'John Carter' the latest Disney bomb

CEO Iger wants the company to learn from the box-office mistake. But is this one mistake too many?

By InvestorPlace Mar 12, 2012 3:20PM
Image: Hollywood (© Comstock/SuperStock)By Jonathan Berr

Walt Disney (DIS) CEO Bob Iger is trying to transform its huge box-office bomb "John Carter"into a teachable moment where nobody will lose their jobs. What a pity.

There's plenty of blame to go around for this turkey of a sci-fi mega-flick, as The New York Times notes. First, the script -- based on a forgotten story by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs -- was a mess. Then there was the $350 million price tag, expensive even by current Hollywood standards.

Director Andrew Stanton, whose credits include animation hits "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E," had never helmed a live-action picture before. His inexperience showed in this confusing mess of a film, according to critics.

"The movie eagerly sells itself as semitrashy, almost-campy fun, but it is so lavish and fussy that you can't help thinking that it wants to be taken seriously, and therefore you laugh at, rather than with, its mock sublimity," wroteTimes film critic A.O. Scott.

The "John Carter" bomb was expected, as the following video notes.

Post continues below.
The website Rotten Tomatoes is even more brutal, arguing thatthe film "suffers from uneven pacing and occasionally incomprehensible plotting and characterization." Adding further insult, Universal Studios' "The Lorax" had a second-weekend box-office take that walloped John Carter's debut, at $39.1 million to $30.6 million.

Disney will need to take a quarterly write-down of as much as $160 million because of the poor "John Carter" performance, according to the Times. The film was so expensive, by the way, that it needed to gross an estimated $600 million just to break even -- a feat that seems impossible.

Shares of Disney have barely budged over the past year and have underperformed peers such as Comcast (CMCSA) because of concerns about its movie business.

As the Times notes, Iger is refusing to pin blame for the "John Carter" fiasco on one person. It's a huge miss, Iger reportedly told executives, but it's the company's miss and no individual should be blamed. That's sound management because companies succeed and fail as a team. Unfortunately for Disney shareholders, though, there are no signs that the company has learned from other mistakes made in its film business.

"Cars 2" received such a critical drubbing that director John Lasseter took the unusual step of publicly defending his picture, which was less of a hit than its predecessor. Disney also reportedly sunk $175 million into "Mars Needs Moms," another critical and box-office failure. Disney's box-office market share plunged about 15% in 2011 to 12.2%, finishing in 4th place behind Viacom's (VIA) Paramount, Time Warner's (TWX) Warner Bros. and Sony's (SNE) Columbia, Box Office Mojo says.

Another test for Disney studio head Rich Ross, a company veteran who started his current job in 2009, will come next year with the release of "The Lone Ranger." The film, which has a reported budget topping $200 million, was almost canceled once already because of soaring costs. If The Lone Ranger is as big of a bomb as John Carter and Disney's stock continues to tread water, both Iger and Ross may be out of a job.

Ross has angered at least one Hollywood hotshot already. Legendary director Steven Spielberg was furious with him about not being consulted before Disney replaced well-known marketing chief MT Carney, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Tinseltown executives anger important players such as Spielberg at their own peril.

Disney shares have finally shown some life, gaining almost 13% this year and trading at a price-earnings ratio of 15.97, near their five-year high, according to Reuters. Wall Street analysts have an average one-year price target of $45.62 on Disney, about 8% above where it currently trades. The stock, though, should be avoided until the cloud over the studio Mickey built lifts.

Jonathan Berr does not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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Mar 12, 2012 4:00PM
Maybe there are just too many movies ! Huge releases are an almost weekly occurrence and Disney is one of the biggest culprits. I just don't think the public is interested in going to the movies week after week, I know I don't, and by the way it's not cheap anymore. A family outing to the movies can run up to $ 100 with the obligatory popcorn and drinks - and why do they charge $ 6.50 for about 23 cents worth of popping corn ? A lot of people I  know think movies have just gotten too expensive.
Mar 12, 2012 4:41PM
I don't know if it will make 600 million, but it already passed 100 million world wide yesterday and has spring break in the states this week. I think the only movie coming out is 21 Jumpstreet next weekend.
Not really sure how someone found the movie confusing. It was pretty decent, just had a very poor marketing campaign. There are a lot worse movies made that have done a lot better.

I do think having Disney's name attached to the movie did not help it.

Mar 13, 2012 8:20AM
Try watching and enjoying the movie rather than listening to the reports of John Carter's demise which are, I believe greatly exaggerated.  This is not a bad movie.  Like I said I really enjoyed it but I'll admit I grew up reading Burroughs.  They (Disney) would have done better perhaps had they trusted Burrough's story spinning ability and not deviated so far from it.  The Tharks should have been bulkier, for instance and their tusks were like extremely large lower canines which stuck out from their lower jaws, and the Therns were not Galaxy spanning manipulators and John Carter had the ability to travel between worlds which was innate, not some Thern contrivance.  Woola needed to have a face like a Frog with sharp teeth in several rows, not like a big salamander.  The franchise could still be saved if  they were willing to hire Peter Jackson to direct another one.  "The Warlord of Mars" done almost faithfully according to Burrough's storylines with no explanation of how many other City states were present could ressurect this.  The fliers should have looked much more like sailing ships and skiffs.
Mar 12, 2012 4:53PM

First lesson: Movies in MArch will tank.

Second Lesson: Don't sell a movie based on a name only known to hard sci-fi nerds (I am one, but still)

Third lesson: You can't phone anything in on a movie with Avatar levels of CG needed.

Forth Lesson: Sticking to the source material and having the women nearly nude wouldn't have hurt. (kidding)


200 mil for Lone Ranger?  For What?  Old western props hard to come by?  Oh right, Jonny Depp stars.  There's most of the budget.

Mar 12, 2012 4:45PM
You have to laugh... Iger &/or Ross seem clueless.  They cancelled films like Wild Hogs II - granted, a campy, semi-cheesy film to be sure... but one that had a built-in box office.  They said that films like that were not the image or direction they envisioned for Disney.  Translation:  Wild Hogs II would have been a modest earning film, and these guys wanted to go after big box office with things like Cars II  and John Carter.  No wonder Iger says this is a teachable moment and no one will get fired - it's him and Ross who screwed up.  You shoot for big box office and miss, you've got a big problem.  Oops.  (I'm guessing Wild Hogs II and the other similar films they axed don't look so bad right now...  and just might get made after all.)
Mar 13, 2012 7:50AM
A good script, good acting, and good directing will trump special effects all of the time. Spending a lot of money doesn't guarantee a great movie. I think of movies like Animal House where their budget was so tight that they ran out of money before the end of the movie was made and everyone worked for free to finish it.
Mar 12, 2012 4:50PM
Now we have another Disney bomb in the red, as in the Red Planet.   After thudding fiascos such as Waterworld, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate, which broke up UA with director Michael Cimino (where is he?), I would think the rocket surgeons of Whollywood would wake up.  Now upcoming is the "Lone Ranger" with Depp as Tonto.  A $225 million effort.  As Tonto he has a stuffed raven on his head, I guess.  We had a pet raven, Black Bart, growing up.  Yikes! 
Mar 12, 2012 3:53PM
If everyone can see this bomb coming from a mile away..why make it in the first place?Every survey I saw on John Carter was that kids were luke-warm to seeing it and adults didnt really care for it either.That seems to be ALL of your target audience telling you DO NOT make this film.My 8 yr old daughter has no interest inspite of the promo commercial every 10 minutes on the Disney channel.So yes...the guys who gave the green light on this turkey should be gone.This makes Heavens Gate look like a failed TV pilot
Mar 12, 2012 7:04PM
The creative process can be destructive.  Oh well - this helps in the long run to refine the filtering process.

Another title to add to the list of movies protected by unconstitutional copyright laws.

Before you shoot off on the 2nd sentence -- be sure to carefully review the U.S. Constitution's language on this and understand the concepts of protection for creative incentive and the public's remainder interests.

Mar 13, 2012 9:02AM
Disney needs to get out of the movie making business,as well for television espn has ruined the abc network by stealing all of its sports programming and making people pay for it on cable.And its not worth much at all.Disney makes bad movies on purpose its called a tax write off.Go back to Disneyland and say hi to Mickey Mouse.Your business performance has alot in common with its famous icon.
Mar 12, 2012 4:02PM
The Lone Ranger will be lucky to make $100 million. They need to get the production budget down to about $85 million. Why would anybody think that John Carter could cover its production budget of $250 million even with add ons of 3d and IMAX? I sawi t. It was extremely confusing and the acting was terrible. Maybe close ups of characters smiling works in cartoons but looks pretty stupid on the big IMAX screen.
Mar 16, 2012 3:59AM

Saw the movie.  Sure it was pretty, as were the actors.  But it was nothing like the original book "A Princess Of Mars"!  They eliminated or recreated important parts of the book, basterizing a classic SF book to meet the assumed sensibilities of a desired ADD teenage audience supposedly looking for action, action, action all the time.  And the all too pretty Taylor Kitsch was the wrong actor to play Civil War survivor and man of the world, John Carter.


Really, it was pretty much a travesty from the getgo.  The scriptwriters seem to have decided to write a new book, instead of following what Burroughs wrote.  Carter being recruited as an Apache fighter?  Didn't happen in the book.  Carter chained to the wall among the Tharks?  Didn't happen.  Carter making quarter mile jumps into the air?  Didn't (couldn't) happen.  Helium flying ships fighting Zadonga flying ships (using a Thern weapon no less!) resulting in John Carter saving Dejah Thoris?  Didn't happen.  Dejah Thoris was actually colored copper red, not covered with henna tattoo's.  The white apes weren't like 50 ft tall.  I could go on but those who have read the book will get the picture.


You can read the original book at project Gutenberg.  Search for the "A Princess Of Mars"


I think they might have turned out a better product had they actually stuck with following the actual story in the book (after all, it still works 100 years later!) and chosen a better John Carter actor.  Oh, not to forget - the 3D junk gave me a headache! 


My recommendation - wait for it on DVD.

Mar 14, 2012 5:31PM



One of the biggest successes in recent years was Transformers 2, a movie with neither a good script nor good acting, but a lot of explosions and special effects.


Guess what movie companies do.

Mar 12, 2012 10:48PM
So why is DIS holding up so well today, despite the "Carter malaise"?...
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