In my life I often come late to things. I struggled in my early years in school. I was forty before I became a father. And sometimes some great controversy rages in the blogosphere for months or years, with battle-lines drawn and rhetorical blood shed, unnoticed by yours truly, until one day I stumble over it, as if it were a footstool left out of place in a darkened room.
So it is with the movie John Carter. My last post reviewed the movie, and expressed my pleasant surprise at finding a good (not perfect, but good) movie that deserved a better fate, in my opinion, than it got at the box-office.
In my scramble to catch up with the rest of Barsoomian fandom and understand what happened to this movie, it was recommended to me that I read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood by Michael Sellers. The book details the corporate missteps and follies that led to John Carter under-performing at the box office. What it outlines is a lethal “perfect storm” of factors in which no one intended for the movie to fail to make money, but which still combined to produce a flop.
Essentially, John Carter, despite being based on a proven sci-fi property, and directed by an Academy Award winner, became an orphan project at Disney because of the departure of Dick Cook as head of Disney Studios in 2009, while the movie was in pre-production. More musical chairs around that time among Disney management types not only meant the advent of a new studio head with no commitment to the movie, but also a new head of marketing, a person with no experience in movie marketing. According to Sellers, John Carter was perceived as a film that did not fit into the Disney “brands” (Disney– princess films aimed at girls/Pixar– animation/Marvel– superhero films). As such, it was given a minimal marketing commitment and basically left to twist in the wind. Sellers outlines the failure of the film’s marketing efforts in painful detail. Only days after its opening the head of Disney was publicly talking about the significant loss the company would incur from the film, which only cemented the public perception that it was a poor movie, and killed any chance that word-of-mouth might have led to an improved domestic box-office– a move, as Sellers is at some pains to point out, almost unprecedented in the film industry. Sellers suggests that this was all colored by Disney’s impending acquisition of LucasFilms, which promised to give the company a ready-made “brand” appealing to young males (the supposed audience for John Carter).
Sellers’ book is recommended, although, on the whole, it makes for nauseating reading. Hollywood has always been a place where dreams meet harsh, jagged reality, and usually get shredded in the process, but in this case the collision is nearly incomprehensible. How do you spend $250 million on a film and then decide it’s not worth a decent marketing effort? Are the corporate heads of Disney so far above it all that the failure of an expensive movie is just one pawn in an elaborate corporate chess-game, and not a particularly critical pawn, at that? Sellers suggests this, pointing out that the Disney Studio is only one small cog in a huge entertainment/travel/leisure conglomerate. Even so, that sort of disconnect is disturbing, especially because it has a profound impact on the careers of the people involved.
This story makes me tired, and sad, and rather relieved to be a little self-published author who has to own his own failures and successes. There may be lessons in this tale I can apply to my own work. But that is a topic for another blog-post, sometime down the line.
Meanwhile, there is hope for a new John Carter of Mars movie, whether a reboot or a sequel. Whichever it is, I will be quite ready to return to Barsoom.