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?

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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