John Carter – 10th in the sequence of DVDs ordained for my 2017 viewing by my sons’ Christmas largesse – is one of the most expensive flops in cinema history; indeed, by some calculations, it is the single biggest financial mis-judgment by cinema executives in the history of the world.
The loss is justified: a great deal of money was spent making it; and the result is execrable.
How on earth did Disney – an outfit with a not-to-be-sneered-at track record of success in the entertainment industry – so comprehensively fuck up?
I imagine a meeting. It is sometime in 2008. Disney has been going through some corporate turbulence: its new CEO, Bob Iger, has been in post for less than three years and the company has been busy buying Pixar, doing deals with Steve Jobs and getting ready for a big corporate re-structure. The wrong people are in the room. The scale of investment in John Carter (it was the fourth-highest budget in movie history at that point) means that the money men are firmly in charge.
Instead of the guys [gender plural] who make movie decisions with their guts, the decision was about to be made by guys [gender specific] who make decisions with their spreadsheets.
The early lines of the sheet look good:
- list of classy actors (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston…) – check
- based on a fabulous story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the guy who wrote Tarzan – check
- director with a top-end track record (Andrew Stanton - Finding Nemo, WALL-E and co-writer of the Toy Story movies) – check
Yes, it’s looking good so far. But wait – what’s this?
“So our thinking is, having analysed the market, that we can position this film by drawing directly on previous successes.”
“We envisage splicing the following movies together.” Cue a PowerPoint slide (not reproduced here). “As you can see, we’re proposing to channel:
- Star Wars – big narrative space arc, flying things like pod racers, lots of stuff in deserts
- Avatar – tall funny coloured aliens, strife between the good guys and the bad guys
- Indiana Jones – swarthy hero who runs around a lot chasing things, mysterious icons etc
- Gladiator – big fight scenes in a stadium with a baying crowd, hero motivated by a dead wife and kid.”
“These movies grossed $11.2 billion, with an average of approximately $750 million.”
“Go make the movie.”
That’s my theory, anyway: the MBAs got their hands on the tiller, ran it as if it was a purely financial transaction and crashed comprehensively into the rocks. Lessons aplenty, methinks.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, John Carter is a silly and confusing film with lots of special effects. The end.