Regular readers of this column know by now that I like to follow the happenings of the movie box office.
The big box office story this month is all about Disney’s expensive science fiction movie, John Carter. Now, I’m sure a good many of you casual movie fans out there are scratching your heads and going “who the heck is John Carter? I’ve never heard of this character.”
Well, ahem, it seems that is kind of the problem. A lot of people didn’t really know who he was, or really cared, but that didn’t stop Disney from making this movie and seeing it go down the tubes in a big way at the box office. Actually, the character has been around for a long time.
By way of background, John Carter was an Edgar Rice Burroughs creation in a series of science fiction novels starting in 1912. Carter ended up transported to the planet Mars, called Barsoom in the novels, which is where this series is set. It seems this particular John Carter movie was based largely on one of those novels, called A Prisoner of Mars, from 1917.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, of course, is the same man who created Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, who went on to a long and storied existence in motion pictures and on television.
There was also interest from Hollywood in the John Carter character. To make a long story short, it ended up languishing in what is commonly called in Hollywood “development hell”, with one project after another either failing to get off the ground or running into problems.
Back in the Thirties, the famed animator Bob Clampett wanted to make an animated feature based on the character, but the test footage landed with a thud, so that didn’t get off the ground. There was also some interest in the Fifties, but again nothing happened for a long time.
In the Eighties, Walt Disney Pictures bought the rights to the character. But again, it languished there.
Paramount eventually acquired the rights to the character in 2005, and they looked keen on actually making the movie. Robert Rodriguez was supposed to direct it, but then he left the project. The whole project ended up going through a couple more directors before it was finally scrapped altogether.
Finally, in 2007, Disney acquired the rights yet again and Andrew Stanton signed on to direct it. The movie was shot in 2010 in locations in London and in Utah.
I think what Disney was looking for was another one of these blockbuster-type movies aimed at the fanboy audience, similar to what we had seen show up in movie theatres over the past number of years. We have seen all kinds of science fiction movies over the years that turned into successful franchises (the Star Wars and Star Trek movies being good examples.) We’ve also seen plenty of superhero franchises emerge featuring Batman, Spider-Man and the like.
It’s not just these top-tier characters who have struck box office gold. We’ve seen what happened a few years ago when a second-tier Marvel superhero called Iron Man was adapted to the big screen. That film ended up being a huge success and spawned a sequel.
I think the idea at Disney was to make a movie that might attract the superhero-and-sci-fi crowd, with the idea that they could build a franchise with sequel potential to it. So they went with this established Edgar Rice Burroughs creation called John Carter.
There were two problems, though. The first one was the fact that John Carter was too old and too obscure a character. This was a character from almost 100 years ago, for crying out loud. Now, maybe you can do a movie once in a while based on Sherlock Holmes, but lots of people heard of Sherlock Holmes. The people who’ve heard of John Carter – it’s a much smaller cult following.
So that was one problem. The second one was how expensive it was to make the movie.
Science fiction movies can be terribly expensive to make these days. To make a good, realistic sci-fi movie with good special effects, you must spend a ton of money on set design and CGI and all the rest of what you need for that sort of thing. Plus, they were going to release John Carter in 3D, and 3D also costs money.
Lots of other movies have had to spend like crazy on special effects. It cost an absolute fortune to make Avatar, for example --- something like half a billion dollars. Most ordinary people would think this is crazy. But James Cameron was able to get away with it, because he ended up making a good movie that connected with audiences which ran away with the box office.
The budget for John Carter is estimated to be something like $250 million. Add to that all the costs for promotion and distribution costs, and that’s a lot of ground you have to make up. You really need to have a big, blockbuster opening in order to break even or make money on a movie like this.
It didn’t happen. John Carter was released on the March 9 to 11 weekend. In its first weekend of wide release, its domestic box office was $30 million. That would be impressive if its budget was $25 million, but when it’s $250 million, it’s not good.
To make matters worse, it didn’t even win the box office title. It was beaten by The Lorax, and The Lorax had been in theatres for a full week already.
As of this writing John Carter is entering its third weekend in theatres and has made $55 million domestically and $126 million overseas. For the amount of money Disney had to spend, those are pretty dismal numbers. Disney said this week it expects to lose $200 million on John Carter once all is said and done.
Stories like this are the reason I like to follow the box office totals every week. The box office standings have the NHL races all beat.
When you win or lose on the ice in hockey, the consequences usually extend to coaches getting fired, people getting traded and fans get upset. But with box office totals, the stakes are much higher because the major studios are a big business. A hockey team like the Toronto Maple Leafs can do badly in the standings and yet still win in revenues.
No such luck in Hollywood. When a studio loses in the box office standings, they really lose.
Big-budget movies are risky business for studios and for studio executives, and they know it. If the gamble pays off, they could all get rich. If it doesn’t, it could sink your studio -- like what happened to United Artists when they allowed director Michael Cimino to run wild on the over-budget Heaven’s Gate, one of the most notorious flops of all time.
This is why the box office race is so nail-biting. The consequences can be big.
Now the recriminations are on at Disney, and you have to wonder if heads are going to roll in the executive ranks over there. Rumor is the studio team led by chairman Rich Ross might be let off the hook for this total debacle and will escape the knife.
Still, there’s no doubt in my mind they will definitely need to tread carefully from here on out. The next movies they release had better be hits, or else. As the famed screenwriter William Goldman once wrote, heads of studios are like baseball managers. They are hired to be fired.