Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mars Needs Money

I finally got round to seeing John Carter -- I'll post my thoughts on it in the near-ish future -- but whether one thinks it's fair that it'll likely be remembered along with last summer's Conan the Barbarian as yet another failed attempt to bring a classic pulp fantasy character to the screen is now academic. According to news stories, Disney is claiming that it'll lose $80-120 million dollars on the movie, making it (in the words of the linked article) "one of the biggest flops in cinema history." That all but guarantees we won't see another Barsoom movie anytime soon.

Again, leaving aside my (very mixed) feelings about the movie, I have to wonder: why the heck did John Carter cost so much? I mean, I've seen estimates that claim the film cost upwards of $250 million to make and up to another $100 million to market. Unless they were actually shooting on location on Mars, that's just insane. The mind boggles.

46 comments:

  1. I liked it a lot, even if it had a few weak points. That's my judgment "as a movie". I don't compare movies to the books they're based on.

    But two things amazed me-
    1. The incredibly inconsistent reviews. Some people hated it way more than I thought fair.

    2. The awful previews. Really, I'm a pretty good judge of how much I will like a movie based on its previews, but not this time. I went to see this move DESPITE the preview, which was awful. I'm quite sure the previews drove off tens of millions in business. It's like the guy who made it didn't know what was good about the movie, or how to sell that.

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  2. Movie studios use an odd accounting system to figure their net profit on a movie. I read an article about it some time ago on Boing Boing. Based on their number crunching, most of the Harry Potter films lost money.

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  3. CG seems to be very expensive. Toy Story 3 cost $200 mil.
    Maybe they should have gone with muppets ala 'The Dark Crystal'. THAT is something I would have stood in line for.

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  4. what Joe said. Every movie makes or loses exactly as much money as the studio decides. If it loses immense amounts of money, a lot of people don't get paid royalties.

    Often most of this "lost money" was lost by being paid to subsidiary companies *which the studio owns* so that the studio is still making a large profit through its subsidiary companies, while "losing" money itself.

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  5. The movie has been out for just over two weeks, for the love of Pete! How the heck are they coming to this flop conclusion already?! Granted, I'm not a movie mogul, but still...really?

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    1. Because a movie's best returns are usually in the first few weeks, after which it drops off. A hit drops later, a mediocre performer sooner. If a movie starts weak and then still drops, there's little hope of a recovery -- experience says it will be a flop. (That said, I'd read somewhere that John Carter is doing very well in the international market.)

      I'll reserve comment on the movie, itself, since I haven't seen it, yet.

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    2. Yeah. If a movie doesn't do quite well on opening weekend, it loses screens the following weekend. Unless strong word-of-mouth picks the numbers up in week #2, it loses way more screens and then there's no hope of getting back on track.

      One thing I've not seen mentioned in all this is that home video is much larger percentage of a film's final numbers than ever before. Maybe it can make up the difference with a good Blu-Ray. I didn't go to the theater but I will probably buy the Blu-Ray.

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    3. Because there is probably an escape clause that if the first movie bombs at the box office then Disney does not have to proceed with the next two contracted sequels.

      The development of any film (or TV series) is very political. There are always other people who will want to use the money that would have gone into that film or TV series for their own pet projects. No doubt if it had been broadly well-received it would have made a profit; as it was, Disney probably was unloading all the costs it can into the accounting for the film in order to sink it.

      Though I too find it curious that it is getting such mixed reviews. The one clue is that most of the people who were familiar with the milieu enjoyed it, whilst those who weren't, didn't.

      Although releasing it in post-production 3D was a serious mistake.

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    4. The reason week #1 is so important is because the money that the theater rakes in through tickets sales funnel to the production company, the percentage changes per film, but can go as high as 90%. This percentage goes down every week. So if the films doesn't do great that first week the production company loses most of it's profit.

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  6. From what I've read, Disney has said that the loss is closer to 200 million. Either way, that is one atomic bomb of a movie.

    Interestingly, this kind of loss would have crippled or outright killed some movie studios, which gives you an idea of just how massive Disney is.

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  7. A bunch of things baffle me about John Carter.

    1. That people somehow rant that the movie is derivative of various things decades its junior. We all have Google at our fingertips these days; you have no excuse.

    2. That it took a hundred years for a John Carter movie to be made. They made a movie out of MARMADUKE before this. I mean, really.

    3. That it's somehow bombing at the box office - how? I saw the trailers, the posters, I walked into the theater, and got exactly what it said on the tin - big CG monsters, girl in skimpy armor, explosions, swashbuckling. From what I understand about the American movie audience, they love ALL of that shit. So why aren't they biting?

    Anyway, all of that said, I really did love John Carter. There wasn't anything in the movie I didn't enjoy. That's coming from a guy who typically hates full-CG creatures, too. I would have enjoyed a bit more exploration on the Therns, but maybe they were saving that for the sequel? Which looks like it probably won't happen.

    I should note I haven't read any of the Barsoom books, but after watching the movie I'm planning on it.

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    1. Same for me, I ordered the collection containing the first five Barsoom stories right after watching the movie.

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    2. 1. That people somehow rant that the movie is derivative of various things decades its junior. We all have Google at our fingertips these days; you have no excuse.

      The fact that the source material is quite old means nothing to the film's target audience (children). And they're certainly allowed to note that the movie's cinematic aesthetics (vs the ol' timey story, frame, etc.) are very much modern, and very very familiar.

      So the kids in the audience do indeed have an excuse. Paid film critics absolutely do not -- but you have no excuse for thinking they'd be otherwise, ever, for any reason, for any amount of money, with any amount of time to prepare. 'Movie critic' is not a term of honour.

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    3. The movie industry has changed a lot in recent years and its quite possible that the current audience isn't teenagers.

      Money might be an issue too, US poverty is sky high and a lot of people I know couldn't afford this 1st run.

      Plus there are lots of other cheaper choices, Games and the Internet are also just about as much fun, plus there is always Net Flix

      Heck I rarely see any movies these days and in fact my total list for the year is The Hobbit, that all ...

      I have better things to do with my money than waste it at a movie theater filled with screaming kids and cellphones and filthy floors when the $20 a head its costs (with snacks) will buy a lot of better stuff

      Lastly demographically there are a lot more Asian, Black and Hispanic teens who might not be interested in this kind of story. Hollywood is not as universal as people think.

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  8. It is the 100 million spent on what must be one of the most ineffective, misleading and off-putting marketing campaigns ever produced that really hurts.

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    1. My understanding is that $100 million to 'market' a tentpole film is 'reasonable' in today's Hollywood. Here's the view from a decade ago:

      Global same-day release patterns, introduced to combat piracy, are inflating the print and advertising costs hugely. In 2003, studios spent an average of $39m [£21m] on p&a in the US alone, an increase of 28% over the year before [...] P&a costs are eased by a liberal dose of product placement. Samsung pumped a staggering $100m [£54m] into promoting The Matrix Reloaded, and Ford threw $35m [£19m] behind the wheel of Die Another Day. Studios assure audiences that placement is only considered if it is "an organic fit".

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  9. I'm with Brock, above, on all points. I thought it was a LOT of fun (more than I expected), and quite beautiful and touching in some ways, but it suffered from:

    1. A host of small artistic problems (bland dialogue, weird structural choices, etc),

    2. An awkward marketing campaign, and

    3. Strangely unfair reviews.

    Some of these problems were interrelated, and some of them may have been inevitable given the source material: it's hard to make and market a film based on books that inspired so much pop culture without audiences seeing it as a lazy pastiche of that same pop culture. It's also hard to maintain any fidelity to ERB's novels without the structure and dialogue coming off as contrived and a bit inane. So I can't really blame audiences for seeing the film as just a pastiche of Star Wars / Indiana Jones / Cowboys and Aliens / etc, but with kind of weird pacing, a bunch of strange framing narratives, and cliched dialogue. It would have been a much better film if the director had taken more liberties with the text.

    One criticism I was exposed to early on was the decision to change the title of the film from "A Princess of Mars" to "John Carter of Mars" to just "John Carter". The public rationale for this was that men wouldn't see a movie with "Princess" in the title and women wouldn't see a movie with "Mars" in the title. "John Carter" was obviously a terrible compromise from a marketing standpoint (although "John Carter: A Princess of Mars" would have been worse, albeit hilarious). But when I saw the film, and they flashed that "JCM" logo at the end, I thought it was actually sort of a brilliant way to use the title of the film to draw the audience into the narrative of Carter's psychological transformation which is the thematic heart of the movie. Still, very bad marketing. Very bad.

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  10. Filmmaking on any but the most DIY scale is insanely expensive. I've worked on TV spots that cost upwards of 250K for an eight hour shoot with a single FX shot.

    When you see the credits of a film and see just how many people worked on it it begins to make something approaching sense. Union rates aren't cheap. You can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on craft services alone.

    Now, there are plenty of great films made on a shoestring budget, but companies like Disney don't make those kinds of films.

    But yes, the marketing campaign (some might think of it as an anti-marketing campaign) was a colossal failure. I still don't understand how they screwed that one up.

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    1. I remember the director of Equilibrium complaining that he had to be so careful in shooting, because such a miniscule budget to work with. He in fact had to shoot some of the title sequences using himself as the actor.

      The budget: US$30 million.

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  11. It should be noted that the film had been in development under a number of directors and screenwriters before the final product. The current version of John Carter didn't cost $250 million. The aggregate of costs from "this attempt" to make John Carter did. That means the Favreau years and the Rodriguez years are all a part of the budget. The studio looks as all of these as one project.

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    1. The Favereau and Rodriguez production were at Paramount not Disney and would not be included in the $200 million.

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  12. It looks like John Carter has made about 70% of its take so far outside the U.S.

    http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=johncarterofmars.htm

    Also, for fun check out this past weekend domestically for comparison to other movies.

    http://boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/?view=main&yr=2012&wknd=11&p=.htm

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  13. Odd, I seem to recall when CGI/3D technology finally got into the 21st century that these movies were supposed to be 'easier' to make, but its seems they only get more and more complicated and expensive. I agree with the above poster, the Dark Crystal would be a value by today's standards. John Carter should've been made on a tighter budget, they had to know this wasn't the 2nd coming of Avatar.

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    1. It was made on a tighter budget - by The Asylum.

      Sadly, their version almost certainly made a profit.

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  14. That 100 mil in advertising certainly wasnt spent over in Australia! Hardly any advertising at all. Having said that I saw it Saturday night and the cinema was pretty full. Not packed, but pretty full.
    I liked it alot. Havent read the books yet so cant compare but I agree with previous posters that it was alot of fun.
    We had no choice but to see it in 3D and I think that was a waste. It really didnt add anything to the film.

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  15. Wait, "John Carter" isn't a sequel to "Coach Carter"?

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    1. Actually it's a prequel to Get Carter

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  16. Related to the half-assed marketing is that there have been virtually no merchandising tie-ins. No fast food deals, no toy deals, no video games, no product placements in which the red men check their e-mail on the latest and greatest cell phone. I think there was a novelization and a soundtrack, but that's it. The barest minimum. Disney wasn't even trying to sell this thing.

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    1. I agree. Where are the toys? Where are the RPG tie-in products or CCG games? Disney was really slow to market PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and seems even slower to market John Carter. I think there is a small number of fans who are familiar with the books and a bunch of potential fans who would love them if they were properly exposed to them. Disney seems to have hoped for a word-of-mouth campaign. I know lots of people who I think would love this movie who weren't impressed by the trailers and are just waiting for the DVD.

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    1. For what it's worth, I've heard the same thing. Though apparently part of the problem is that Stanton (the director) had a heavier hand in marketing than usual, and did not grasp that John Carter was no longer a household name alongside Superman or James Bond.

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    2. I don't buy that: Stanton's a very smart, very savvy guy and Disney focus groups the hell out of everything. It's trivial to find out what brand recognition Carter has. When I tell people about Barsoom I start by saying "it's by the same guy who wrote Tarzan" and 9 times out of 10 I see a light go on - they're thinking "oh right - somebody wrote Tarzan."

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  18. I agree on the complete lack of marketing. Maybe the company sensed in advance it wouldn't do so well (or had a hand in it not doing so well), but just about everything action-adventurey gets toys these days. Where's my plush Woola and Baby Thark? A Barsoomian battle harness right alongside all the plastic Iron Man chestplates? Dejah Thoris teaching the other Disney Princesses about survival in a harsh world? (Okay, that last one is unlikely.)

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  19. People think computer graphics is cost effective and maybe it is on a low budget level, but to make a film of this scope is a VERY expensive. On the Prometheus's Q&A the other day, Ridley Scott touched on that subject and said that was one of his major factors on why he decided on having some actual set made and optical effects used in the film.

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  20. My understanding is that movie companies get about half the revenue from ticket sales - so if John Carter cost a total of $350 million it would need $700 million. A but much for a story most of the audience wouldn't know.

    What surprises me is why the marketing push that the story is from the guy who created Tarzan, the movie is by the guy who did WallE and Finding Nemo and the hero is the first SF action hero. That might have interested people.

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  21. I've asked this on about 6 or 7 forums and news articles but no one seems to know for sure:

    Does the $250 million include all the money spent by Disney, previous to Andrew Stanton's film, to develop the property (i.e., the prior attempts by Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau)?

    Remember, Disney's been trying to make this movie for a while. Even so, the film is great fun and deserved better marketing and a fair shake by the US press (international press--and movie goeers--were much kinder).

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    1. I doubt it matters since developmental costs (drafting screenplays, storyboarding) are usually pretty small -maybe a few million at most.

      The real killer for this movie appears to be poor planning and extensive reshoots. It doesn't help that Disney spent an additional $100 million on advertising, making the film cost over $350 million.

      I know internet nerd ragers hate his guts, but Rick McCallum (or someone like him) would have been an ideal producer for this film. He produced Revenge of the Sith for a little over a third of what John Carter cost. Howard Kazanjian turned in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi early and under budget.

      The whole idea of pumping such a huge amount of money into a film with little or no built-in audience is the worst kind of folly. It's too bad the movie is a flop because I enjoyed it and would like to see more, but that's not likely to happen now.

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  22. Shooting on location, now that was funny!

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    1. Don't forget that all those Barsoom extras don't come cheap. Their union's pretty tough!

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  23. Like many, I think that part of the death of success for John Carter was probably the marketing.

    Except for the first trailer that caught my attention(set to Peter Gabriel's My Body is a Cage - something I thought was very creative if you know about John Carter and how he travels to Mars), nothing they did really made me more excited (even the Super Bowl Sunday ads -which was a huge chunk of wasted money).

    It almost seems like Disney had no interest in this movie's success - like they were hoping it would fly on its own (maybe the way that Pirates seemed to defy the odds despite a lack of good marketing). In some ways, it feels like Andrew Stanton's ability to make Disney alot of money through Pixar was the only reason it survived to the box office. I could easily see a cheaply-made, animated direct-to-video as the only fallout Disney might do for contractual reasons or maybe if the movie breaks even after movie and DVD sales.

    The other factor on costs is that it isn't just the general CGI design, but I understand that a great deal of motion-capture work went into creating the Tharks, especially Tars and Sola.

    I have enjoyed ERB's Mars series. To see the elements written in his books about brought to life so well was great. While a return trip to Barsoom (given the threads that were left hanging for future plots) would be great, it looks like that won't be the case anytime soon.

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  24. I'm now seeing estimates that the loss is more like 200 million. We can pretty much kiss any chance of another John Carter movie in the foreseeable future goodbye. Notice that there haven't been any more theatrical films about Cleopatra or the Johnson County War...

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  25. I've seen it twice and I liked it. But it does have problems that make it unpalatable to some audiences. I won't go into great detail but I'll toss out a few things. {SPOILERS}

    The film's narrative, like the book's, is a bit rambling. The prologue with Carter on Earth is well done but takes too much screen time.
    The some of the actors use accents and Barsoomian vocabulary making them hard to understand.
    All the morphing can make it difficult to identify the characters.


    As a fan of the books, I didn't mind the meta-plot about the Therns. It worked for me putting Barsoom into a kind of Weird fantasy HPL milieu. I did find some of the other changes distracting and unnecessary. There was no reason Zodanga had to be a walking city; Tardos Mors could have been left as Dejah's grandfather. The big expositional "Info-dump" Matai-Shang lays on Carter would have been better left as a mystery to be revealed in future films. The introduction of the Ninth Ray stuff rang false - too much like the intro of the Weirding Modules in Lynch's Dune film

    Sadly I see no merchandise tie-in's except endless ERB reprints. I would have been in heaven if GW or better yet Mongoose had gotten a minis license. [Mind you there are some good figs from Tin Man Models and Bronze Age Miniatures]

    I feel it should be pointed out this film was NOT 200 x better than the < $1 million Asylum Princess of Mars from a couple years back!

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  26. I thought the movie was okay, if clunky. It seemed like the audience most enjoyed the first half, as Carter acclimates to his new surroundings.

    Of all the things I've read about the film, I think Tad Friend's The New Yorker piece on Andrew Stanton is perhaps the most insightful and compelling.

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    1. Jon,

      There was another article I'd read about Stanton that led credence to the belief that his lack of live-action experience ballooned the production budget of this film more than was anticipated. I think the failure of John Carter ultimately will be a death by a thousand cuts, and not one single problem that can be pointed at with absolute certainty.

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  27. Oh hell, I just figured out the problem.

    Tars Tarkas wasn't a wisecracking ethnic stereotype.

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  28. I had read this on the subject:

    http://www.vulture.com/2012/03/john-carter-doomed-by-first-trailer.html

    And while we are reading:

    http://airlockalpha.com/node/9010/astrojive-howard-and-burroughs-box-office-poison.html

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