Does John Carter’s Weak Opening Point to Bigger Problems?

Opening in the No. 2 spot with a relatively underwhelming weekend take, it seems as though the common wisdom on John Carter is going to be that it flopped and failed to connect with a mainstream audience. But part of me wonders whether that was the fault of John Carter, or something altogether bigger and more widespread?

While many people are pointing to the ad campaign as a reason why Carter stumbled out of the gate over the weekend– t here is a spectacular piece in New York Magazine about where the advertising may have gone wrong, and it’s an eye-opener if only for the assertion that the underwhelming ads came despite the Disney marketing department, and not because of them — the relative failure of the movie reminds me very strongly of Warner Bros’ Green Lantern last year, both in terms of the discrepancy between fan reviews and mainstream reviews, and the pressure of expectations internally at the studio against what seemed to be audience apathy both before, during and after release.

(Oddly enough, I’m also reminded of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which also had the review discrepancy as well as the apparent disinterest in the movie from the general public. The difference with that movie, I’m tempted to say, was that it was genuinely great, but a more salient point may be that it was also different enough from the blockbuster format the it’s possible that it really did just miss the mark for the majority of people out there.)

What the fates of both Carter and Lantern (and let’s throw in Cowboys vs. Aliens from last year, too) may be pointing to is the potential problem with successfully creating a “new” science fiction movie franchise in these increasingly-genre-flooded times. Taken in isolation, John Carter (and, to a lesser extent, Green Lantern or Cowboys) is a perfectly reasonable special-effects-laden action adventure movie; the set pieces are successful enough, the actors hit their marks and the story goes from point A to point B in a strong enough fashion. But we don’t see these things in isolation anymore, and so everything becomes immediately compared to everything else we’ve seen, something that really hurts Carter in particular, considering everything that’s been lifted from the original novel for previous (hit) movies.

We’ve seen too much, it seems. Or, perhaps that’s too ridiculous. How about this: We’ve seen the same thing too much. The reason that a Tron Legacy or, I’ll bet, Battleship fails to win big with audiences is that we already know what to expect, and they’re not offering us enough new to make it exciting. But it’s a fine line to walk, because too much new and you’ll turn audiences off by not giving them what they want (This is why Marvel has been smart: Thor, Captain America and Avengers manage to be both “original” non-sequel movies and the next chapter of the story audiences are already familiar with at once. It’s a win-win scenario).

So what is the solution? The obvious option would be “make better movies,” but as Scott Pilgrim showed, that isn’t a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination. Another answer, and possibly the way to go, would be to make cheaper movies. John Carter, apparently, needed to make twice its weekend box office in order to be deemed “a hit,” but that’s because it cost around $300 million. If it had been made for $150 million – which is not cheap, after all – then everything would be fine (or, at least, less disastrous for Disney’s PR machine). Why not scale back the size of these movies until the audiences start to feel more secure in going to see them? The alternative is that studios just decide that new doesn’t sell, and… Well, that’s an outcome I don’t think anyone wants to see.

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Comments

  • James West

    John Carter should have kept the tagline “of Mars”. It will be lucky to break $100 million domestically with that poor opening; however, it’ll probably gross upwards of $200-300 overseas! Plus, throw in $75 million in On-Demand, Redbox, Netflix, DVD/BluRay sales, and it easily breaks even! So Disney has no reason to sweat!
    Otherwise, everything else said in the article makes complete sense.

  • Justin Jordan

    “The reason that a Tron Legacy or, I’ll bet, Battleship fails to win big with audiences”

    Er, you mean the Tron Legacy that grossed 172 million domestic and 400 million including the worldwide gross and was the number 12 movie of 2010?

    Dude, research.

  • B Smithy

    I was blown away by how much fun I had at this film – I knew of John Carter but wouldn’t call myself a fan…the trailers sucked, not a Disney fan, but the thing that got me to this was the fact that a Pixar guy directed it, and at the last minute I saw reviews from sites I trusted that it was a great pulp sci-fi film. So I went with low expectations, and left wishing the film were longer! 
    If a bad ad campaign can get someone like me in despite my reservations against Disney and overdone CGI…and now have me as a big campaigner for the film…imagine what a decent campaign would have been.
    And yes, that includes adding “of Mars” to the promo title, I agree. Embrace it, man, embrace it!

  • kalorama

    Do we really new to see some new variation on this same commentary every time a big budget genre flick bombs? Some movies succeed. Some movies fail. Life goes on.

  • http://twitter.com/TalonJ Talon Jennings

    I don’t know what the deal with John Carter is yet, it’s too new for a reasonable verdict to really be passed. And Green Lantern? That’s obvious. It wasn’t a good movie, it got bad word of mouth, that’s that. 

    But let’s dial it back to Scott Pilgrim for a moment. Scott Pilgrim was a brilliant movie that suffered from word of mouth in an entirely different method than Green Lantern. That method being timing. After the first week or so, very few people take a moment to consider how the releases of other movies impact the box office results of their cohorts. Now, I don’t know what Paramount was thinking, but they showed a remarkable lack of faith in Scott Pilgrim by the way they timed its release. You see, that week both genders were shamelessly pandered to in the form of The Expendables and Eat, Pray, Love. Two ridiculous movies I wouldn’t even give the time of day to.  

    It wasn’t that people weren’t going to see movies that week, they were. Only problem being was that the weekend box office was dominated by mindless boardroom shills playing cinematic Mad Libs rather than a real auteur like Edgar Wright. Ask anyone outside of Scott Pilgrims’ core audience what move they saw that weekend and they will answer that they saw either Eat Pray Love or The Expendables. I would argue that if even one of those more aggressively marketed and focus tested banal efforts were released even a week later, one gender would have given Scott Pilgrim a chance on opening night and word of mouth would have done the rest. 

    The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was an adequate movie that’s only problem was that it had the misfortune to come out the same week as Inception. Scott Pilgrim is a brilliant movie that had the misfortune to come out the same week as two demographic hogging pieces of garbage.  

  • Mj_carver

    Perhaps the problem is that the source material is dated?  The comic book industry hasn’t been able to successfully profit from 1930′s pulp heroes.  Why on earth did someone think people would fall all over this pulp hero…when was the last one to succeed?

  • Devon Bishop

    There was no trailer or tv spot or anything that made me want to see this. As a big Pixar fan, the biggest draw for me would have been to see how Stanton did with live-action but other than that, there was nothing that interested me. I can only imagine that it probably interested the uninformed non-animation nerds out there even less.

  • Timothy Terry1

    Why do people keep pretending Scott Pilgrim was a good movie?

  • Anonymous

    Cracking up at saying Scot Pilgrim was genuinely great, as if it’s some objective fact and not still an opinion. The reality is this, geeks don’t have any spending power. They whine a lot on spinoff, they whine a lot on message boards everywhere, and then they don’t spend any money on the actual stuff, or at least there aren’t enough of them to matter. If it did matter CBR’s constant promotion of Scot Pilgrim would have turned into huge box office success.

    Like I said the other day, it’s not a conspiracy that all the stuff these people like gets cancelled. You aren’t an important market.

  • Anonymous

    Or maybe people hate Cera the way I do and don’t want to watch a movie where he’s the star. 

  • http://twitter.com/TalonJ Talon Jennings

    At the very least it’s objective fact that it’s genuinely great when compared to Eat Pray Love and The Expendables. While I do tend to take critical reception with a grain of salt, my general rule is that if the critical average (I check Rotten Tomatoes for this) is under fifty percent (as with Eat Pray Love and The Expendables) it’s not worth my time, and if it’s over eighty (Scott Pilgrim barely qualifies at an 81) it’s at the very least checking out. Beyond that, it’s up to my own training and critical eye to turn in a verdict. 

    Are there movies that are objectively good that I hate? Yes, Titanic being the penultimate example of that. Also, if G.I. Joe is any indication, there are terrible movies that I can’t stop loving despite myself. Scott Pilgrim just happens to not fall into that category. It’s a legitimately great movie.  

    While I loved the books, and thought the script was well handled for the running time constraints they had to deal with, the real star of the show was Edgar Wright. Outside of his skill with getting good performances out of his actors and showing a deft hand when dealing with soundtracks, Edgar Wright has proved time and time again that the moment you land him in the editing room, he’s some form of deity. The man has a love for “junk” genres like buddy cop flicks, zombie movies and their ilk- but for my money he is the greatest director to emerge on the scene in the last ten years. 

    CBR doesn’t have the clout to make a movie a success on its own as you might believe, and no, there’s not enough members of the core audience to support the movie all on their own. Neither do I believe that there was some form of intentional sabotage that killed Scott Pilgrim’s box office results. My argument is that the release date was poorly primed for mainstream market penetration. The movie had the goods to pull off a major coup given the proper opportunity, it was just a case of miserable timing.

  • http://twitter.com/TalonJ Talon Jennings

    That’s a really poor reason in full earnest. I’m glad I don’t share it because I hate Jane Lynch, and I would have hated to miss out on “Party Down” because of her. 

  • Alex

    IT’s too bad. I heard it was fun. Getting good reviews.

  • Mel

    Conan comic books are super popular

  • kalorama

    “At the very least it’s objective fact that it’s genuinely great when compared to Eat Pray Love and The Expendables.”

    No, it’s really not.No truly “great” film is great just because it’s better than some other lesser ones. Greatness is an inherent quality, not a comparative one.

    Also, your post would seem to indicate that you haven’t seen Eat, Pray, Love or the Expendables, which invalidates any qualitative  you make of them.

    (And I say this having seen none of the films mentioned, BTW.)

  • Dsgrouix

    Well the research thing could also apply to you. The budget for this movie was $170, and that does not include any of the advertising budget. The movie theatres receive a cut of that as well. They do not screen these movies for free, they get a cut from the ticket prices. That is just the movie production alone. Secondly the North American box office is the money maker for these tent pole movies and also an indication how a sequel would be received. With only $172 million earned domestically and a budget at that amount (again before advertising) it sadly is not a financial success. True it made over $400,000,000, but a movie with the legacy of Tron should have done better. I saw the movie and while it was gorgeous to watch, the story left a bit to be desired. Reviews aside, more goes into dissecting box office then just looking at the studio reported budget, but also what the production budget does not cover, box office for the theatre chains, and North American box office take. So for that reason, yes Tron Legacy was not a success for Disney. I think if it was we would have seen more spun off from that property. This year we will be getting a Tron animated series, but it is only ten episodes. With a company like Disney, had Tron been the hit they were hoping, there would have been allot more Tron in our life, Disney does not sit by and let a huge hit pass by without taking advantage of it. Placing 12th with an inflated budget does not a hit make. As much as I normally dislike Graeme I have to say I agree with his views on this subject.

  • http://twitter.com/MrRandyWatson1 Randy Watson

    And why does everyone tear down The Expendables just to build up Scott Pilgrim? They are both painfully unremarkable movies, just because the one with the meatheads trounced the indie hipster darling at the box office the nerds try to exact some sort of e-revenge on the one they associate with their childhood bully.

  • Statham

    I know, right? How dare people actually have different tastes and like something you don’t? God!

  • Guest

    The John Carter books are B-grade stories written ineptly.   You can make a good film out of anything – but not if you remain faithful to lame source material.

    There was tons of great sci-fi for young readers when Stanton was a kid.  Its too bad he didn’t have better taste.   

  • Jamie

    I guess you signed “guest” ’cause even you knew you were full of shit.  Burroughs was an excellent writer, and the Barsoom books are just as excellent.  You are a douchebag.

  • CogInTheWheel

    People just didnt want to watch “cardboard” Kitsch for 2 hours of cheesy lines and wire-work, the rest of the cast doesnt help either.

    Some movies arent worth watching in the theatre…

  • Coryjameson

    The problem is that the movie started too slowly. It failed to provide context, immediately. People didn’t know that they were getting and decided that it was a post-civil war Western that went horribly wrong in a bad way. The contrast between Western and Science Fiction was too much for their pathetic little minds to take – So, they rejected the movie outright.

    The failure of the movie is more a function that movie-going audiences are getting dumber in that NOBODY READS ANYTHING ANYMORE. The tradition of actually reading prose novels from several different genres and eras is dwindling. Therefore, all of the context that provides is being lost. 

    John Carter, also failed because MASS EFFECT 3 was released almost at the same time. A movie like John Carter really can’t compete with a video game like that. MASS EFFECT 3 is like an interactive 20 hour (including bathroom breaks) science fiction movie that does everything better than “John Carter” does. Not only does it have a really long EPIC story, it satisfies the primal urge to shoot and destroy things. MASS EFFECT 3 was the big Science Fiction event of early 2012. It was always going to be. 

  • Mj_carver

    I bought a Conan comic just a month ago–only because Wood and Cloonan are doing it.

  • Demoncat4

    the one reason john carter kind of did a green latern even after the marketing Disney tried with it is that most movie goers are really not familur with John carter of mars.  plus  disney really other then tron and other studios really do not know the key to a good sci fi  franchise yet .

  • ziza9

    Have to wholeheartedly agree with the Mass Effect assertions. My 40 year old, Barsoom series loving butt was glued to the couch all weekend re-finishing Mass Effect 2 and starting Mass Effect 3. With the wife watching and enjoying the story while I played. I want to see John Carter, but this past weekend was more about playing the better sci-fi release of the week.

  • Scavenger

     And to you, the research goes.  Theaters actually do screen the big blockbusters for free (or near enough), especially for the opening weeks. The longer a movie stays open, the % the theater gets will go up (often from 0 to whatever), but the initial box office money goes to the studio. (This is why concessions cost so much..that’s where the money is made).

  • Dsgrouix

    Yes that is true, but it is still a percentage, the theatres, still in the end, do not show them for free, that was my point. I was not talking about how the theatres make the money from the screenings but that is another thing to take into account when looking at a 400 million box office take, one cannot look at just the box office tally and the studio reported budget, there are so many other factors one should consider when heralding a film as a box office hit. The concession prices are way too high…but that is another rant lol.

  • Anonymous

    John Carter didn’t do well because it wasn’t that great of a film. It was just passable  

  • JCM

    So they made 300 million dollar just for me and I only had to pay $9.00. What a deal. I loved it.

  • Arsenal57

    Entertaining movie. These yehoo’s who review movies try and read soooo much more into a movie. It’s almost as though they are EXPECTING something the movie can’t or doesn’t deliver to THEM. They wouldn’t know entertaining if it bite them in the arse.

  • Mel

    “Get your ass to Mars.”

  • sandwich eater

    Even though I love the Barsoom books, I didn’t go see John Carter because I was busy finishing Mass Effect 3 last weekend.  I may go to it this weekend, though.

  • http://twitter.com/TalonJ Talon Jennings

    Well, the quote is a little out of context from the greater argument of why the movie is great, (My main point being that Scott Pilgrim is actually inherently great, but if you aren’t willing to admit that then I’ll settle for comparative) but this is the internet and out of context quotes are status quo, so I’ll give you that one.

    And just for my own edification, I took you up on your unspoken challenge this week and tried to watch the two movies I mentioned with my own two eyes, keeping an open mind about them. I wound up falling asleep during Eat Pray Love, (Although it did put me in the mood to watch Hitch when I woke up) and I just flat couldn’t stomach Expendables. Ten minutes in I swapped it out for the much better shot and equally silly Shoot ‘Em Up. One of the main advantages of Shoot ‘Em Up is it manages to put some effort into the actual quality of the film while not taking itself too seriously. The Expendables took “not taking itself too seriously” to mean the same thing as “phoning it in.”

    No thanks. Although two good movies and two bad ones actually made for a pretty decent evening altogether.