Last week, Disney’s John Carter was looking to be a surefire bomb. Today it’s something different, but sadly not by much. Early tracking seems to be confirming a growing suspicion that the film won’t be able to recoup much of its monumental budget back. According to LA Times, opening weekend gross estimates have been revised from $30 million to an even more troubling $25 million. Ouch.
What makes John Carter‘s peril all the more disconcerting is the fact that Josh and I, along with a lot of critics, think the film’s actually pretty good. The John Carter brand, though of a different time, is not without its fans. Disney wouldn’t have fronted a quarter of a billion dollars for this film if they didn’t have designs on a franchise at some point in time. But the closer we get to release, the louder the thud of apathy becomes. Here’s what’s playing against the first event film of 2012, and unfortunately it has nothing to do with quality:
The Dick Cook Regime No Longer Runs the Mouse House – Indeed, the former Walt Disney Pictures Chairman that greenlit John Carter is no longer with the company – having stepped down in 2009. So while new chairman Rich Ross and co. probably aren’t actively rooting for the film’s tanking, they can stand to take a loss and come out relatively unscathed. If tracking is wrong and the movie hits, great. But if it doesn’t, it’s just as easy to chalk it up as another failed picture from the regime that also gave us Prince of Persia.
If might also help to explain the following…
Disney’s Promotional Arm is Taking a Hard Sell and Making it Harder – Based on a series of early 20th century Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) novels, the Barsoom series is widely regarded as a cornerstone of sci-fi storytelling. This could have gone a long way in ingratiating the film with audiences, but Disney never pushed it. Instead, the trailers have pushed the film as a dry, sci-fi actioner – one that looks suspiciously like a feature adaptation of the arena scene in Attack of the Clones. And the fact that the film takes place on Mars has almost been completely hidden from mainstream audiences.
So much of it has to do with that atrocious title. Carter pulls mostly from Burrough’s “A Princess of Mars.” And while John Carter is absolutely the star of that and the driving force of the Barsoom series, his name alone tells you less than Jack or Shit about the film. And it’s not as if “John Carter” is a household name. Instead, Disney probably saw the tepid response to Mars Needs Moms and got the wrong idea: that it wasn’t the substandard quality of the picture, but the film’s location that tanked it. So Mars was removed from much of Disney’s sell, and so too was any hope of conveying this film to mainstream audiences in logical fashion.
So it would seem that Disney decided to back slowly out of the John Carter brand when they actually had the opportunity to create a greater sense of mystique around both the character and his world. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to invest in a character if you don’t have a general idea of what he’s fighting for or, especially, where in the hell he’s fighting. The Little Mermaid takes place under the sea – that’s a title doing its job. John Carter is a dude, not a great title.
No One Cares About Taylor Kitsch… Yet – Relax, Friday Night Lights fans. It might not always be this way. But right now most people have very little idea who the face on the poster is. If anything, John Carter serves to benefit another big budget film: that being Peter Berg’s Battleship. At least audiences will be familiar with Kitsch by the time Battleship comes out. It’s been a few days since X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out and while Kitsch’s Gambit was inoffensive, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
Films like Prince of Persia have gone a long way in proving that there’s no such thing as a bankable movie star anymore (MIB3 may still be another example). But John Carter isn’t Harry Potter or even Sherlock Holmes, a familiar face might’ve assuaged Disney’s soft sell to audiences.
It’s shitty that these factors have nothing to do with whether or not director Andrew Stanton’s film is actually any good. It is. But this seems to be a case of Disney never realizing what they had with John Carter. The film will find its audience eventually, it’s good enough to be appreciated over time. But the unfortunate truth is that a sequel feels like a longshot at this point. That’s an odd statement for a film that doesn’t come out for a few more days, but what I most took away from John Carter was how close the creative forces came to nailing it. Close enough to be worthy of a second go.
Don’t be surprised if Disney, when John Carter wins the weekend, announces a sequel right away. But they also announced a sequel to Tron: Legacy. Sometimes it’s easier to save face and hope we all forget. Maybe John Carter can be different.