Disaster Movie

02.21.12

‘John Carter’: Disney’s Quarter-Billion-Dollar Movie Fiasco

Hollywood insiders say Disney’s 3-D sci-fi epic 'John Carter' is doomed, spelling trouble for studio boss Rich Ross. Chris Lee reports on the $250 million film’s crazy journey.

Around Hollywood, Disney’s quarter-billion-dollar 3-D epic John Carter holds a dubious renown: it’s the film with Avatar-size ambitions that’s being greeted sight unseen as the next Ishtar.

The sci-fi thriller lands in theaters March 9, and if you’ve seen the billboards or commercials, you’d be forgiven for wondering what it’s about. A hunk in a leather chest harness (Taylor Kitsch of the late, beloved, but little-viewed sports drama Friday Night Lights), identified as “John Carter of Earth,” battles aliens in a coliseum, faces down a stampede of four-armed beasties, and seduces a princess who resembles a va-va-voom version of Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin. Is this Avatar meets Clash of the Titans? Gladiator meets Cowboys and Aliens? A 22-second “teaser” trailer that aired during the Super Bowl didn’t make things any clearer. “You know it’s gotta be bad when they start breaking up the scenes and doing something conceptual for a Super Bowl spot,” observed a ranking executive at a rival studio. “It’s like, ‘Guys, this is your Hail Mary?’”

If Hollywood executives don’t know who John Carter is, they certainly know what John Carter is. It’s the kind of cautionary tale that keeps studio chiefs popping Ambien at night: a vanity project with sky-high expectations and a humongous budget* that now seems destined to land with a massive thud at the box office—unless it can somehow rake in more than $400 million to break even. In other words, it’s the kind of movie that causes heads to roll.

In fact, heads have already started to roll right out of the Team Disney building and onto Dopey Drive in Burbank. In January, Disney Studios worldwide marketing chief MT Carney, who arrived with much fanfare in 2010 from the New York advertising world, was out after a string of failures (she said at the time she was returning to New York to be with her kids). Meanwhile, at studio commissaries around town, the long steak knives are already out for Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross, who’s managed to make more than a few enemies in his short time at the helm. Disney insiders say that Ross has the backing of CEO Bob Iger, who plucked him from Disney’s television division to run the studio in 2009, and that the failure or success of John Carter won’t change that.  

Fortunately for Ross, John Carter is a problem he inherited from his predecessor, and that has provided him a certain level of insulation from the slings of his detractors. Based on a series of fantasy novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, the project had been kicking around Hollywood since the 1980s with various directors and stars attached, including Tom Cruise. In 2007, Disney’s then studio head, the avuncular Magic Kingdom lifer Dick Cook, gave the project the green light, OK'ing its astronomical $250 million price tag, a studio source said. And Pixar's Andrew Stanton was hired to write and direct the movie—no mean feat, considering that it will have to score Avatar- or Pirates of the Caribbean–size box-office returns to qualify as a success.

While Stanton stands as one of the animated-movie industry’s undisputed rainmakers—his Wall-E and Finding Nemo both won Best Animated Feature Oscars and combined to gross nearly $1.4 billion—the choice to hire him for John Carter stunned many in Hollywood. “[Disney] said, ‘We’ve got a director here who made us billions of dollars over the years, fine, let him have a vanity project,'” surmised an executive at another studio, who, like just about everyone interviewed for this story, requested anonymity for fear of burning bridges. “But you minimize your risk as much as possible. To make something on this big a budget with no stars? Unless you’re Peter Jackson or Jim Cameron, it’s unheard of.”

A Disney spokesperson said in a statement: “We have an incredible storyteller in Andrew Stanton, and with the bulk of our media campaign left to go, we’re putting all of our resources into making sure this movie is a success and embraced by our global audience.”

The risk only increased when the project’s champion, Cook, was ousted in 2009 after butting heads with Iger one too many times. From the beginning, Ross was considered a radical choice by Hollywood’s clubby standards to replace Cook. An outsider to the movie business, he won the job after developing hit shows such as Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire and helping create the blockbuster High School Musical TV-movie franchise as president of Disney Channels Worldwide. Moreover, Ross proved himself a capable company capo by engineering the kind of lucrative product and merchandising tie-ins that account for huge revenue streams at a time when Disney’s ticket and domestic DVD sales are stagnating.

But since ascending to one of moviedom’s most high-powered jobs, Ross has managed to ruffle feathers both inside and outside the company with his my-way-or-the-highway demeanor, left-field hiring choices, and intention to shift the moviemaking paradigm. “There’s a certain hubris he came in with,” a top executive at a rival studio who has participated in a business venture with Ross said. “A TV guy? People are going to be a little bit resistant. But then he says, ‘I’m going to change the way you guys do business.’ And then everything he’s implemented has been a complete disaster.” (A Disney spokesman said Ross was unavailable for an interview.)

“It’s boiled down to something no one wants to see,” said a former Disney executive.

In the plus column, Ross has managed to deliver the box office for several movies put into production before he got there, Tangled, Toy Story 3, and the $1 billion blockbuster Alice in Wonderland among them. “Anyone could have opened Toy Story 3 to $130 million—that wasn’t Rich,” grouses an ex-Disney executive terminated under the Ross regime. “That’s all Pixar.”

But the company has also racked up a number of expensive flops and critical misses since 2009, including the animated fiasco Mars Needs Moms (production budget, $150 million; worldwide box-office take, $39 million) and the first film that Ross green-lit as the studio’s chairman, Prom, which arrived stillborn at the box office. In fiscal 2011, the operating income of Disney’s Studio Entertainment group dropped 11 percent, to $618 million.

Because of all the foot-dragging and hand-wringing required to mount any new studio production, Ross’s tastemaking won’t be put to the test until 2013, when the so-called tentpole movies he gave the go-ahead to—such as the Wizard of Oz prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful—begin reaching the screen. In the meantime, the jury is out about his ability to effectively market movies or to help a struggling production like John Carter across the finish line.

If you believe much of the Hollywood trade-paper coverage, Problem A has been Ross’s seemingly reckless restructuring of the studio’s top brass. Upon arrival, he streamlined a number of divisions and replaced a dozen or so senior studio executives with new appointments from outside the movie world. “Our industry is evolving rapidly,” Ross said in a statement at the time. “In order to remain at its forefront, we are adapting our organization to be more agile, creative and responsive.”

Those remarks were perceived as a shot across the bow by many in Hollywood. And it was just the beginning, as Ross went on to make some divisive hires. He installed Sean Bailey, a producer of the studio’s lackluster sci-fi thriller Tron: Legacy, as production chief despite Bailey’s total lack of experience managing filmmakers or assembling slates of movies. And MT Carney, a founding partner of New York–based Naked Communications, was brought in as head of worldwide marketing to shake up the way Disney sold its movies by redoubling the focus on new media. “He was trying to do the unexpected and didn’t seem eager to follow any formula,” a powerful talent agent said of Ross. “People say those formulas exist because they work. But Hollywood does not take well to what they deem as outsiders. So other executives saw it as disrespectful. Like, ‘He’s never done it before.’”

From the word go, Carney was judged to be out of her depth. And the disappointing box-office returns of such 2010 films as Secretariat and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—for which the executive reportedly signed off on the tagline “It’s the Coolest Job Ever,” to howls of derision in the trade press—hastened her exit. Carney stepped down as marketing chief in January with the obligatory “Toldja!” from Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood, effectively orphaning John Carter at a time when most presumed blockbusters are ramping up their war machines to galvanize public awareness. (Carney did not respond to requests for an interview.)

The executive was replaced by Ricky Strauss, a well-liked Hollywood veteran and former president of Participant Media who had never run a studio marketing operation—a choice that startled DreamWorks principal Steven Spielberg so much, he is reported to have strongly rebuked Ross at a Critics’ Choice Movie Awards dinner in January for not consulting him about Strauss’s hiring. (Disney distributes DreamWorks films, including the Spielberg-directed War Horse.)

A former Disney executive cited the ho-hum, break-even performance of Tron: Legacy as evidence of how Ross’s unfamiliarity with working in the clannish world of film resulted in a commercial misfire—one with surprisingly steep built-in shortfalls. “Rich decided Tron was the first movie he was going to own,” the executive explained. “It looked like it was going to be a giant hit, so it would power the whole company. There were videogames, stuff at the theme parks. That strategy requires expert handling of the movie at the studio. But they weren’t equipped to make it or market it right. So you’ve got T-shirts and videogames nobody wants. And the failure spreads out across the entire company.”

Like Tron: Legacy, John Carter was envisioned as a franchise that would spawn plastic action figures and theme-park attractions around the globe. Based on an 11-installment series of fantasy novels by Burroughs dating back to 1911, the property has been hailed as the “Rosetta Stone of modern sci-fi fantasy,” inspiring any number of sci-fi fantasies, Star Wars and Flash Gordon among them. As far back as the 1930s, Hollywood types had envisioned turning John Carter into a movie.

The Disney version is largely based on Burroughs’s first installment, A Princess of Mars, which chronicles the intergalactic adventures of Carter, a battle-scarred Civil War Army captain who finds himself magically transported to Mars (called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), where he teams up with tattooed Martian princess Dejah Thoris and injects himself into a power struggle between warring factions the Zodangas and Heliumates. Thanks to Mars’s weaker gravity, Carter can effectively soar like Superman and kick mucho Martian butt.

Disney’s decision to put Andrew Stanton in the director's chair was hardly a no-brainer. Although Brad Bird, the animation hotshot responsible for Ratatouille and The Incredibles, recently scored a massive international hit with his first live-action gig directing Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, that film, unlike John Carter, is part of an established blockbuster franchise with a bankable marquee movie star in Tom Cruise.

Stanton’s distinctive shooting style helped inflate the price tag. Known for his dogged perfectionism and penchant for reshooting scenes until he finds the proper balance of tone, emotion, and action—simple enough to do when your actors are animated—the writer-director dragged out physical production on John Carter with a seemingly endless roundelay of reshoots, and reshoots of reshoots, done piecemeal around the world.

Although the character has been known as “John Carter of Mars” and was envisioned as a movie trilogy under that name, Disney marketers dropped the “of Mars” part because of industry-think holding that female movie fans are more likely to be turned off by such overtly sci-fi elements. And after the big-budget failure of last year’s Cowboys & Aliens seemingly confirmed that modern audiences are uninterested in Westerns—or, by extension, vintage Americana—Carter’s Civil War connection has been all but excised from the marketing.

“You take out ‘of Mars,’ you don’t tell where he came from? That’s what makes it unique!” a former Disney executive said. “They choose to ignore that, and the whole campaign ends up meaning nothing. It’s boiled down to something no one wants to see.”

After seeing several John Carter trailers, a rival studio executive agreed. “You don’t know what it is,” the source said. “The geek generation isn’t responding. It’s too weird for the family audience. Then it has the Disney brand and PG-13? I’m not sure who it’s for.”

For all Ross’s difficulty with John Carter, most Hollywood insiders don’t think a flop will cause him to be banished from the executive suite. That said, he faces another day of reckoning on May 4 with the release of Marvel’s comic-book adaptation The Avengers.

“If John Carter flops, he’ll blame it on the old regime and live to fight another day,” yet another rival studio executive said. “It won’t be Rich’s undoing. Iger likes him because he’s all about protecting the brand at Disney.”

The executive paused, and then added: “Now, if The Avengers looked like shit, that’d be another story.”

*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that John Carter has gone “wildly over budget.” The film was planned at a $250 million budget.