Why John Carter Will Be the Biggest Box Office Bomb of the Year

It’s not always easy to spot big budget box office bombs from a long ways off. For as strange as the casting of Ryan Reynolds and his subsequent CGI suit may have been, not many could have predicted that Green Lantern would have tanked to the degree it did. It didn’t look any more offensive than a feature like Hulk or Thor, but somehow it managed to fail on a level that no one expected.

The same goes for a film like Conan the Barbarian, which yes, was a reboot, but had a recognizable name and a hulking up and coming star leading (Jason Momoa), but that film also failed to impress even its bloodthirsty target audience, and was one of the biggest failures of the year.

And now along comes a film that appears to be a cross between them. John Carter wears Conan’s skimpy leather outfits and interacts with alien species that would have been right at home with Green Lantern. With an unfamiliar story, an unproven star and a production budget reported to be close to $250M, I am confident that we are about to witness one of the most spectacular box office failures of all time.

But it’s got this…thing!

This is a risky bet to make, as it could end up being the next Avatar for all I know. That too had a cast of relative unknowns and a wacky sci-fi concept, yet it went on to be the most highest grossing film ever made. So what’s different about John Carter?

Let me say up front that this is not an article dedicated to saying that John Carter is going to suck. For those intimately familiar with the source material, it’s supposed to be a pretty good tale, and director Andrew Stanton has helmed masterful Pixar films like Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Mission Impossible 4’s Brad Bird (of The Incredibles and Rataouille) has recently proven that animation directors can jump into live-action and the result can be explosive.

But audiences don’t necessarily listen to critics, and lately, have been barely doing so at all. Taking a look at the top ten films of this past weekend is bizarre. Eight of the ten have rotten ratings, and Wanderlust, one of the only two fresh features, debuted in eighth place this weekend. The Secret World of Arriarty with a 94% is in tenth. And this isn’t an anomaly. A few weeks earlier, Haywire got rave reviews yet put up terrible numbers. Meanwhile, the much derided The Vow has been tearing up the box office. So the point is that even if John Carter earns high marks from critics, that doesn’t mean the box office receipts will match.


Every time I’ve been in a theater where a John Carter trailer plays, it’s the same audience reaction. The spot is a mashup of footage from Civil War era America, when it suddenly jumps into an alien populated Mars and Taylor Kitch wearing a leather outfit that almost looks fetishistic. Throw in a giant helping of oddly CGi-ed creatures and some stock dialogue along the lines of “we didn’t start this war, but we will finish it!” and the audience looks around them confused, not knowing what just happened.

Though it might not be bad, I would say that for nearly anyone outside of die hard Stanton, Kitsch or classic sci-fi fans, it sure as hell doesn’t look good from these trailers. The plot is incomprehensible, and I still don’t understand it after watching six different trailer variants, and the CGI is more Star Wars prequel trilogy than Avatar. The title furthers the confusion, as changing “John Carter of Mars” to just “John Carter” has to be the oddest shortening in movie history, and I still don’t understand the reasoning behind it.

But all this aside, even if it can somehow manage to attract a mildly interested audience who will find something redeeming in these trailers, the film doesn’t just need to be a hit, it needs to be a SMASH for Disney to have sunk so much into it. They want, no, need John Carter to be the next big sci-fi franchise. But the math makes this an incredibly tall order. With the production budget at $250M and unknown millions of marketing costs past that, those involved with the film have said the movie needs to make $700M worldwide to warrant a sequel.

A gladiator fight where the person getting executed miraculously kills everything and survives? What a twist!

So what’s the only way this can happen? The movie needs to be just so damn good that it needs to force people into theaters to see it after week one, two, three and so on. Once you see it, you have to tell everyone you know they must check it out, as the inherent concept isn’t engaging or coherent enough to get people to turn out the way a big established franchise like Batman or Harry Potter can.

Again, you can say that happened with Avatar, but what that film had going for it was that the amazement of moviegoers was not necessarily with the story, but the visuals. You were telling all your friends to see it, or came back to the theater multiple times yourself because the new 3D and motion capture effects were unlike anything anyone had ever seen in a film. John Carter does not have this same sort of revolutionary tech behind it, and so it must stand on story alone.

I would LOVE for John Carter to be a amazing. I’m as die hard a sci-fi fan as you get, and I’m always happy to see new amazing films released in the genre. I am not rooting against it, but I see so many barriers ahead that I can envision it being a colossal financial failure. If it’s bad or mediocre, it will lose tons of money. If it’s well-reviewed, it still may lose a lot of money as people don’t put all that much stock in what critics say. There’s a stark disconnect with what they deem good, and what audiences will turn out for. Though they overlap on occasion, the subject matter has to be able to get people excited or interested, and I don’t think John Carter does either for the large majority of those who have seen the trailers.

We’ll see if I’m proven wrong in two weeks, and I’ll write an apology post to Mr. Carter himself if that’s the case.

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  1. I’m with you on this one… this just feels like it will be a massive bomb.

    The only help is that nothing major comes out this week (I don’t think the Lorax or Project X will be overwhelming enough to carry a ton of momentum into the following week) and JC is basically the only thing with commercial appeal coming out the 9th.

    Basically, this movie has to make up it’s ridiculously high price tag really quick, because once Hunger Games opens on the 23rd basically globally, no one will remember that JC even exists.

  2. Agreed Paul, plot was impossible to figure out from the trailers. I’m not sure how they couldn’t come up with a more drawing trailer for a movie with this high of a budget. Seems like a giant gamble that they haven’t marketed correctly.

  3. I’ve been saying since I’ve saw the first trailer that this will be the next Battlefield Earth. The CGI characters look goofy, the bits of humor we’ve seen look stupid and corny, the films actors from what I’ve seen them in other movies are quite mediocre (With the exception of Bryan Cranston), and while John Carter may have been original back when it was first released in book form, now those are common tropes and this film looks generic as fuck and nothing more than a goofier version of Avatar. From the trailers and all that happens it also appears to be trying to tell too much story so I feel it’s going to feel rushed and disjointed as well. It’s going to get disastrous reviews and nobody is going to see it. They might as well call it Battlefield Earth 2.

  4. Why would you need to discern the plot from the trailers?? If you could do that, what would be the point of going to see the movie. I’ve read Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and the Warlord of Mars, so I know what it’s about, and I for one am glad it doesn’t show the whole movie in the trailer. The reason it seems like a “common trope” is because it was written 100 years ago and has influenced to a great degree all the adventure stories and movies since that time, including Star Wars and Avatar.

    I think you naysayers are way off base. Andrew Stanton is, like most people at Pixar, an uncompromising storyteller and director. This movie will be a huge hit. Just wait.

  5. Also, I had no idea who John Carter was before I saw the very first trailer, no familiarity with the material whatsoever. But, when I saw the very first trailer, early last Summer I think, it looked so amazing, I looked up John Carter and immediately found and read the books. So, it just goes to show it can appeal to people who don’t know the stories already.

  6. @Caleb Robertson
    Just a heads up, critics have been talking about it on Twitter and they all seem to absolutely love it. It has VERY positive early word of mouth.
    I have no idea if positive reviews will make it a commercial success, but it can’t hurt.

  7. @Brennan, I’ve also read the books and like I said, while they were original for their time that doesn’t mean shit to casual moviegoers and critics as they will be judging based off other science fiction movies which a lot have been influenced by John Carter, and look at it without knowing that John Carter came out so long ago it seems like just a bunch of common sci-fi and narrative tropes. Most people I’ve talked to about it either don’t know what it was, or weren’t interested because it just didn’t look that good. And I love Andrew Stanton, and want to believe it can be good, especially after Mission Impossible 4, but I just can’t see this succeeding.

    @Sam, really? I hadn’t heard that. I guess I’ll look into it.

  8. Every time I see a tv spot for this film I hear the voice over boom ‘JOHN CARTER’ and I’m just like…okay? Who cares?

    It feels like it’s convinced it’s something it’s not. And the fact Disney is behind it makes me think it won’t be as bloody or as violent as its tone suggests.

    I thought it would be a bust but now knowing how much was spent on it I’m assured it’ll be a major blow for Disney. But then people seem to watch anything these days so if this movie makes money despite being god awful I may lose my last shred of faith in humanity.

  9. On the one hand, for Disney to spend so much on this makes me think they’re riding their own coattails a bit much these days. On the other hand, I think the movie will be better than it’ll be made out to be, and most of the negativity it will attract will probably be provided by haters who aren’t happy unless they’re bitching about something. Like Prince of Persia, not the best movie ever, but as far as video-game adaptations go, pretty damn decent attempt. Green Lantern and Ghostrider are highly underrated as well, but then again, I go to the movies to have fun so if I enjoy a movie then that’s that for me.

  10. I don’t know why, but I dislike movie titles that are a characters name, unless that character is well established, such as from mythology or popular book. Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is, or has a vague idea of Captain America & Iron Man. But who is John Carter? I have no idea, so hearing the name all over the place does not make me want to see the film. It just looks like an entire film of the arena fight towards the end of Star Wars Episode 2.

    I am sure the original books are good, but they need the marketing to show what this film does differently and why I should watch it. Or give it a more attention grabbing title.

  11. Prince of Persia was shit, and not comparable to this. Name one movie based off a video game that can really be considered good. I mean, they keep making those Resident Evil movies for some reason. No one cares or thinks they’re good but they keep making them anyway.

    Everyone was saying the same things about Avatar. “Oh, big weird blue aliens” “Terrible ambiguous title” “Not based off a comic book/hit novel, not a sequel so no one will care” and it made billions. All these adventure movies follow the same story line, almost as old as time itself, known as The Hero’s Journey. That doesn’t stop people from connecting with the characters and appreciating the fantastical visuals and settings. I’m not sure why everyone is shitting on this movie before they’ve even seen it.

  12. Just to clear up some of the confusion, I’m certain the reason they didn’t name the movie “John Carter of Mars” is because that is actually the name of the 11th book in the series. The movie “John Carter” is based off the first book, titled “A Princess of Mars.” I agree wholeheartedly that “John Carter” is a terrible title; it’s dull, generic, and gives no indication as to what the movie is about. And while I don’t personally have any better suggestions, I also think that “A Princess of Mars” would have been a bad idea, too– especially for Disney, where “princess” has a very specific connotation. Besides which, that title also fails to give an accurate representation of the plot.
    Side note: I just learned from Wikipedia that when the story was first serialized in magazines (in 1912!) it was titled “Under the Moons of Mars.” The “Princess” title didn’t come until it was published in novel form. I think “Under the Moons of Mars” would have been a great title.
    Having devoured all of the books one summer when I was 11 or 12, I have been waiting to see a film version of these stories for a long time. And based on the trailers and photos I’ve seen, everything looks exactly how I imagined it (seriously, it’s like they cracked my head open and pulled the images out). My excitement for this movie notwithstanding, it’s easy to see why everyone is so confused and turned off by the trailers. They are horrible. It’s true that they make the movie look like a run-of-the-mill sci-fi/fantasy “thing.” And while I hate trailers that give away the entire plot, I do think a good trailer should explain enough of the plot that audiences understand what they will be going to see.
    I also think it’s a big mistake not to play up the history behind the series, to explain that the books were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan; that the story was first published 100 years ago; that it helped inspire everything from “Flash Gordon” to “Star Wars” to “Superman”; and, most importantly, that it practically invented a great number of the now-familiar sci-fi tropes that the trailers make it look like it is copying.
    I have a deep fondness and nostalgia for these books/stories. I really hope the movie is good. And I really hope it’s a hit. But I’m doubtful myself, since the marketing for this movie has been nothing but terrible.

  13. Conan had a recognizable name as lead? Even after GOT I only knew his first name was Jason after watching the GOT ComicCon panel. IMO this was one example where a name actor may have made a difference in box office…as much as I hate the money they are paid etc. They should all be paid on % of box office as standard IMO.

  14. The last TV spot I saw was fantastic. They finally mentioned that these stories are the ones that inspires star wars and avatar. But I’m afraid its too little too late.

  15. too little too late. hahaha, I saw a sneak preview and this movie rocks. you all need to cool ur jets. Better than the majority of summer movies last year.

  16. @Rosstopher
    Don’t take my “too little too late” comment to mean that I think the movie will be bad. On the contrary in fact, I think it looks great and I have been excited to see it since I saw the first trailer. However I am worried that the average filmgoer won’t care because they just see the arena scene from attack of the clones without realizing that this story was written a hundred years before that or they don’t know or care who Andrew stanton is. I think Disney should have been pushing the “story that inspired star wars and avatar” and “from the director if wall-e and finding nemo”kind of advertising months ago, but starting it a week before release is too late. However, I hope this becomes a huge word of mouth hit akin to avatar, which let me remind you didn’t put up huge numbers right away. But I am afraid it won’t really ever catch on like that because Disney really screwed the pooch marketing wise yet people will call it a failure even if the actual movie kicks all kinds of ass.

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