Is 'John Carter' this Year's 'Waterworld'?

Is 'John Carter' this Year's 'Waterworld'?
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

If you tour around the usual suspects of movie blogs, searching for news relating to the upcoming release of Walt Disney's John Carter you're likely to find more stories related to the size of its budget than its actual quality. The negativity surrounding the film began back in August 2011 when Disney was trying to figure out what to do about the massive budget for Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger, but it has really gained steam in the last two weeks when's Nikki Finke posted an article headlined "John Carter Tracking Shockingly Soft: 'Could Be Biggest Write-off Of All Time'".

The quote in the headline is attributed to "a senior exec at a rival studio" discussing the film's tracking with Finke in an email saying, "It just came out. Women of all ages have flat out rejected the film. The tracking for John Carter is shocking for a film that cost over $250 million. This could be the biggest write-off of all time." Knowing Finke is hard up to bash anything whenever possible, the quote isn't a surprise since its scared little chicken of a source knew they wouldn't be attributed and is just taking advantage of a bullhorn without a conscience.

Finke's journalistic ethics aside, the budget and soft-tracking quickly became the source of blog posts everywhere with Chris Lee at The Daily Beast pouncing with an article headlined "John Carter: Disney's Quarter-Billion-Dollar Movie Fiasco".

Before we continue any further, it's at this point I would like to remind you the film hasn't hit theaters yet and won't for two weeks, on March 9. However, we're learning via just these few small snippets that "women of all ages have flat out rejected" it and that it's a "fiasco". Let's see what else we can learn about a movie that isn't even in theaters yet...

Lee breaks down the film's Super Bowl trailer, quotes a studio exec of his own and gives us this:

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.

Clearly the knives are sharpened and John Carter is an incredibly easy target. It's a film that was made for a reported $250 million, starring an actor not many recognize in Taylor Kitsch, they inexplicably dropped "of Mars" from the title and yet for some reason kept the "M" in the poster's acronym and fans have even taken to the Internet to create trailers to help the Disney marketing team along. Just look, there's one to the right, and it has Russ Fischer at Slashfilm calling it the best one yet.

Disney, however, has taken a different angle at marketing as we all saw during the Oscars last night. Instead of doing a better job of presenting the film's story they have focused on random quotes from critics and bloggers that have seen it, some of which are truly baffling.

One quote in the trailer below goes out on a limb and says John Carter is the "first blockbuster of the year" and one of the other critical quote trailers from last night featured a quote from FilmSchoolRejects' Neil Miller saying John Carter is "full of action". Even he couldn't take that quote seriously, heading to Twitter to post a screen capture adding, "Check it out. I make obvious assertions about an action movie during the Oscar pre-show."

Seriously, Disney isn't helping itself. Why not just have quotes touting the running time or the fact they used lights and cameras on set?

However, let's get beyond all of this. The biggest issue John Carter faces is one Waterworld faced back in 1995, all this negativity is swirling around a movie most haven't even seen and not even about the content of the movie in question, but the money that went into making it and its marketing.

The production budget for Waterworld back in '95 was a reported $175 million and it was all anyone could talk about. Judging pre-release buzz, it was destined to become the biggest flop of all-time. Such negativity and expectations creep into the psyche and you begin judging it on a different level.

WaterworldI'm not sure about most people, but I know when I saw Waterworld for the first time all I knew about it was how much it cost and how much money it was going to lose. And then I saw it, and, quite honestly, I actually like Waterworld. Not as some cinematic master lesson, but as a campy Hollywood blockbuster I enjoy it.

Today Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere wrote a post headlined "It Doesn't Suck" and before clicking over I assumed he was talking about John Carter as he'd weighed in on the film a few times as of late. He wasn't, and it was his post that prompted this article.

Wells was referring to a review of Ben Taylor's recently released "Apocalypse on the Set" and the quote Wells used as his headline is actually something he remembers a critic saying after seeing Waterworld back in '95, a response John Carter may be destined for with similar negativity swirling its pre-release, but the buzz on Carter's budget didn't just begin recently.

After first gaining attention during the Lone Ranger budgetary talks, it was reported last October that John Carter would have to make $700 million worldwide for a sequel to be made. That's a lot of green.

While director Andrew Stanton is adamant they didn't "go wildly over budget" and ultimately "executed the plan [they] came up with for this" he hits one big nail on the head, "[When] you're reading this stuff it's sort of like, 'Well, judge the movie.'" This hasn't happened yet.

Even looking at reviews for Waterworld over at RottenTomatoes the "Top Critics" vote it fresh with eight out of ten reviews being positive. Even Roger Ebert, who gave Waterworld a two-and-a-half star review, discusses the budget in his opening paragraph before going into his second and says:

The cost controversy aside, "Waterworld" is a decent futuristic action picture with some great sets, some intriguing ideas, and a few images that will stay with me. It could have been more, it could have been better, and it could have made me care about the characters. It's one of those marginal pictures you're not unhappy to have seen, but can't quite recommend.

Waterworld ended up making $264,218,220 worldwide in 1995, which translates to $392,955,253 in today's dollars. Add in home video, television rights, theme park attractions and so forth and while Waterworld may have had a huge budget for its time I hardly doubt Universal is crying over it. The bigger point is, how would it have fared had the pre-release story been about the movie and not the budget?

John Carter is a story that has had the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Jon Favreau, Guillermo Del Toro and, it was revealed only recently, even John McTiernan and Tom Cruise interested in bringing it to the big screen. Clearly there is interest in seeing the story told and yet the story is the last thing people seem to be discussing. Is it possible Disney could have bungled the release to the point no one will care?

I haven't read any negative reactions to the film yet and I will be seeing it this Wednesday and will finally be able to judge for myself. What do you think of what you've seen so far. Are you concerned? Have the trailers turned you off? What do you expect from John Carter?

  • LJF

    It's such a shame that it's not getting the marketing it deserves, you'd think the Great Grandaddy of all science fiction stories could be allowed a much better campaign, I like the trailers I've seen though but they just appeal to my need for sci-fi (yes i'm a geek shock horror) plus adding an orchestral arrangement of my favorite song helps also.

    Andrew Stanton is also a director I fave faith in, Wall-E is one of Pixar's best movies and like so many folk i have a love for Finding Nemo, so I trust him when he says they haven't gone wildly over budget because the man knows how to tell a story.

  • Winchester

    I've learned more about John Carter from reading about how mismanaged the marketing has been than from literally ANYTHING in any of the trailers.

    Which tell you nothing about what the story is. The trailer doesn't even tell you he gets transported TO Mars from anywhere. The acting in the trailer is concerning and it all looks like pretty much a bunch of stuff I've seen before.

    Now, I know that the serious John Carter fanboys will be at pains to tell everyone how influential the book was for everyone since then who has 'ripped it off' which seems to mostly be directed at Lucas and Cameron and that it's the Grandaddy story of all sci-fi adventure. cares (apart from aforementioned Burroughs fans). That's the harsh truth in terms of WHO Disney needs to line up and see this. The books are not in the forefront of anyone's mind. The supposed original story is now coming along way, way behind all the supposed imitators and now looks like the copycat. Especially with that Episode II like action through the trailer.

    Really, this should be right up my street and I haven't made a final decision yet. I'm not really that interested in what I've seen - but curiosity over whether it's actually any good or not may just make me.

  • Josh

    I remember seeing the first trailer for it when I went to see Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and I leaned over to the person I was with and asked " do you know who or what that is?" they said "no idea" and that still hasn't changed. I say it's on Disney for not giving us insight on what the story is. I still have no idea who John Carter is or why he's there on mars or why there's cowboys in it. I don't want the whole story obviously but give little outline to hook me and they haven't which is a shame since so much time money and work was put into it. But only time will tell because the only time you can properly judge a movie is once you start seeing the credits roll.

  • Andy

    I'am sick of all this Box Office flop talking!
    The movie is great and the peoble from the screening think the same.
    A lot of peoble where shocked how great the movie was!
    But also a lot of peoble are realy irritated from the
    mismanaged marketing for the movie!
    One word for the review embargo(03.02.2012)Disney only want this embargo because a lot of reviews today tells the audience the whole movie.
    I want more John Carter movies.:)

    • Aleric

      Amen Andy, this is the same trash talk that killed the Conan remake. What is it with the Media sites that they want to kill decent movies and then gush all over crap movies like Transformers and the last G.I.Joe.

  • maja

    Thanks for an excellent unbiased article about John seems to be quite rare on the internet with all I've read being extreme negativity. The marketing campaign...trailers, posters etc have been trully deadful for any movie let alone one with such a high budget. Despite seeing all the trailers i can honestly say i have no idea at all what this movie is about and to me it looks like another Clash of the Titans.

  • Steve J

    What's great about movies is who cares how much a movie cost when you see it, does not cost us anything more. Maja mentioned "Clash of the Titans" and I am thinking "Cowboys and Aliens". Then again, maybe it's another "Hugo" a great film hard to market.

  • ckybltz

    Great article Brad. But my favorite part...admitting to liking Waterworld. Its not nearly as bad as people make it out to be. Plus...Dennis Hopper...COME ON!

  • Dion Nash

    DUDE FUCK THIS! THIS IS A REMAKE OF "Princess Of Mars" disney stole the movie, remade it, and named it after the main character!

    • Garrett

      You're joking, right?

    • Max

      The Asylum's Princess of Mars doesn't even count as a Barsoom adaptation.

  • JunJunM3

    If they were going to go "all-in" with a 250mil+ budget, you'd think they'd go with the project from a known commodity and the bankable blockbuster star in Lone Ranger. Yet, they gave that project hell before eventually greenlighting it. An obscure source material and a cast of no-names, how did this get through the suits over there at Burbank?

  • Leandro Dubost

    Waterworld is the 90's Cleopatra, isn't it?
    I remember watching Cleopatra for the first time and thinking "what's all the negativity with this movie, wasn't it supposed to be bad?"

    Same with Waterworld. Over-budgeted extravaganza that made the press talk about anything but the movie. Now nobody cares if Waterworld or Cleopatra are much better than the fame of "boxoffice bombs" they have, they just think it's bad because they flopped a little bit. (flopped much less than some ACTUAL bombs nobody cares about anyway)

    I think John Carter will follow this path. Maybe it will be better than the negative hype says, but it won't change the fact that it will be seen as a bomb even if it makes 400 million dollars worldwide (which is A LOT!).

  • jbob

    I don't think the comparison to Waterworld works. There was a lot of negativity towards Waterworld because of the hatred towards Kevin Costner and a lot of people wanted it to fail. I don't think anyone hates anybody with John Carter.

    It's just a lack of marketing. I think maybe the studio assumed that there was more knowledge of the books than there really was/is/will be. And therefore didn't need to put as much marketing as usual. You see the same thing with Dark Knight Rises, the marketing is less than the previous film.

  • FocusPuller

    I have literally been waiting most of my life to see this movie -- it's an absolute tragedy Disney has done one of the worst jobs of marketing a film EVER. The trailers are mediocre, the posters awful -- even the tag line is lame. I could almost believe the unnamed Studio Exec -- Mr. Long-Knives -- was in charge of promoting this film. Sadly it's the Disney people themselves deep-sixing this movie. :(

  • adu

    Nice article this point I am just waiting for your review to see if this is worth making a trip to the theater. I have a feeling it wont make all that much money, but I hope it's a good movie at least.

  • Jake

    I don't care how much it costs, the advertising doesn't make the movie a must see. I'm much more interested in seeing Eddie Murphy's a thousand words which opens the same weekend and the preview is hilarious

  • Suburbanbanshee

    I'm a woman, and I can't wait to see this movie!

    I've never really been a huge Burroughs fan, but over the last couple years I've come to appreciate the Mars stories. And now... I'm really kind of jonesing to see Andrew Stanton's take on John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Dejah Thoris, and all the rest.

    Doesn't hurt that John Carter's played by someone easy on the eyes. :)

  • Winchester

    About the box office. Carter has probably COST Disney well over $300 million in actual fact once promotion is considered and that we are talking much closer to $350 million all in as an outlay. Based on budget and then marketing for a film as huge.

    That's why I would tend to believe the $700 million figure (bearing in mind the rough rule that studios only get back HALF of what a film makes this would suggest that much would be the break even point) much more in terms of what the film needs to do. If it only makes $400 million WW then it's not doing so well.

    Not relative to the massive cost of the project.

  • Elmo

    I'm sick of people going "I haven't seen bad reviews yet" - clearly you haven't been paying attention. A significant number of people and critics who have seen it have twitted their disappointment with the movie.

    Even the positive reviews point out the problems (unclear plot, bad acting, cheesy CGI, kiddie humor) and often praise things that should only add to a movie's quality, not make it - the music, the sets (real or otherwise), the costumes. Not to mention the leads' various states of undress - is this a new Michael Bay piece or a supposed masterpiece of storytelling?

    Has the action film situation become so dire that we now have to praise just the effort that went into making the film instead of the final product itself?

    • Aleric

      Well if it isnt Michael Bay or Christopher Nolan then it is trashed as a non entity to most of the Meida sites.

  • Kob

    John Carter could be good but the marketing around it has been bad to the point where people will preface their reviews with 'you may have heard about the budget..' Audiences/reviewers shouldn't care about the budget in terms of judging quality, it's irrelvant.

    Who's John Carter? No idea. How did he get to mars? No idea. Why's there a war going on? No idea. All this information may have been disclosed in the several gajillion videos they've posted in the last month but by then I had no interest in it. No mention of Andrew Stanton in the marketing; no mention of Pixar; no mention of it being of it being based on one of the pre-eminent sci-fantasy books. They've based it on a known property and yet they're still tentative about marketing it.

    It seemed as if Disney marketing team lacked confidence from the get-go and it affects the movies perception.

    I'm optimistic but having not read the John Carter books, what i've seen hasn't piqued my interest.

    • jbob

      Aren't those questions supposed to be answered by watching the movie? What happened to the complaint about trailers showing too much?

      • Kob

        No, not really, a trailer should be seen as an introduction to the world and charaters: it should set up what you're going to see.

        The complaint of trailers showing too much is in terms of spoiling the last act of the film or pivotal plot points. Is understanding who John Carter is a spoiler? I don't think so and resultingly the marketing is vague and broad.

  • mfan

    I support the groupthink that says this is basically going to be a "B" movie that should go direct to DVD. I have only detected interest in it by a couple of Edgar Rice Burroughs fans. And I mean only two.

    • Aleric

      Really?? I would think basic math could tell you that there are MORE than two fans on this thread alone. Want to reevaluate your statement?

      • mfan

        That's two people of my acquantance. I'm not talking about the Worldwide Web. And only a percentage of the people expressing interest will actually go to see it, especially absent exciting buzz. Given the uncertainty, reviews could probably make some difference if they are positive.

  • chriscarmichael

    I never thought this looked good but I gave the trailer some credit for using Peter Gabriels cover of "My Body is a cage".
    The lady of house really wants to see this though in 2D.
    I think Kitsch is a problem. They should have gotten someone who is at least recognizable and respected at least to people who are fans of films. They didn't need tom cruise but they could have gone with someone like Colin Farrel or something.
    ALso the martian people look really really ridiculously lame. Kinda Gungan-ish.
    But overall if the reviews are good I may give this a shot at the dollar theater.

  • J

    I have no idea how they turned the Barsoom series (or at least part of it) into a movie. It is the anti-Avatar of stories; a southern gentleman and ex-confederate who is transported to Mars where he becomes a warrior chief, noting all the time about the savage behavior of the native Martians. You can’t make that movie today. It’s far too politically incorrect. So what did they do to the plot and to John Carter (the character) to make John Cater (the movie)? I don’t know, but I have a feeling it’s going to be as much of a hatchet job as Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers – another sci-fi book I absolutely loved that Hollywood destroyed when they made the movie.

  • Aleric

    I am really getting tired of the trash talking of movies that have yet to be released and that none of the reviewers have even seen. This crap is the reason why Conan was trashed all over the movie sites but Fright Night was hailed as a great movie. Which did better at the box office, Conan.

    Now let’s move on to one of the glaring comments I see all the time about how this movie has no fan base, yet even after proclaiming how obscure the books, and comics seem to be Brad contradicts himself in his own article.

    "and fans have even taken to the Internet to create trailers to help the Disney marketing team along. Just look, there's one to the right, and it has Russ Fischer at Slashfilm calling it the best one yet."

    So which is is Brad? There can’t be fans and yet the movie not have a fan base.

    What would have made your article better would be going into the history of the books, the author and the time span from inception to the film. But it’s so much easier to denigrate a movie you obviously don’t like and try and kill any interest it has so far garnered.

  • Anneka

    Honestly, I have no background or clue about this movie aside from all the bad media press. They definitely should have kept the "of Mars," in the title because I've been randomly racking my brain trying to figure out what historical figure this was and why the weird take. Also, the lead actor confuses me, definitely thought he was of Twilight ilk which put a definite kibosh on the interest for a while. Still not really convinced to go spend the 12+ dollars to see a film whose publicity has been so mismanaged.

  • Winchester

    Disney's marketing seems to be doing a much better job killing interest than any article Brad could write.

  • Risa

    I would've had higher hopes for the film if someone more recognisable was playing Carter and more importantly if it wasn't under Disney. PG - 13 rating killed it already, the source material really isn't for kids and KIDS/teenagers would be the main target audience which is just sad. But I love the books and Stanton must've liked the story, enough to be wanting to get involved. I'm definitely watching despite all the negative hypes. I don't mind forgetting all about it the next day, I'm pretty sure it won't be worse than Green Lantern

    • zlaja

      I don't think that PG-13 rating can hurt it, actually it can only helps. Considering its budget it needs all audience it can get. R-rating doesn't mean it'll be better film or something (I find quite irritating all those people who whine about ratings).. However, I don't think it'll flop. Disappoints? Very possible..

  • Kash

    its funny, people said the same thing about Cameron's Titanic...i wonder what happened to them after that movie hit the billion mark. LOL!

  • Winchester

    I have a sneaky suspicion John Carter will not do a Titanic. Not even close.

  • Dan

    Where are you getting this negative reception from? Early buzz is overwhemingly positive

  • Peter

    Considering Waterworld actually made money and isn't the flop it keeps getting a bad rap for, then saying it's the next Waterworld isn't that bad a thing.

    Now if you'd said the next "Heaven's Gate" then that would be a concern.

    • Brad Brevet

      That was actually the point of the article.