Friday, March 9, 2012

All the "John Carter" Drama

It's like watching a car crash in slow motion. Today is the release date of Disney's "John Carter," formerly known as "John Carter of Mars," which cost the studio $250 million by conservative estimates. It's directed by PIXAR alum Andrew Stanton, responsible for "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E." He shares writing credits with Mark Andrews, director of the upcoming "Brave," and Michael Chabon, who has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and whose last foray into screenwriting resulted in roughly a third of "Spider-man 2." The film is based on the popular "Barsoom" adventure series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs roughly a century ago, before he went on to "Tarzan" and "The Land That Time Forgot." And if the box office analysts and the word on the street is right, we may be looking at one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.

Now, it's on with the finger-pointing. The most obvious culprit here is the marketing, which insisted on a title change that nobody likes, cut trailers and ads that refused to provide any explanation for the confusing visuals, and pretty much did everything that they could to make the movie look as generic and unappealing as possible. The "John Carter" Superbowl ad, for instance, was an unmemorable bust. I shudder to think how "Avatar" would have been received if its ads had been handled by this bunch. Marketing president MT Carney, who was largely responsible for the campaign, was dropped-kicked back in January, but her replacement has hardly done any better in the interim. The best trailer I've seen so far has been a fan-made cut, that was being linked to by several movie sites a few weeks ago.

"John Carter" may not have many obvious selling points, but why have the ads been so timid about pushing its pedigree? Why not trumpet the fact that PIXAR talent was involved? There wasn't even a measly, "From the studio that brought you 'Pirates of the Caribbean,'" or "From the director of 'WALL-E'" anywhere. If a movie is going to fail, I wish the studios would let it fail on its own merits, especially when some of these hamfisted marketing campaigns make the pictures look so much worse than they really are. The campaign for "John Carter" is downright evasive, not satisfied with striking "of Mars" from the title, but giving no indication that the hero is a soldier from the Civil War era fighting Martians in a Jules Verne flavored universe.

Of course the marketing's not the only problem here. Many are blaming a runaway production. What was Disney thinking, industry watchers have asked. Why would they give a director new to live action such a huge budget, let him make a movie based on a practically unknown property, and then not cast a single bankable actor? Sure, the "Friday Night Lights" crowd knows who Taylor Kitsch is, but the show never exactly had the best ratings. On the other hand, I don't think it's hard to see why Disney was willing to give the PIXAR guys some free rein. PIXAR has had a great track record of hits so far, and if they could translate that success into live-action films, think of the possibilities. Some of their best films have had unorthodox stories - who would have greenlit "Ratatouille," "WALL-E," or "Up" based on the plots alone?

And Disney hasn't exactly been rewarded in the past for thinking small. They failed pretty miserably with their would-be action franchise, "Prince of Persia," which was hampered by penny-pinching and came across as a cut-rate production as a result. "TRON: Legacy," a more daring experiment, didn't break any records, but it was much better received, made its money back, and sequel plans have been rumored. And even after considerable wrangling over budget numbers, "The Lone Ranger" with Johnny Depp is still probably going to cost Disney as much as one of the expensive "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Speaking of "Pirates," wasn't that a ridiculous idea until it spawned a four movie franchise?

Right now it's hard to tell if the filmmakers succeeded here or not. Reviews are all over the board, with some lauding "John Carter" as a fun popcorn movie and others trashing it as an incoherent mess and a bore. Audiences will be the final arbiters, of course, and it's been proven time and time again that they don't listen to critics. "John Carter" still has a shot, depending on word of mouth, but it's going to be a real uphill battle.

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