The big-budget Disney movie was a box-office disappointment, but it's no Ishtar.
Disney's epic John Carter arrived in theaters billed as a flop in the making, a gargantuan $350 million endeavor (including extensive marketing costs) with some of the softest box office tracking experts had seen in years. The movie opened with a domestic take of $30.6 million, far below the $70 million or so it needed to earn in its debut weekend for a shot at profitability, meaning the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation seems to have lived up to its bad hype. It's now being grouped with infamous disasters such as Heaven's Gate, the 1980 western that helped put United Artists out of business, and Eddie Murphy's putrid sci-fi comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash. "Ishtar Lands on Mars," is how a New York Times headline puts it, a reference to the expensive, Dustin Hoffman- and Warren Beatty-starring 1987 comedy that didn't even make back half of its production budget. Others predicted a $100 million-plus write-off for Disney and deemed the film a "debacle."
Indeed, in the realm of gleefully anticipated pre-release flops, John Carter is hardly Titanic, which saw its opening date delayed amid disastrous rumors but wound up setting box office records and winning Oscars. But the film is no Ishtar, either. The movie hasn't really earned its place in classic turkey lore, for several key reasons.
First, from a financial standpoint, the film did far better internationally than it did domestically, adding some $70 million to its gross. Outside of the U.S. and Canada, it could be poised for some more quality weekends ahead. John Carter posted the fourth-biggest Russian opening of all time and it's performed strongly in Asia, without even opening in China or Japan, the continent's two biggest markets. Box Office Mojo expects the film to ultimately take about $300 million globally. Add to that perhaps $60 or $70 million domestically and you don't have a profit-maker, but losses would be drastically reduced. Post-release revenue (DVD sales, TV etc.) could conceivably push the film closer toward the black, though it's unlikely to get there. Whatever the case, there's no comparison between what should turn out to be a mild flop and, say, Pluto Nash, which cost around $100 million and wound up earning about $7 million total.
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There's also the legacy question. A true flop must be a flop in every sense, with a financial shortfall matched by a creative failure. Some of the biggest bombs of all-time have been savaged by critics as "a mediocrity wrapped inside a banality" (Sahara, 2005), "coarse [and] clunky" (Town & Country, 2001), and "unpleasant in a hostile way" (Battlefield Earth, 2000).
On the other hand, John Carter has been hailed as "colorful and kind of fun" in the New York Times and applauded for its "utterly immersive and lifelike" characters by NPR. The Atlantic's Christopher Orr praised the film's "hokey charms." That's not the stuff of a masterpiece, of course, and the film did get its share of bad reviews, but the critical split (The Tomatometer is hovering at 50 percent) defies the "disaster" characterization. Audiences seemed similarly taken with the film, awarding it a B+ according to CinemaScore.
There's also the inescapable fact that the movie simply didn't have a chance of performing well. It's not based on a comic book or an established filmed franchise, which are about the only surefire ways to have a shot at profitability at $350 million.
Disney offered a full-throttle marketing campaign that placed the bare-chested, abs-sporting hero, played by Taylor Kitsch, across the media spectrum but singularly failed to explain what the movie was about. The vague title tells you nothing, a problem Moviefone epitomized when a reporter called a "John Carter" in all 50 states to see if they'd planned to see the film. The trailers, which stressed the epic nature of the movie with vague allusions to gladiator, Civil War, and sci-fi tropes, only further muddled things.
There's no hint of the philosophic leanings imbued in the story, the awe-inspiring visual sensibilities of director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E), or the sincere grandeur that makes the mash-up film such a refreshing piece of entertainment. Add to that failure to tell the story ahead of time, an unfortunate necessity these days, and the sharpened media knives—which have had the film pegged as a bomb for weeks now—and you wind up with a terrible opening weekend, losing to the second go-round of The Lorax, a Dr. Seuss adaptation nobody really likes.
But earning a place among the infamy of all-time disasters is another burden entirely, and one John Carter will likely avoid.