketing department has enough objectivity, and historical and marketing data, to be able to make the tough choices that may or may not sit well with the director. Directors don’t run marketing campaigns. They’re too busy and they’re too close to the material.”
And indeed, it seems clear by all accounts that the initiative for the title change came from the studio, not from Stanton. But Stanton clearly felt — perhaps because, as he said, “they were afraid of me….they want me happy at Pixar” — that the studio needed his cooperation and indeed, if he had been willing to “walk” over the issue of the title, he may well have prevailed. But he didn’t; he accepted the point of view of the studio, and in particular the assertion by Ross that the need for a title change was backed up by testing data that showed “of Mars” was a liability.
But the title change was just the tip of the iceberg of the marketing discussions and strategizing that were taking place at Disney. Although the majority of the marketing spend of $100m would take place in the final 3 months prior to release, marketing efforts were well under way by the time principal photography began in January 2010, and strategic decisions about John Carter marketing were near the top of the agenda that faced MT Carney when she arrived in April 2010.
It ws at this point, the spring of 2010 with the film in the midst of principal photography, that the decision as to whether or not to give John Carter an all-out marketing push was made. Would John Carter, budgeted at an astronomical $250M, get the full force of Disney marketing, meaning cross promotions, merchandise, and licensing in addition to the usual theatrical elements of TV spots, trailers, Billboards, and the like? Or would it just get the basic package?
By the time principal photography wrapped in July 2010, the answer was becoming clear: John Carter would get the basic marketing package, no more. By all accounts this is a decision that Ross made, in consultation with Carney, and it reflected a number of factors. First, there was doubt that John Carter had “the right stuff” to succeed. It was, after all, a legacy of the Cook era; it was a literary adaptation of a 100 year old novel with only a small and aging fan base of mostly baby boomers who had read the re-issued paperbacks in the 1960’s; and the main reason for approving it in the first place had been to keep Andrew Stanton on the lot and home with Pixar rather than off making his live action debut with another studio, a la Brad Bird and Mission Impossible.
Second, there was the matter of marketing partner equities to be considered. There was not an unlimited pool of potential cross-promotion partners, and hot on the heels of John Carter was a much more promising property, Marvel’s The Avengers which had mega-blockbuster written all over it. Would making an all-out push for these kind of partnerships dilute the pool of partners for The Avengers?
And finally there was the “x-factor” of Stanton himself. True, the odds would be stacked against the $250m John Carter if it didn’t’ get the benefit of an all-out marketing push. But the whole project was, in a sense, an attempt to appease Stanton’s live action ambitions without losing him to another studio. Let it be on his shoulders, the thinking went. Stanton had shown that he has the ability to deliver a film that dazzles both audiences and critics. Both Finding Nemo and Wall-E had critic approval ratings north of 90%, and audience ratings int he same zone. Was there any doubt that if Stanton delivered these kind of results with John Carter, it would succeed? And if he didn’t deliver such results — well, it would be time for him to go home to Pixar and get back to doing what all of Disney really wanted him to do, which was to get back to making more Finding Nemo’s and Wall-E’s.
And so it was that, about the time that principal photography was ending in the summer of 2010, Disney’s marketing strategy was set: It would be a standard worldwide theatrical marketing push, without any creative cross-promotions or licensing, and with a heavy emphasis on letting the film sink or swim on the strength of Stanton’s own skills as a film-maker. If Stanton could pull a rabbit out of the hat and deliver a film that critics and audiences adored, it would succeed. If not – – if he just delivered an “average” film, there would be no mega-marketing push to save it.
It was all on Stanton to deliver an exceptional film.
The First Rough Cut is Viewed by the Brain Trust
By December 2010, Stanton had completed his first 170 minute assembly of the movie. As is often the case for VFX-heavy films, the first assembly, while instructive to the actual team immersed in editing the film, was difficult for “outside eyes” to view because of the many incomplete VFX shots — shots which in this case included many of the shots of the 3D animated Tharks whose characters were essential to the story.
But the time had come to share the film and get feedback — and so it was that Stanton showed the 170 minute rough cut at Pixar to his “Brain Trust” group — Lasseter, Brad Bird, other Pixarians, as well as Sean Bailey and Brigham Taylor (but no one else) from Disney. By multiple accounts, the reaction to the material was mixed. The middle section of the movie dragged; and Lynn Collins’ feisty portrayal as Martian princess Dejah Thoris was in need of significant recalibration. There were also concerns about the opening, with the movie beginning on Mars with an exposition heavy scene where Dejah Thoris, in her capacity as “Regent of Science” for Helium, presents a new “9th ray” device –in the process giving the audience a mind-numbing dose of Barsoomian politics and science that, the consensus view determined, was too much to lay on an audience in the opening minutes of the movie.
The studio execs, Bailey and Taylor, viewed the film and provided notes but there is no indication that they were in any way assertive, or were really major players int he evaluation process. It was the Pixar crowd who took the lead in providing Stanton the kind of “tough love” feedback that he sought from them.
Meanwhile, Bailey and Taylor went back to Disney and made their reports there, and those reports conveyed the idea that, based on this first viewing, Stanton had a reasonably entertaining film in the works but nothing that would generate a critical or audience response on the scale of Wall-E or Nemo. “They came back saying it was ‘just okay’ — not a turkey, not a clear winner. There was lots of heavy lifting to be done and the chance of a breakout success, always remote for this material, seemed less likely, rather than more likely, after the initial viewing,” said one Disney production executive who agreed to speak off the record.
Another Disney insider said: “Bailey absolutely expressed concern about what he had seen, to Ross directly among others. Not “the sky is falling” level of concern — but clear concern that the process being followed at Emeryville might work beautifully for animation, but might result in an egregious fumble in live action.”
If Ross expressed concern, his chosen channel to do so was through Lasseter and all indications are that Lasseter was solidly behind the project and Stanton, and believed that the process under way would yield not only an adequate film, but an excellent one. “Lasseter had Stanton’s back for sure,” an animation player at Disney recounts. “He had been a big part of getting Dick Cook to option the property for Stanton in the first place, and he clearly had faith in the creative process that was under way.”
And so in January 2011, a little more than a year before the film was to be released, Stanton went back to work prepping for the reshoots based on his own notes and those of the “Brain Trust” that had viewed the rough cut. It was clear that the six days that had been budgeted would not be enough — a minimum of 12 would be needed. Stanton never doubted that it would be approved, and in any event –whether this was, as Stanton maintained, covered by savings from principal photography or constituted a journey into the contingency, these were not “costly reshoots” — they were primarily a green screen exercise on the same stage in Playa Vista where Howard Hughes had overseen the production of the Spruce Goose. The main characters who would be needed were Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins who were on “run-of-the-show” contracts, so there was no incremental cost with their salaries; no costly locations shooting logistics to deal with; no major construction, etc.
But would the reshoots solve the puzzle that the film had become?
And would the film itself be strong enough to overcome gap between the A+ level budget of $250M and the B level marketing effort that was about to unfold?
The seeds of disaster had been thoroughly planted, but there were new twists in the equation that were about to be visited on the production and the studio — twists that would take an already unstable situation and make it worse.
Next Week: Part Three
- The re-shoots expand from 6 to 18 days
- The Nielsen Test Screening that gave false comfort to the film-makers
- Head-butting between Stanton and the marketing team over the first trailer, and whose vision finally prevailed
- Stanton and MT Carney; a match not made in heaven
- The main trailer and initial TV spots fail to generate favorable buzz; what could have been done to correct course, but didn’t happen
- The John Carter “Titanic” hits its iceberg
- Is there a path to a sequel, or is it “game over” for John Carter?