12 March 2012

John Carter of Mars Post-Game: Six Reasons to Feel Better

 Cross-posted to Black Gate.

John Carter of Mars (yes, I have chosen to flat-out call the film by that name going forward, as per its end title card) drew in approximately $30.6 million in domestic box-office over the weekend according to online tracker Box Office Mojo. This is better than some of the gloomier Cassandra predictions, and even superior to the lowered tracking numbers from the days right before the film’s release that pegged it at $25 million.

But I won’t sugarcoat this for fans or lie based on my long experience tracking box-office results: these numbers do not augur well. (If you want to hear a more objective—and therefore grimmer—analysis, read Box Office Mojo’s take on this. It isn’t pretty.) The new film couldn’t even best last week’s #1 film, The Lorax, which held over to take the top spot despite a standard 44% drop in attendance. It performed $5 million less than last year’s Battle: Los Angeles, a more modest film that cost a third of John Carter of Mars’s $250 million budget.

In the contemporary crowded marketplace, films live and die based on opening weekends. Only occasionally can a film continue to coast for weeks at a time on steady attendance. But this sort of support doesn’t usually happen for big event films, which tend to be front-loaded. Smaller movies like The Help can get a slow-burn going, but not $250 million tent pole epics and hopeful franchise catalysts like John Carter of Mars.

The film did pull in an impressive $70 million at overseas markets, and in the long run the movie will turn a profit for Disney, albeit not a huge one. But the chance of us seeing Andrew Stanton direct The Gods of Mars feels remote at this point. Prince of Persia did similar numbers in 2010, with a $30 millions U.S. opening leading to a poor $91 million overall domestic gross, while pulling in big international coin—and you aren’t hearing about a sequel to that coming out next year. Disney will probably announce during this week that they will go ahead with a John Carter sequel, but that’s standard promotional talk to make a show to the public that the company has confidence in the film, and perhaps get a few more folks into the cinemas during the second weekend. Remember, Disney immediately announced a sequel to Tron: Legacy, and Warner Bros. for Green Lantern—and neither of those will happen.

At this point, the best hope that filmgoers have to see more Barsoom is for John Carter of Mars to keep steady attendance through the next few weeks. With The Hunger Games poised to take a big bite out of its demographic in two weeks, this battle will be fought uphill against a raging horde of warriors from Warsoon on thoat chargers.

But in the face of this negative news, there are some reasons for pulp literature, science-fiction, and fantasy fans to feel good about John Carter of Mars. Taking the path of the Stoic, I present six things to consider that might give you some cheer about the film’s performance:

I. The Clash of the Titans ‘10 Factor
I’ll begin with the slimmest bit of good news, but it is a good place to start. The Clash of the Titans (2010) remake was a domestic under-performer, but the international box office got it a sequel coming out next month. So some small hope remains in that direction since John Carter of Mars already looks more robust outside of the U.S.. On the other hand, Clash Re-Dux was cheaper than John Carter and nabbed a $61 million domestic opening weekend, twice what the Warlord of Barsoom managed.

II. The poor box-office is not a judgment against the film, but the marketing
Why the poor box-office showing? The answer is easy: a marketing campaign that from the start did almost everything incorrectly. If you’re an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, the trailers and posters no doubt thrilled you. But for everybody else, the marketing push emphasized all the wrong things. Mars was disguised. John Carter’s character was not sold to potential viewers as someone they might care about. The “Tarzan” author connection was hidden. The love story was hardly emphasized. The awesomeness of Woola was only a blip on the trailers. Everything that made John Carter of Mars more than just another science-fiction actioner in the wake of Avatar was kept a secret—and it backfired. Don’t blame John Carter of Mars for not living up to expectations; blame Disney for not realizing what they had. The box-office results are not a rejection of the film itself. Because….

III. People like the movie
If the marketing managed to get more people out to the multiplexes, this would immediately be a well-loved film. Most of the viewers who got their butts in the seats were happy with John Carter of Mars. Exit polling gives the film a “B+” average from viewers. Professional critical reaction split down the middle, with the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes giving the film a 50% positive rating. The most hostile reviews came from mainstream critics, but they are increasingly become stodgy and as a relevant today as the LP format. The relevant folks, the blogosphere and genre reviewers, were positive-to-thrilled about the movie. But it is the online reactions from audiences that I’ve tracked over the weekend that count the most; amidst some naysayers, the consensus rates high. Twitter remarks, comments on my website, glowing emails recommending the film—I’ve seen some amazing John Carter of Mars love going around these Interwebs. Many viewers were surprised at how character-based the movie is, and that it wasn’t all mindless action. Word-of-mouth may not save the film in theaters, but it will support it in the long-term.

IV. The Blu-ray will look astonishing
The style of CGI used in the movie, coupled with the astonishing vistas in the photography, will make the Blu-ray release of John Carter of Mars another reason to get excited. I can’t wait to show off the Blu-ray disc to my friends (and get those who skipped the film converted to ERB love).

V. We got a true Edgar Rice Burroughs movie
The film is the film, regardless of whatever happens to it as a business commodity. It took forever for this movie to get made, starting back in the 1930s, and that what we eventually got after it worked through the studio system and the quality-killing “creation-through-committee” style that rules event movies was not only a good piece of cinema, but something that honors Burroughs’s with faithfulness almost to a fault, is honestly amazing. The screenplay fashions a plot that diverges from A Princess of Mars, but in all other respects the movie is the vision of Edgar Rice Burroughs brought to cinematic life. I got to see Barsoom, a major part of my childhood and adult dreams and a huge influence on my decision to become a writer, up on the big screen—and it’s breathtaking. Marketing fumbled, the movie was a tough sell, audiences were already worn out on a decade of Burroughs-derivative entertainment—yet at the end of the day, we still have a movie worthy of the three great intitials, E-R-B.

VI. Edgar Rice Burroughs will be just fine
Although one of the most influential of all authors of the fantastic, Edgar Rice Burroughs has never had an easy time in movie theaters in the hundred years of his history. (Narrative film was poised to explode when Burroughs published his first story, A Princess of Mars, in 1912, so the medium and the author have a parallel history.) John Carter of Mars wasn’t a “last chance to save ERB.” It was remarkable that it got made. It will get more people reading the Martian novels: look, for example, at the terrific “Teen Reading Project” from the website The John Carter Files. And no matter the film’s lack of big box-office muscle, it won’t hurt the great man himself. With a collection of new readers joining his ranks, his work will march on at the same pace it has since the paperback revival of the 1960s. Burroughs has certainly experienced larger reading slumps during the past century, and comparatively this is a second Silver Age! No matter what happens, we still have the Barsoom books, and the Tarzan adventures, and the epic at the Earth’s Core, and the Land that Time Forgot, and other gems that even genre hounds haven’t read. Edgar Rice Burroughs is going to be okay. So few authors manage to still be relevant after a hundred years; in another fifty, expect most of what is popular right now to have faded away—and we’ll all still be talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs.

My “Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars” review series will continue all the way until the last book (called, appropriately, John Carter of Mars). I’ll have a few more surprises to celebrate the centennial of A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes down the road a’ piece. So please hang around and enjoy more of the flawed magnificence of one of the founders of fantasy and science-fiction adventure. Remember: The World Gave Edgar Rice Burroughs to You, and you should thank it.

(Bizarre thing that just occurred to me: Willem Dafoe has now played the Green Goblin, Jesus, Max “Nosferatu” Schrek, and Tars Tarkas. Now that is a resum√©!)