Why John Carter’s Disappointing Box Office Is A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
There are few films that can earn over $100 million worldwide in their opening weekend and yet still be described as a flop. John Carter has earned that dubious honour.
You’ll read the words “John Carter” and “disappointing box office” all over the Internet this morning, as a weak first weekend in North America ($30.6 million and second place to animated fantasy The Lorax, which is in its second week of release) and varying fortunes in the rest of the world (biggest opening ever in Russia; less than $3 million in the normally lucrative Mexican market) have the same sites that were predicting doom and gloom for the film trumpeting its box office failure.
And there’s little argument that for a film with a reported budget of $250 million – and which (when distribution and marketing costs are taken into account) will need to take above $600 million worldwide to make a profit – this is a worryingly soft opening weekend.
So is this a victory for the critics who were slamming the film last week? John Carter did receive some embarrassingly scathing reviews. And industry pundits have been predicting a flop of epic proportions for months, with rumours that Disney’s lacklustre marketing for the movie reflected the studio’s lack of faith in the project. It began to feel like the critics had to blast the movie so that they could all say, “See, we were right all along – turkey.” Some reviews even felt distinctly like a case of axes being ground; certainly director Andrew Stanton seems to have wound up some journalists on the interview circuit with his bullish attitude.
But John Carter’s box office seems to be a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent, and a closer examination of the figures uncovers some interesting aspects of its opening weekend performance. The press has been so negative for so long about the film, and the marketing so confused and underwhelming, that a poor opening was almost a foregone conclusion. People either hadn’t heard of the film; or if they had, they had, they either thought that it was some kind of Avatar/Star Wars rip-off, or that it was “that turkey”.
And so when the film opened last Friday to piddling box office figures, industry pundits were already predicting that it wouldn’t even make $30 million in its first weekend in North America.
Guess what? It did. And why? Because against all predictions, its audience increased by 25% on the Saturday. Yep, people were leaving the cinema and telling other people, “Yeah, that was fun, you should see it.”
The film also received a B+ CinemaScore (a kind of audience exit poll they run in the USA) which indicated that general audiences were enjoying the film much more than critics were. Certainly the reaction on our own SFX forum has been largely positive; not exactly glowing, but definitely in the “that was much better than we were expecting” department (for which read, “I’d rather see that than another Transformers film”).
“While of course we appreciate the larger economics of the film, we’re encouraged with how it’s been received by audiences and hope to see that generate positive word of mouth,” said Disney executive vice president of worldwide distribution Dave Hollis, putting a brave face on things.
But as Nikki Finke, editor of Deadline points out, Disney is partially to blame, citing: “really rotten marketing that failed to explain the significant or scope of the film’s Civil War-to-Mars story and character arcs and instead made the 3D movie look as generic as its eventual title… Disagree all you want, but Hollywood is telling me that competent marketing could have drawn in women with the love story, or attracted younger males who weren’t fanboys of the source material.”
The problem is, of course, that word of mouth can only have so much of an effect when so few people saw the movie in the first place. A disappointing opening weekend is difficult to recover from. Unless something incredible happens, and word of mouth works like word of mouth never has before, the critics and doommongers have won, and the negative prepublicity has killed the chances of ever getting to see any sequels. It almost feels like they wanted to take Stanton down a peg or two: Finke on Deadline talks of, “Stanton’s excessive ego” an you do get the feeling that she’s not alone. But Hollywood has benefited from directors’ massive egos in the past as much as it has lost out to them. It kinda goes with the territory.
Bottom line is, John Carter isn’t on the greatest movies of all time, but it’s a far better movie than some would have you believe. It seems like it will now always be saddled with the label flop, and that its detractors will happily pounce on this weekend’s figures to bury it even further, with more negative reporting. And while they may see this as a triumph against excess, what about all those struggling cinemas – battling against falling audiences – and the revenue they’ll lose out on?
It’s Waterworld all over again…