26 March, 2012

Why 'John Carter' Bombed.

Copyright: Disney Co.
Why John Carter Bombed.

You know, besides an awful advertising campaign.

    By now, rather than having seen it, you have probably read about how Disney’s newest adventure film John Carter has turned in to a catastrophic cineplex bomb. It’s not a terrible film, by any stretch. Yes, I found myself a little confused at times with the verbiage of the alien language, and the acting fell a bit flat in places. But, in all, I felt it ran circles around the Star Wars prequels and it was much easier to watch than the god-awful Avatar. At least this film acknowledges the inspirations from whence it came.
    However, rather than review the film outright and spend precious energy on whether or not you thought it sucked, I wish to type about the factors that I feel contributed to the downfall of this film: rather like tripping a race horse right out of the gate, and postulate how this might be avoided in the future.

The factors of failure are as follows:

1. The Stigma of Anticipation.
    Based on Edgar Rice Burrows’ novel: A Princess Of Mars (pub. 1917), the book has been an inspiration to countless filmmakers, novelists, and sci-fi nuts of the last century. Filmmakers have attempted to put the series of novels on the silver screen since the infancy of cinema itself with six or seven stalled attempts to revive it from Turn-Around, or Development Hell, as we in the industry affectionately refer to it.
    An idea kicked around for almost a century of course brings with it the weight of expectation. Everyone has an idea of what it should look like, sound like, taste like. Enough time has passed that the script, by all means, should be the best of the best and the film itself should blow the audience’s hair off. But what if it doesn’t? Where does the line of expectation crush a film? Certainly our barometer trends to one end or the other depending on the film in question, but when is it too much? To some people, if the upcoming Batman film The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t satisfy their particular expectations there will surely be riots.
    Ask any Star Wars fan born before 1990 about the Prequels and you’ll feel the white-hot heat of their rage melt your face clean off. (“Close your eyes, Marion!”)
    Now ask someone who was born after that. It’s quite possible they liked Jar Jar Binks, and the horrible pod race, and the nonsensical dialogue... See? A great deal comes down to personal preference, sure. But when prefaced by a predecessor that has deep roots in the cultural psyche new work of this nature is doomed from the start.
Copyright: Disney Co.

2. The Tent-Pole Ennui.
    The budget of this film killed this film. It’s true. It’s reported that John Carter would have had to have banked at least $300 - $500 million at the Box Office to break even. However, at last count domestic B.O. was in the upper 60s. But, of course, what kind of film would it have been without the astronomical costs of modern film making?
    Setting aside the costs of CGI and motion capture: film making, as a business, has become astoundingly cheaper in the past two decades. No more expensive film stock, no more processing costs. Cameras are cheaper, production turnaround is faster and more efficient. An indie film shot in the early 1990s would be at least four times as much as it would cost to do today. Throw in some decent CGI and then maybe the budget comes closer to about half as much. But why was so much money thrown at this script? Marketing is a large part of it. But I’d say it’s two things: the first being the common disease of studios placing all their cash in sure-bet “tent pole” films they deem to have the least amount of risk; and the second reason is the democratization of film.
    Have you noticed yet that most minor studios and indie companies have either shut down or been absorbed by the larger studios? Hell: have you noticed how many major studios of the late 80s and 90s have gone under? The economic crisis has forced the film industry to the edge of the cliff in many respects. It’s culled the industry down to the quick and the studios left standing are jumpy. Why spread the money out among a slate of mid-budget spec films, when you can make more money off a pre-sold franchise with a strong fan base and guarantee the funds for a blockbuster slate next year? Then, throw in a couple of Sundance darlings bought outright for next to nothing to round out the year in time for Oscar season. VoilĂ ! Distribution.
    The studios have cut out the majority of their risk this way, so even when a giant bomb like John Carter happens, they can recoup the loss fairly quickly and push out another Pirates Of the Caribbean to defray the cost.
    This strategy has made spec sales plummet since their heyday of the mid-1990s. It has also cultivated an audience who must justify an expensive movie ticket with the promise of eye-rending spectacle. An audience who has grown weary of tent pole films.
    On the other side, along with cheaper costs of film making, the internet and film festival culture have gone a long way to democratized the art form.  But even though the gate keepers of time and money have vanished the easiest way to cash in on this industry is to start a film festival or a 12-hour, 24-hour, 48-hour competition. ( These competitions, to me, are no better than throwing your money at a pyramid scheme from a pamphleteer in the mall.)
    The surge of aspiring, young filmmakers created by these conditions now buffet these fests and competitions like sperm trying desperately to breech a diaphragm. Ultimately we know the outcome: the studios have the pick of the litter after the festivals have vetted them through the dog show and the judges have give their marks. A majority of the filmmakers are happy just to have their work seen, paying for the privilege for each and every festival entered.

3. The Disney Marque.

    Disney putting its name above the title of the movie poster killed John Carter.
It put the film in a lukewarm position and pressure to conform to certain expectations. I’m not saying the film should have had a harder rating. There are gory moments in the film: decapitations happen, arms are cut off with swords, people are zapped into a fine blue mist, but going in assuming it’s going to be a “Disney” film hurt more than it helped.
    With Disney you get the budget, the cameras, the CGI, the locations, the stars you want and need to put butts in seats, the Disney Glow... But the rear edge of the sword is that there are moments when it seems the filmmakers were holding back despite the visual decadence. I felt the same way about The Muppets. Disney’s acquisition of that franchise (See? There’s the built-in audience.) ground down the edges of wit that made Kermit and Co. so special and banked on nostalgia to sell tickets.
    However, Disney is perhaps the only modern studio working that can eat a loss of $250 million and burp up sunshine. But could John Carter have happened with another studio with a smaller budget and more risk? I think so. The scale of it would have shrunk, but I think perhaps the avoided and unintentional stigma of “Disney” could have given it a better chance of breaking even.

4. A Whole New World.
    We don’t want straightforward adventure movies any more. We want the dark and edgy. We want to see our anger and fear of economic collapse and terrorist crisis come to an edible catharsis. We want the zombie apocalypse and the f--king Batman! Not swashbuckling.
    And it’s not really our fault. The above factors coupled with the reactionary nature of the art form has lead to this current period in cinema. I honestly believe that if Raiders Of The Lost Ark had been released today instead of 1981 it would have tanked, too. Our escapism has evolved teeth to survive the marketplace.

What could have saved John Carter?
    Perhaps nothing could. Perhaps it’s a victim of it’s time and in 20 years we’ll see a remake/sequel/prequel pop its head out of the ground.
    But, a different distribution model and a reformed way of how the industry operates can save future films from the same fate. Hollywood is now behind the curve and is having fits to catch up. Internet content is gaining legitimacy. Crowd sourced funding is catching on. New venues such as Netflix, perhaps even Apple, are looking to add original content to their repertoire. All this will force the Studios to break the tent poles down and throw their money in the ring with the smaller guys again to watch the dogs fight.
    Re-focus on commissioning and purchasing original content rather than going “all in” with adapted work will help, too.

    And, in 20 years, the festival scene will be dead, streamed content will be king and we’ll be buying designer tin foil hats to keep Jaws 19 from beaming in to our skulls.