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John Carter is Marred: Thoughts on Big-Budget Schadenfreude & Film Media Hypocrisy…

Everybody is talking about Disney’s John Carter. And not in a good way. It seems that everybody is talking about the project’s huge budget and poor marketing, with many news outlets taking an obscene amount of pleasure in declaring Andrew Stanton’s live action project dead on arrival. Some have even started making comparisons to Waterworld, another science-fiction epic with a huge budget that failed to find an audience. In the interest of honesty, I haven’t seen the film yet; I am cautiously optimistic, but I can’t help but worry about the film. Still, I can’t help but feel like this is an example of an hypocritical “damned if do, damned if you don’t” logic from film writers and journalists all over the web, who seem to be salivating at the prospect of a huge studio being humbled by a blockbuster that might mess up the landing. The irony being that these are probably the same people who frequently deride the “safe” and “obvious” choices for blockbuster films, bemoaning the fact that directors like Guillermo Del Toro aren’t given the budget to make the films they want to make.

Does anybody "get" Carter?

Does anybody "get" Carter?

I’ll concede that the marketing has been terrible. Even accepting that movies featuring Mars tend to be box-office poison (with Mars Need Moms scaring Disney off the “m-word” for a long time), it seems strange to drop the “of Mars” from the film’s title. It seems especially weird because the posters are still adorned “J.C.M”, which makes me wonder what the M stands for, if not “Mars”? Mystery, perhaps? Similarly, Disney are clearly pandering in dropping the “Princess of Mars” subtitle, afraid that a movie with the word “princess” in the title might scare off young boys. That is, after all, the reason that the studio opted for the title of Tangled for their recent Rapunzel film.So you can forgive audience members for having absolutely no idea what a movie with a generic title like “John Carter” is about. My first guess, if I weren’t a massive nerd, would be that it’s a prequel to Get Carter, given Hollywood’s preference for sequels, prequels and reboots.

More than that, though, it seems like a massive marketing mishap not to focus on the character’s roots. Cinema seems to be all about nostalgia these days, with The Artist and Hugo doing well at the Oscars, and various remakes and sequels doing well at the box-office. You’d imagine that a movie about the guy who inspired everything from Flash Gordon to Avatar would be an easy sell, but Disney seem afraid that “classic” will be associated with “uncool” and scare away younger viewers who aren’t really aware of the film to bein with. At the very least, you’d expect that “from the creator of Tarzan”would at least have some mileage, given Tarzan is easily one of the most iconic characters in pop culture.

Taking aim...

Still, I’m amazed at how quickly the media has turned on the film. While press screenings have taken place, and previews are being help, journalists and writers seem incredibly quick to turn on the film and to drill into readers and audience members just how big a failure this film is going to be. The obvious implication is that Disney never should have pumped so much money into the project, and that they never should have given director Andrew Stanton such a free hand. I get the sense, reading the articles, that many commentators are looking forward to the film failing – perhaps so they can make jokes about it for years to come, perhaps even humbling a huge studio. And, to be honest, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy at that position, adopted so readily and so easily.

After all, these same journalists will rush to condemn soulless remakes and sequels directed by individuals without any really skill or talent, produced on tiny budgets to earn huge rewards. They’ll make jokes about how Resident Evil has become an undead movie franchise, churning out empty sequel after empty sequel after empty sequel. They’ll take the mickey out of the success of Fast Five by running a mocking Oscar campaign. Don’t get me wrong – I do the same, I freely admit it. However, I find it more than a little bit hypocritical to mock Hollywood’s desire to “play it safe” while also digging the knife in every time a major studio takes a hugegamble.

Up the creek?

And, to be frank, John Carter is a huge gamble. It’s based on old source material unknown outside a core fanbase. It has no truly big names to anchor it. It has a director who has proven himself both commercially (Finding Nemo) and critically (Wall-E). It has a budget necessary for that director to realise his vision, without compromising. As I understand it, he has been given a large amount of freedom, and isn’t being forced to bow to studio demands over “dumbing down” the film or that sort of thing. All these attributes are precisely what many of these journalists will claim are missing from the production of empty blockbusters like Transformers, and are precisely the reason they’ve lost faith in the Hollywood production machine.

So, what happens when a major studio actually takes a chance, rather than spending money on a sequel to a tired franchise with no creative vision? We pounce on it. We mock it. We turn it into a joke as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not a box office prognosticator, but I am genuinely worried about the box-office returns on the film – but those numbers are so uncertain precisely because it’s not a safe bet, precisely because it’s an “out there” choice. I think that producing John Carter was a very brave move from an institution that we tend to mock for being staid and conservative, and I just find it odd that we are so quick to preemptively punish that sort of bold creativity and risk-taking, especially when we claim that’s exactly what we want.

Going ape for John Carter...

John Carter’s marketing might be a mess, but it would be a tough sell anyway – because it doesn’t tick a lot of the boxes we expect in a mainstream studio film. It just seems surreal to criticise it for failing to conform to a pattern that many of us are quick to despise.

6 Responses

  1. I had the same feelings as you when I learned that Disney dropped “Mars” from the title, leaving a bland, generic “John Carter,” which is essentially meaningless to the public. Even Rambo had to have one film to establish his character before his name was added to the title of the sequel. So now the marketing gurus need to work harder to establish the plot, tone, and entertainment value in 30 second TV spots. To be fair, the ads I’ve been seeing have said, “Before ‘Star Wars’…before ‘Avatar’…there was John Carter,” so they have been attempting to establish that this material is not a rip-off, but the source material for every SF blockbuster we’ve seen. However, the rest of the ads just seems like random SF silliness with a generic, bland lead.

    Playing it safe with known products or gambling on something new isn’t so much the issue as studios putting ungodly amounts of money into any movie. Do they really need to spend more than $200 million on “The Lone Ranger” (Disney again)? When that much money is spent on production (not even counting prints and advertising), then the film needs to make a ton at the box office in order to break even, let alone make a profit. Meanwhile, independents films are squeaking by on marginal budgets. Where are the mid-range budgeted films? Why can’t studios take that $200 million and make four $50 million movies that are good rather than gamble everything on a possibly huge blockbuster that has the chance of bombing big? When the media gets a taste of a potential flop of this magnitude, it doesn’t matter what the project is, or how honorable the production was, they just look at an enormous waste of cash and revel in the foolishness of the studio system.

    I hope “John Carter” does well, but I have a feeling most people will just shrug it off. It doesn’t help that it’s being released in the doldrums of March, a time that most people avoid the theaters. Of course, this could be their saving grace since there is no other competition out there, and maybe the theater-going audience is craving some good entertainment that’s sorely lacking.

    • I kinda agree with what you’re saying Jamie, but I don’t think the confirmed budget for John Carter ($250m) is that far off the confirmed budget for, for example, Transformers 2 ($200m). And it’s around the same mark as Tangled ($260m) or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ($250m).

      The difference is that most of those are tried-and-tested entries in a franchise series, and John Carter is an untested property. So there’s no denying it’s a borderline reckless financial risk. If I were a stockholder, yes, I’d be a little worried.

      However, as a movie-goer, I think it’s great that the studios are taking that risk on an original project like this. Stanton is a great director, and I have no doubt that he’d do a much better job with that budget than almost any other helmer. I’d rather that the money be spent on this than another Pirates of the Carribean sequel ($300m for World’s End), and I find something a bit strange in how quick everybody is to attack the movie, and to use its lack of brand recognition as a giant target. We spend so long complaining about safe moves by major studios, and longing for movies like Guillermo Del Toro’s At The Mountains of Madness, it just seems strange.

      And, to an extent, you’re right. It would be great to see middle-budget films too. Nolan produced Inception on only (!) $160m. But I still think that it’s hard to fault Disney for giving Andrew Stanton everything that he needs on this. (Of course, I haven’t seen the film, and reserve the right to change my mind in hindsight.)

      • Right, I agree with what you’re saying. My point is that ALL blockbuster budgets are out of control. They are inflated way over what is necessary, and many times it’s on projects that don’t deserve it (Transformers is a great example). The tried and true formulas guarantee (or seem to) a huge return, but it completely cuts out those “risky” projects (i.e. a new concept). If studios would bring their budgets down to a more reasonable range, then they can approve more untested films that may result in just a big of a profit.

      • Fair point. I do still think the attacks on John Carter were borderline malicious, and that more time was spent discussing the cost than the film. But you are correct, if money liek that were more evenly distributed it would be much better.

  2. Great article–agree with a lot of your points.

    I loved the film, but part of that might be that I’m familiar with the source novels and, in my personal view, the film really captured the heart and soul of the first novel, A PRINCESS OF MARS.

    That said….well, I was truly stunned by the critics choosing to go berserk on this film. It’s nothing new, though–WATERWORLD and STARSHIP TROOPERS were laid into, and Harlan Ellison has a terrific write-up in his book HARLAN ELLISON’S WATCHING about how DUNE (1984) received the same treatment. So did BLADE RUNNER.

    JOHN CARTER was a huge risk, but at the same time, I do not give a tinker’s damn about the budget of a film. Why should we? It’s not our concern; it’s the studios that need to carry that cross. Let’s be brutally honest here–when we go to a movie, do we honestly sit there and say, “Geez, this film cost over $100 million, so it’s going to suck anyway”?

    Plus, some of the reviews of JC betray an intellectual laziness on the part of the critics. They simply did not bother to really look into the film’s literary origins, and even in the cases where they did, they brushed off Burroughs’ work as nothing but pulp nonsense, with no mention of the influence those works have had over the past 100 years.

    • Dune is an interesting one, because I think it’s an ambitious failure – which makes it very hard to hate. But Starship Troopers and Blade Runner have been vindicated by history. I don’t think John Carter was that sort of level of greatness, that it will be vindicated by the next generation of movie fans, but I definitely see it developing a cult following when it comes to DVD and television, and people “discover” a film they knew nothing about in the cinema.

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