To kick off “Box Office Failure FMarch” I thought I’d do a movie that bombed horribly that I actually saw in theaters with my family.
See, we were going to the cinema over vacation and when we got there, it turned out that the movie we were there to see was sold out. In apology, they offered us a deal to see another movie in their fanciest theater for some dollars off per ticket. We took them up on the offer and, only to found the theater entirely empty, other than us.
No one else walked in throughout the whole film. This movie was “John Carter.”
In case you don’t know, “John Carter” has become synonymous with “box office bomb.”
This movie was high-profile with an extremely high budget. The plan to turn it into a trilogy ended almost immediately after the release of the movie because it caused Disney a $200 million loss – no exaggeration. It cost more to make this move than it did to make “Avatar,” the current highest-grossing movie of all time.
“John Carter” was originally a book series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of Tarzan) starting in 1912, with a total of 11 books until the series’ conclusion in 1943. In the 100 years between the release of the original and the movie, many studios have been trying to adapt it to film.
In 1931, “Looney Tunes” director Bob Clampett wanted to make an animated movie, but it tested badly with audiences and was shut down, though you can still find the original test footage on the Internet if you’re interested.
After that, in the 1980’s, Disney bought the rights in hopes of making something to compete with “Star Wars,” but found that visual effects were not advanced enough to do it justice. Apparently, they were planning to have Tom Cruise star in the film, which would have been interesting to see.
In 2004, Paramount bought the rights but had troubles after they lost their director and writer, instead selling the rights to focus on the new “Star Trek” film franchise.
Finally, Disney once again bought the rights and began working on creating the final film. This wasn’t without hiccups though, as there had to be several rewrites just to have the execs give the okay to begin filming.
What followed was three years of filming and extreme digital work that acted as a giant hole in Disney’s pocket. The director denied being over-budget, and actually shot most of the movie twice – far above the average for re-shoots.
Now, the movie wasn’t that bad during production, just incredibly expensive. The outcome of all this work was a movie best described as not great, but certainly not bad.
What was bad was the marketing.
When you have a big-budget blockbuster like this, you’d think that marketing would be your highest priority. You have to get people in the theater no matter the quality of the movie, just to at least make up for the losses from movie production.
The problem is that the marketing team wasn’t allowed to do the marketing, but the director was.
What marketing there was didn’t tell you anything about the movie, and tested poorly with every single audience they used, yet they still released this ad campaign to the world.
Every single part of the marketing was a critical failure, from the billboard to the poster to the commercials to even the Superbowl ad.
They even changed the name of the movie to just “John Carter” after finding that audiences hated movies involving Mars (it was originally titled “Mars Needs Moms”), but that completely misled people about the subject of the movie.
See, the movie follows a military captain who gets transported to Mars and joins a huge war effort. It’s not a bad movie by far, but it certainly isn’t something I would try to make for a modern audience.
Now, after seeing the movie, I was interested in more, so I read some of the books – and boy, did they change a lot. Some changes made sense, like altering the female lead into a warrior princess to be less sexist, or Carter being a widower to give him a more relatable story.
But some make no sense, like how everything takes place in such a short amount of time.
Here’s an example: In the book, Carter spends months living with the green men of Mars slowly learning about the Martian language and culture. He actually has to learn and grow as an individual, with I think is cool. He has consequences for his actions, and he makes mistakes.
In the movie, on the other hand, he just gets given some weird water called the “Voice of Barsoom” (the Martian word for Mars) that immediately lets him understand the language, except for certain words which do not translate from Martian English.
Overall this movie is a 7 out of 10. I like how it looks and the overall story, but the characters are a little bland and there are so many little details that make no sense to me that I can’t ignore them.
I would recommend watching this movie, but only if you like schlocky sci-fi.
This was originally written for The University of Tennessee’s Daily Beacon and edited by Margot McClellan.