“When I saw I you, I believed it was a sign, that something new can come into this world,” says Tars Tarkas, the giant green Thark, as voiced by soulful Willem Dafoe in the teaser trailer for John Carter. Sadly, when the feature film entered our world, or at least in our cinemas, its reputation had already been tarnished by a soaring budget, backstage turbulence, and muddled marketing. Not until the release of Michael D. Sellers’ winning book, John Carter and The Gods of Hollywood, have we truly appreciated all of what truly unfolded behind the scenes, of what John Carter could have been.
Before I dive into the book, let me share with you my experience with the film. I followed John Carter’s production process extensively years prior to its March 2012 opening, as I was just as excited as any other Andrew Stanton fan of this Academy Award-winner directing an adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Though I was not terribly familiar with the material, I felt enchanted by the riveting content. I was more than thrilled to be one of only thousands of individuals to see early scenes of John Carter at the Disney D23 Expo in August 2011. Some felt apathetic over the clips. Me, I was engaged every second. My fascination with this project led me to write many John Carter articles for Fused Film, the site I previously wrote for, and I have continued to throw in references to Carter in many of my Geeks of Doom pieces. I was on cloud nine when I saw that a book about this topic entered the market.
For those unaware of John Carter’s existence, or for those who never saw the movie, the obvious question may be, ‘why would I care to read 350 pages about the problems behind some Disney film?’ My retort is that John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood encapsulates everything readers enjoy in a compelling story. There’s the underdog, or in this case author/director Michael D. Sellers, who fights for a cause and exposes some major problems during his mission.
Sellers organizes his work into a logical sequence of events, always easy to follow and absorbing. I found “The First 95 Years,” the chapter that divulges author Burroughs’ personal, financial and cinematic challenges, as extremely interesting and essential in giving some context to the main theme of John Carter. After exploring this project’s long development process – it literally took decades for this story to come to life on the screen – Sellers investigates Carter’s filming, marketing and expected failure for much of the book.
He shares the negative buzz that circulated around this film, from reports of its ballooning $250 million budget to notes of its unfortunate marketing campaign, in a reasonable, carefully-researched manner. Hundreds of footnotes are spread across this title, helping validate an already-thoughtful treatment of a subject matter. The trailers, especially, are scrutinized in extreme detail, as these are considered one of the main reasons for the public’s lack of interest in supporting the picture. The initial teaser (posted below) offered much intrigue, yet not any clue into the story – though I happened to love the mystery. On the other hand, a later trailer showed more of the action – those arena-set White Ape beasts and all – but nothing of what brought John Carter to Mars and why. That brought even more confusion.
He also brings a personal component to this work, communicating his long history with Burroughs’ novels and wanting to see the film open strongly. Sellers’ releasing this book follows a year after launching TheJohnCarterFiles.com, a site dedicated to this work. The author’s intense exploration into what went wrong in its marketing and why – even hoping to fix it some degree – led him to directly talk with individuals at The Walt Disney Studios. His investment in this project can only be understood through reading each page, in seeing how as Sellers moves one step forward in potentially advancing the positivity surrounding John Carter, the marketing takes two steps back.
He makes a point of not necessarily pointing fingers at the key individuals mentioned throughout “Gods of Hollywood,” with the exception of a few notable instances, but more appropriately indicating how they may have collectively contributed to John Carter spectacularly failing in many respects. The most attention is paid to: director Andrew Stanton; former Walt Disney Studios chief Dick Cook; Rich Ross, Cook’s successor, who would end up passing the Disney Studios chief baton just weeks after John Carter’s opening; MT Carney, Walt Disney Studios’ former short-lived marketing chief, who stepped out of the role a few months before Carter’s release; and Disney CEO Bob Iger.
I share Sellers’ sentiments, as expressed so diligently, if not at times somewhat redundantly, in this entrancing experience. Disney, but more specifically Stanton and team, developed an exciting action/adventure film with epic romance, thrills and mystery. Regrettably, the vehicle in which they delivered this product to the public was fraught with many communication, marketing and research issues. The expectations were high, the production costs even more so, and the inconsistent visions of what John Carter represented could be accounted for its rather-weak $30 million domestic opening, and “only” earning a total of some $283 million worldwide. Need I mention much of Disney’s priorities were focused on marketing the well-executed campaign for Marvel’s The Avengers and not really John Carter? The huge disparity in the success, and lack thereof, between Avengers and Carter, also makes for great discussion.
As I mentioned, Sellers’ underdog-like spirit actually played a pivotal role in John Carter’s marketing, as the influence of his site and his fan-made trailer (seen below) sparked conversation at higher levels. Stanton himself thanked Sellers for creating this piece and encouraged him to make a second, which he adhered to promptly.
The passion of loyal fans, and even of critics who enjoyed the picture, proves John Carter resonated with many individuals. That is what Sellers captures so perfectly here, in that social media – or even one person – can significantly shape campaigns in this digital age. There is even a Back to Barsoom movement, which encourages fans to petition for a sequel. Many responsibilities have come with Sellers’ clout, yet his experiences and resolute belief in his cause headed him down this path in now writing an excellent exploration into John Carter the film.
I have no reservations in recommending John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. Even if you only remotely hold an interest in the film or the moviemaking method, do yourself a favor and purchase this book. I cannot remember an instance when I read 350 pages of anything in 24 hours, but my level of captivation in how methodically and interestingly the content was presented should substantiate why John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood is a must-read.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Return back to Disney In Depth next Thursday for even more Disney fun, and be sure to follow me on Twitter for Disney news and alerts of upcoming editions of the column. Have a good week!