Pity John Carter. The poor bastard never had a chance. Released several months before the summer movie deluge, Andrew Stanton’s highly anticipated adaptation of the classic 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars had the potential to kick start a new blockbuster sci-fi adventure franchise. Unfortunately a series of idiotic marketing decisions in the run-up to the film’s debut and mounds of negative press surrounding the troubled production and its massive $250 million budget effectively sabotaged any chance John Carter had of connecting with audiences and grossing enough at the box office to ensure future sequels and additional ancillary revenue. Though it was very flawed I found the movie to be one of the most entertaining of last year – you can read my review here – yet it seems I was in the minority on that front.
John Carter‘s failure to even make back its budget and marketing costs turned out to be a major strike against the Walt Disney Company; the studio was pilloried for befouling what has been long considered one of the most important (if not THE most important) genre properties in existence by hiring a director inexperienced with live action – Stanton had previously directed several major hits for the company’s computer animation division Pixar – and allowing the costs to mount to the point where the movie’s box office prospects were saddled with unrealistic expectations, and then worsening its already ineffectual reputation even more with a confusing ad campaign that had no idea how to sell the film to the general moviegoing public.
Their first major mistake was changing the title from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter reportedly since Disney’s 2011 CGI-animated feature Mars Needs Moms was a box office megaton bomb. With the removal of those two simple words “of Mars” the studio would now have to work even harder to get asses in seats come March 2012 when John Carter had its theatrical debut. If you saw any of their misleading trailers and TV spots and those godawful teaser posters you will likely wonder if anyone in the marketing department at Disney’s film division was even working at all.
“All of us need the idea of a world alternative to this one. From Plato’s Republic to Opar to Bond-land, at every level, the human imagination has tried to imagine something better for itself than the existing society. Man left Eden when we got up off all fours, endowing most of his descendants with nostalgia as well as chronic backache. In its naive way, the Tarzan legend returns us to that Eden where, free of clothes and the inhibitions of an oppressive society, a man can achieve his continuing need, which is, as William Faulkner put it in his high Confederate style, to prevail as well as endure…the individual’s desire to dominate his environment is not a desirable trait in a society which every day grows more and more confining. Since there are few legitimate releases for the average man, he must take to daydreaming. James Bond, Mike Hammer, and Tarzan are all dream-selves, and the aim of each is to establish personal primacy in a world which in reality diminishes the individual.” – Gore Vidal, “Tarzan Revisited,” Esquire, December 1967
In John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood author Michael D. Sellers, a former intelligence officer for the C.I.A. and devoted fan of Burroughs’ Civil War veteran-turned-galactic warrior of Barsoom whose essential fan website The John Carter Files became an very useful tool for Disney and Stanton during the worst months of the John Carter advertising push, lays bare in great detail the movie’s long and controversy-plagued production and its reception by critics and audiences in order to ascertain the reasons why a labor of love a century in the making could have been greeted by moviegoers with near-universal apathy and derision. John Carter was a movie that was given the green light by one head of production, overseen by another, unintentionally sabotaged by a marketing executive with virtually no track record who was clearly out of their element, and nurtured into existence by an animation great so beloved at Disney that the higher-ups were willing to overlook his inexperience with live-action filmmaking but who ended up being shouldered with most of the blame when the final film landed with a thud on opening weekend.
The rights to the John Carter stories were purchased by Disney at Stanton’s request and he approached working with live actors on actual sets as an experimental art form akin to Pixar’s in-house style of making, and often remaking more than once, their movies. Though the media desperately needed someone to roast in effigy in one tawdry, budget-obsessed article after another, Stanton’s career did not take much of a hit when the movie failed to meet the studio’s expectations. Yet with its failure went his dreams of making a trilogy of films based on the Carter stories. Goodbye Gods of Mars, hello Finding Nemo 2. John Carter was not going to be an easy sell especially as it was opening in the wake of the record-smashing success of James Cameron’s Avatar, which wears its John Carter of Mars influences brazenly on its bare, blue, space Smurf arm. Even still, the marketing department at Disney made very little effort to understand the history and impact of Burroughs’ creation, how without the adventures of John Carter on Barsoom characters like Flash Gordon, Superman, Luke Skywalker, and Jake Sully would never have existed. Simply put, John Carter was an abandoned movie long before a frame of film had even been shot.
Though he is approaching the story of John Carter‘s making and eventual unmaking as a lifelong fan of the character who only wanted to see Burroughs’ highly influential stories done justice as a motion picture, Sellers’ writing tends to be dry and analytical. The book makes for a breezy and informative read but anyone interested in the story might get bored quickly by the excessive amount of statistics and detailed breakdowns of how movie studios market their films in this day and age. One of the recurring themes throughout the book was the inability by Disney to actively utilize the thriving social media sites in the John Carter promotional campaign. Too often we read about how something as simple as creating effective trailers and posters to sell the movie can be so monumentally botched that all of American sits at their computer staring in slack-jawed horror at what Disney hath wrought this time. Once Sellers becomes involved in the marketing of John Carter in the second half of the book for the first time we get the sense that a real fan who knows deep in their hearts the film’s limitless potential will become an integral figure in the push to increase audience awareness of the movie, but it is tragically all for nought. Even though the movie was thoroughly enjoyed by nearly everyone who actually defied the negative buzz – as I did – and ventured to the theater to see and online petitions calling for a continuation of the franchise have sprung up since last March, the tone of the entire sordid story is that of massive failure. An alternate title for the book could be John Carter: Better Luck Next Time.
A sci-fi blockbuster movie series that could have run for years and years and generated endless revenue outside of the confines of the box office was treated like a prom night dumpster baby by a studio that has long prided itself on being a wonderland where the imagination can soar and anything is possible as long as your heart is in the right place. What a crock. Andrew Stanton and millions of fans of fantastic cinema and the rich, adventurous works of Edgar Rice Burroughs wished upon a star once, or a planet to be exact, a planet called Barsoom where action, spectacle, romance, and the thrills and fun that each day brings is part of living there. John Carter ends with its titular hero returning to Barsoom now that he calls the planet his home. Maybe some day we will all return to Barsoom and it will be just as if we had never left, but I sure hope to Issus that the Magic Kingdom is nowhere near it. They had their chance and they blew it.
Michael Sellers has written a great book that fans of the John Carter stories and movie will find endlessly fascinating and enjoyable. It paints a blunt honest assessment of a failure brought on by empirical arrogance and a lack of respect and understanding. If you are a John Carter fan you will definitely find something new to infuriate you on every page, but the story as a whole is a strong cautionary tale in the annals of Hollywood event moviemaking and should be essential reading.
Here is a fan-made trailer edited by Sellers using the released trailers and television ads that does a superior job of distilling the true essence of John Carter in a way audiences could embrace when compared to the shoddy efforts put forth by the Mouse House.