Disney Rolls The Dice On John Carter

Oh John Carter, if you could only know how many headaches and sleepless nights you’ve caused the execs at Disney. No other film in recent memory has made a studio as nervous as John Carter has. Opening this weekend, moviegoers, industry folk and critics are all going to have an answer to the one million dollar question: did Disney’s gamble on John Carter pay off?

Let’s start with the tracking numbers, those very disappointing tracking numbers which showed that interest in the film was low. Even worse was that they came in only three weeks before release. Not a good sign.

The problem with John Carter is twofold. For one, with a budget of $275 million, Disney has a big hill to climb if they hope to start making profit. Secondly, the film’s source material isn’t that well known and for some reason, Disney is trying to turn it into a tentpole.

“We’re treating this like a global tentpole,” says a studio spokesperson. “This is a huge movie. Everyone’s focus right now is merely on getting as many people to see the movie as possible.”

Why Disney would spend so much money to make a tentpole out of source material that is firstly, not that popular and secondly, fairly old, is beyond me. I’m sure they have faith in Academy Award winning director Andrew Stanton but that still doesn’t warrant putting so much money and effort into a film based on a character that isn’t that well known. And speaking of not well known, casting Taylor Kitsch in the role was another gamble. Outside of Friday Night Lights, he really isn’t a recognizable face and perhaps Disney would have been better off had they cast someone who could pull in an audience.

In addition to those issues, the studio decided to cut the title in half. If you remember, the film used to be called John Carter of Mars, until it was renamed to just simply, John Carter. The reasoning behind this was due to Disney’s Mars Needs Moms, which flopped. There were also a number of studies to see how audiences would react to the word Mars in the title and after realizing that films like Mission To Mars and Mars! Attacks were bombs, they decided to do away with the word.

“You lose any kind of scope the movie has,” says an insider of the generic title. “John Carter of Mars gave the movie context.”

I couldn’t agree more. Without the mars, the film’s title has zero context. Audiences who hear about it have no clue what it’s about or even what genre it falls into. If your average moviegoer simply hears the title John Carter, it would spark little to no interest in his/her mind. At least with the “Of Mars” in the title, it gives the film a context and would likely attract sci-fi fans to the film.

Disney has a long road ahead of them if they are to prove people wrong with John Carter. Early reviews have been alright, with some being positive and some negative, but none glowing. From everything we’ve seen, the film looks like it could be a fun ride and I for one am interesting in seeing it. I’m intrigued to see what Stanton has done with his gigantic budget and I’m also curious to see if Kitsch has the acting chops to be a true leading man.

Lastly, while I can’t say I agree with the marketing and promotion route that Disney has decided to go down so far, which has downplayed the narrative arc (though they are starting to change that), I still think it stands a chance of being a hit at the box office.

Either way, however the film turns out, it will be a lesson to Hollywood on how to take a gamble and either win big, or fall hard.

John Carter opens on March 9th, 2012.