'John Carter' Rattles Disney

By Robert Marich
   March 12, 2012-Now that Disney’s megabudget John Carter premiered with a disappointing $30 million in opening three-day box office, here’s a concise look at the debacle. The sci-fi flop—whose budget reportedly is around $250 million--will likely trigger a write down of tens of millions or possibly over $100 million on Disney corporate earnings, because with marketing Disney has $350 million in the film, by most estimates.
   Here is the GOOD news (yes, there is some!):
  • John Carter is performing well in cinemas overseas, so the size of the financial writeoff is in question because of mediocre performance in the U.S./Canada. It’s rare for a film’s overseas performance to completely salvage a domestic miss (despite erroneous claims by some that foreign regularly bails out domestic).
  • The film itself okay (I’ve seen it), though not great (reviews are “mixed”). It’s got a lot of engaging visual special effects—eye candy--so it should have a decent life certainly on TV, where all movies end up.
   Here is the long list of BAD points:
  • The early ad campaign projected a sparse, arty look washed in the color red that implied this is a serious sci-fi film. But it’s just ordinary PG-13-rated teen fare because there’s nothing intellectually deep. Disney should have presented the film's weird Martian creatures from the beginning (a straightforward "sell" in marketing), and drop the mystery of the red washout (was red chosen because Mars is “the red planet”? if so, moviegoers probably didn’t get that association, especially when the film was first introduced).
  • A New York Times story by Brooks Barnes says filmmaker Andrew Stanton—whose clout at Disney comes from his sterling Pixar animated movies—pushed through some marketing decisions that fell flat. The article asserts that Stanton insisted that “a Led Zeppelin song be used in a trailer, rejecting concerns that a decades-old rock tune did not make the material feel current.”
  • Disney didn’t follow a previous corporate policy that it would only make family movies if they offer synergy (like making films using the names of theme park rides a la Pirates of the Caribbean). Synergy is also supposed to make it cheaper to market films.
  • Even if John Carter was a hit, there isn’t much in the way of cute characters (except a dog-like creature with six legs) for licensed merchandise to kids--who are the big target for such product.
  • The John Carter title is blah, with one critic saying it sounded like a designer fashion label at a discount store. Disney decided to cut “of Mars” from the title, in part because the planet’s name was in its Mars Needs Moms movie that bombed. Quite frankly, moviegoers wouldn’t have made the association so the abbreviated John Carter title that didn’t position the movie well is a liability.
  • There are no stars, despite its megabudget. Paring money on special effects to pay instead for an $8-15 million “name” actor would have been money well spent. A familiar actor would be a hook for a film that lacks marketable elements.
  • The key words from the Martian language in the movie are really uninspiring—not like the catchy Star Wars lingo that is distinctive with alternatively guttural and chirpy sounds. So the story’s ecosystem isn’t particularly engaging in an easy-to-access pop culture way. The movie’s Barsoom and Helium didn’t grab me, though they are true to the foundation story from Edgar Rice Borroughs.
  • Of the six major studios, Disney reduced its live-action release schedule the most in response to recession and the decline in the physical DVD market. The studio’s sparse release slate doesn’t offer a lot of chances to hit a home run down the road. Disney does have a co-financing deal for DreamWorks live-action films funded by India's Reliance conglomerate, but it's in-house funded films--from which it garners full economic benefits--is about a dozen films a year versus 18-22 at rivals.
  • This is a case study of what happens when a film gets an early bad buzz. Rival industry executives began whispering bombs away, the first wave of pre-release audience research showed John Carter could be a flop (after which Disney stepped up the marketing push that lifted opening box office by 33%) and bellweather sci-fi fans yawned when presented marketing materials. 
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