It was judgment day for the much-debated John Carter (review HERE) as Disney's $250-300 million sci-fi adventure finally was unleashed on paying audiences this weekend. And the judgment was mostly grim with a possible silver lining. With a terrible marketing campaign that didn't know what to sell, and mixed word of mouth and reviews that emphasized its convoluted story and mediocre action sequences, the film debuted with just $30.1 million. For a cheaper picture, this would be a fine debut, but for a massively expensive would-be franchise tentpole with little chance of maintaining legs, this is a pretty disastrous result. As I've written about from time to time (like HERE), Disney has been dead-set on creating a boy-friendly franchise while all but openly insulting the female-friendly films that have long been its bread-and-butter. In the last few years, we've seen Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Tron: Legacy, I Am Number Four, Real Steel, and now John Carter. Only I Am Number Four and Real Steel were remotely profitable, and only because they were both budgeted well-under $100 million. John Carter is the end-result, with a film that was sold as the ultimate generic boys action fantasy to such an extent that it was arguably insulting to boys. With no stars, source material that barely known outside the hardcore geek crowd, stunningly indecisive marketing that teased not a single 'money shot,' a budget more suited to the third entry in an established blockbuster franchise, and a release period that had yielded only a single $300 million+ grosser ever (Disney's Tim Burton-helmed/Johnny Depp-starring Alice In Wonderland two years ago), the stage was set for an epic domestic crash-and-burn.

Years from now, marketing schools will teach John Carter as an example of where the Disney team did everything wrong, at least in America. Andrew Stanton may be the talented director behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E, but he is a no-name to 99% of the paying movie-going audience, and Disney was unwilling to even acknowledge that John Carter was from the director of those animated classics. It's no secret among the geek set that the original novel, Princess of Mars, was among the first science-fiction adventure stories, and a template for pretty much every major fantasy story since 1912. But not once did Disney trumpet 'from the story that inspired 100 years of adventure' or 'from the story that inspired Star Wars and Avatar.' That may not be totally honest, but marketing is about getting butts into the theater on opening weekend. Having seen the film, I could theoretically argue that Disney did the best with what they had to work with (there are no 'money shots' in the film), but the campaign didn't even do the obvious things. There were no character posters for the various humanoid and alien creatures. There was no attempt to highlight what made the film stand apart from the various boy-friendly adventure films it vaguely represented. Disney attached the trailer to The Avengers but inexplicably released said trailer online eight days prior. Disney infamously changed the title from John Carter of Mars to the far-more generic John Carter because 'Mars' apparently didn't appeal to women. Hell, the film contains one of the most fleshed out and interesting female-leads in recent fantasy film history, but the marketing campaign sold Lynn Collins as damsel-in-distress boy-bait who throws a girl-power punch or two in the action. Despite the fact that Avatar (which is what Disney probably thought it was greenlighting in the beginning) and films like Pirates of the Caribbean had strong female appeal and had marketing that emphasized strong female characters and a fully-integrated romantic subplot. Disney expected girls and women to show up purely because Taylor Kitsch was bare-chested for most of the film. Disney basically had no idea how to sell it so it offered confusing and unengaging trailers and hoped that audiences would flock purely because it was arbitrarily anointed as 'the next big movie'.

Obviously opening weekend is about marketing, not about the quality of the movie. My personal thoughts aside, the film garnered a decent B+ from Cinemascore, rose about 25% on Saturday thanks to family audiences and ended the weekend with a solid 3x weekend multiplier. The film did an uncommonly large 64% of its business via its 3D screens, plus 16% from IMAX. The forthcoming domination of The Hunger Games in two weeks notwithstanding, all of this points to possible legs, which in turn would lead to a positive result if, again, the film didn't cost $250 million to produce. The arguable best comparison case is that it follows the worldwide path of Disney's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That $200 million (!!) video game adaptation opened with $30 million over its Fri-Sun weekend and eventually crawled to $90 million before somewhat redeeming itself overseas with a $335 million worldwide total. But as the headline implies, there was a sliver of hope for the big picture. Worldwide box office is somewhat unpredictable, other than to acknowledge that overseas audiences seem to enjoy 3D fantasy even more than we do these days. Due to strong business in Russia and some Asian markets, the film has already grossed $100.7 million worldwide, so there may be a hope of saving face via foreign grosses (it had mediocre results in Europe). But even if the film performs like the two biggest worldwide grossers never to hit $100 million stateside, 2007's The Golden Compass ($70 million in the US, $300 million overseas) or The Adventures of Tintin ($73 million here, $296 million overseas), the film is so bloody expensive that breaking even is still unlikely (it would have to do $700 million).

Point being, even with strong overseas numbers, there is just no precedent in worldwide box office for John Carter breaking even after this weekend. Yes, there are a handful of just-above $100 million domestic grossers (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Last Samurai, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, etc) crossing $400 million worldwide. But there is no precedent for a film not reaching $100 million, or even grossing around $100 million and gettting anywhere close to $500 million, let alone $600-$800 million. I don't mean to get personal about this, but the film is a shining example of what is wrong with tentpole film-making, and the financial result of this frankly stupid play will have real consequences for those who work for Disney even if it slightly saves face thanks to overseas numbers. The Mouse House vastly overspent on a highly uncommercial project without any reasonable safeguards (stars, famous director, popular source material, safe release date) and will now be *shocked* when American audiences don't act like lemmings and automatically flock to the designated predetermined blockbuster. After The Princess and the Frog 'disappointed' with $225 million worldwide on a $100 million budget (plus merchandising for the next 100 years), Disney famously sold Tangled as a boy-adventure film and announced that it wouldn't be making fairy tale cartoons even after Tangled grossed $600 million worldwide. After what may be an epic write-off for John Carter, would we presume that they will now announce that they will no longer produce uber-expensive boy-friendly fantasy adventures?

This article continues at Mendelson's Memos.
CATEGORIES Movies