March 12, 2012

“John Carter” and The Art of Bus-Under Pushing: SHOWBUZZDAILY CLOSE-UP

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A movie called JOHN CARTER opened a few days ago.  It cost a few bucks, and as you may have heard, didn’t make as much money as its studio, Disney, would have liked.  Notwithstanding the supposed mandate from Disney CEO Bob Iger that blame not be targeted at any individual for the failure, twin stories today, in The NY Times and on Vulture, represent–even for the entertainment industry–a remarkably quick and focused jabbing of fingers in one man’s direction:  director/co-writer Andrew Stanton.

Stanton, we are told in both articles, was out of control:  consumed with misguided faithfulness to the movie’s source material, Edgar Rice Burrough’s “Princess of Mars,” so obsessed with his vision of the film that he ran through $250M+ of the studio’s money, incompetent at live action directing (his previous work was with Pixar, where he directed the mammoth hits Finding Nemo and Wall-E), and singlehandedly responsible in every possible way for the movie’s inadequate and unsuccessful marketing campaign.  
As to all this, a few points.
First, although no one interviewed for either the Times or the Vulture article was willing to be identified by name, it’s clear that the “former and current Disney executives” and “people who worked on the film” (NYT) and the “Disney marketing insider who spoke on condition of anonymity” and “one Disney marketing insider,” who appear to be the same person, since he/she is referred to as “our mole” and “our spy” later on (Vulture), are desperately trying–to be blunt–to cover their own asses.  (It’s also more than slightly possible that the Times and Vulture sources are at least in part the same people.)  The marketing campaign for John Carter is generally agreed to have been disastrous, and people are frantically trying to get out in front of it before they’re underneath.  Information coming from those whose self-interest is at issue–because either their jobs or their reputations are at stake–aren’t necessarily to be relied upon.
Second, if the stories are completely true, everyone at Disney, from Bob Iger on down, should be fired.  Not because John Carter‘s losses will imperil the multi-billion dollar company in any meaningful way (estimates suggest Disney may lose $100-150M or so, certainly not pretty, but only moderately important as a matter of scale), but because the total irresponsibility of handing over hundreds of millions of dollars of the company’s money to a single individual who was vastly unsuited to the task, for a project no one at the company ever believed in, retaining no ability to control or moderate him, is so irresponsible that a public corporation should find it intolerable.
Third, the stories–clearly–aren’t completely true.  There were plenty of points along the way where Stanton, if he were so inept, could have been held back.  The Times notes that Stanton’s deal didn’t give him final cut, and it certainly didn’t give him the unconstrained ability to set his own budget.  The idea that when Rich Ross took over as Disney Studio chairman, he had to green-light the production because it had previously been in preproduction for a year under the prior regime is just silly–ask Steven Soderbergh, not without stature himself, whether the plug can be pulled on a movie just before production is about to begin, and listen to the tale of his version of Moneyball.  (An undercurrent in the stories, although no one wants to come out and actually say it, is that John Carter is really John Lassiter’s fault, because since Stanton was a Pixar all-star, and with Lassiter in his court, the studio couldn’t say no to him.)  Spending $250M on a movie isn’t something that happens without checks and balances–or if it does, something is dreadfully wrong with the system.
As for the marketing… I’ve never met Andrew Stanton, and for all I know he’s a spectacularly arrogant pain in the ass, a cornucopia of bad ideas.  (He certainly didn’t make a very good movie.)  But if he is, that will make him far from the first in Hollywood.  Directors (and producers, and studio executives, and stars) always have, and always have had, opinions about marketing, and much of the time they’re uninformed and idiotic.  It’s the job of the marketing department–and if necessary, the studio higher-ups–to figure out how to work with them, work around them, and somehow make it work.  It simply cannot be the case that complete control of a $100M+ marketing campaign for a $250M+ movie would be placed in the hands of a man who knew nothing about marketing, and who couldn’t be overruled or reasoned with at any time.  The people who did nothing to rein Stanton in are as much at fault as Stanton may hypothetically be.  
Finally:  a bad teaser trailer doesn’t singlehandedly kill a movie.  Sure, it’s better to make a good first impression on audiences than an indifferent one, and the teaser released last summer misguidedly played on the movie’s supposed epic drama in a moody way rather than brandishing its CG spectacle..  Nevertheless, there were still months for the studio to adjust its message and move forward.  John Carter‘s bigger problem, as accurately noted in the Vulture piece, was that almost everything that was unique about it when the stories were written almost a century ago has now been seen, in one way or another, in everything from Star Wars to Avatar to Star Trek. An effective teaser in July wouldn’t have transformed John Carter into a movie with a $100M opening weekend.
Andrew Stanton will no doubt survive the wreck of John Carter, as well as the attempt to make him the only fall guy for its failure.  He may not get another live-action opportunity for a while, but the man behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E will certainly be welcome back in animation, either for Pixar or elsewhere.  In a few weeks, the summer spectacles will start arriving, and John Carter will be a blip of the spring.  As more movies fail, buses will run regularly, available for the blamed to be thrown under their wheels.
Everyone calm down:  it’s just another lousy movie.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."