Disney’s massive franchise starter “John Carter” doesn’t open for another two weeks, but it feels like it’s already been written off as a huge flop. For months, the narrative in the media about the film has gone something like this: “The trailer is horrible and the tracking is soft and the film went way over an already-high budget, so therefore it’s going to be huge disaster.” The latest — and, let’s hope, final — piece in this narrative, comes from The Daily Beast, where a lengthy article about the release of “John Carter” calls it “Disney’s Quarter Billion Dollar Fiasco.”
The marketing for “John Carter” is terrible. I’m sure the tracking numbers are soft. I have a hunch the film did go over budget. Maybe it is “a quarter billion dollar fiasco.” My question to you is this: why does any of that matter? All of those things can be true, and “John Carter” might still be a fantastic movie. In fact, most of the things people are propping up as evidence that “John Carter” is doomed to failure sound to me like reasons to look forward to the film. The more people bash this thing, the more I want to see it.
Take The Daily Beast’s article, which is largely a production and marketing history, interspersed with anonymous negative quotes from rival studio executives (these people, I’m sure, have no reason to want to see “John Carter” fail, and are speaking, no doubt, from a totally unbiased position). Here is the part of author Chris Lee’s account that really caught my eye:
“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.”
In the context of Lee’s piece, this statement plays mostly as condemnation; Disney bet on this untested animator to make their latest live-action tentpole, and they paid the price with a “billion dollar fiasco.” But what is Lee really saying here? Here’s how I read it: Stanton is a perfectionist — which, apparently, is not only a rarity in Hollywood, but a despised rarity at that — and in moving to live-action, he trusted the same battle-tested formula that had worked for him on two of the finest animated features ever made (“Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E”). Why is any of that a bad thing?
Okay, so he might have gone over budget (Stanton has repeatedly insisted he did not, although if his budget was $250 million to begin with, as The Daily Beast reports, that’s not exactly cause for celebration). Who cares? Unless you’re a Disney stockholder or employee, that is literally none of your concern. For everybody else, going over budget is a good thing, because it means instead of throwing up their hands and walking away from the project, Disney invested more money to make sure that Stanton got to make exactly the film he wanted to make. Again, why is that a bad thing?
Here’s another eye-opening quote from The Beast piece:
“‘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.'”
So Disney is taking a risk. Don’t we like when studios take risk? Don’t we complain when they stick to the old way of doing things? Don’t we bitch when they make the same movie over and over? Why is Disney getting raked over the coals for taking a chance on something — especially before the movie’s actually opened?
Part of the risk this nameless executive is referring to is the fact that the title character of “John Carter” is played by Taylor Kitsch, a young actor who spent years on the cult high school football series “Friday Night Lights” but has never headlined a major studio release. The spotlight on Kitsch is particularly intense in this case because while “John Carter” features other famous actors, including Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church, many are playing motion captured six-armed aliens, making the relatively unknown TV star practically the only human face of the franchise.
But just because Kitsch hasn’t opened a big movie before doesn’t mean he can’t. My wife and I are currently in the midst of discovering “FNL” via a lengthy Netflix marathon; through the first three seasons, we’ve watched Kitsch mature as an actor before our eyes. We were just remarking a few nights ago how his character, Tim Riggins, has gone from one of our least favorites to the guy we’re watching the show specifically to see. My wife thinks he’s cute and I think he’s a good actor despite the fact that my wife thinks he’s cute. That is a rare combination for a handsome leading man.
Can Kitsch open a billion dollar movie? Maybe, maybe not. But why not give him a chance? The same thinking that says Taylor Kitsch can’t open a movie before he tries is the same thinking that got Jeremy Lin bounced from one basketball team to another by skeptical talent evaluators who saw an unorthodox player and decided, without due consideration, that he “couldn’t play.” We’ve all seen how that’s turned out these last couple weeks.
Okay, so “John Carter”‘s marketing is crummy. That’s what happens when your head of worldwide marketing resigns right in the middle of the campaign. It should be no surprise that the subsequent trailers, posters, and Super Bowl commercials have all been lackluster. Despite what Disney’s surveys or polls said, I would have never in a million years changed the title of “John Carter of Mars” to just “John Carter,” allegedly out of fear women wouldn’t see a movie with “of Mars” in the title. I checked on this with my own wife: she says she probably wouldn’t, but notes that the simple “John Carter” isn’t much better unless it’s a big-screen adaptation of “ER.” And she is interested to see Tim Riggins on Mars.
Regardless, bad marketing — even a bad title — doesn’t equal a bad movie. And vice versa; the marketing for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” was outstanding while the movie itself was, uh, let’s say instanding. The same stories written about “John Carter” are the same stories that were written about “Titanic,” another insanely expensive movie with a perfectionist director and unknown stars. Things don’t work, can’t work, won’t work — until they do.
Perhaps the advertising is a portend of a doomed production. Maybe when the movie comes out, I’ll hate it more than everyone who’s trashed it sight unseen. But at least I’m going in with an open mind. A bold director, a talented lead, and a few hundred million dollars? What could go wrong?