Special Report by Michael D. Sellers for The John Carter Files on the accuracy and curious psychology of much of the reporting on Disney’s John Carter since its release on March 9, 2012.

“To the schadenfreudist, an epic fail is the only just reward for such epic hubris, and thus the narrative is pre-determined and nothing short of an outright “win” at the box office will derail that narrative.”

Our old friend Mr. Webster defines schadenfreude as enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others and it would seen that Andrew Stanton, Disney, and Edgar Rice Burroughs fans have all found themselves on the receiving end of an epic convulsion of schadenfreude as journalists, media analysts, and gleeful internet “trolls” trip over themselves to label a film that brought in 100m in its first three days a “bomb”, a “flop”, and the “new Ishtar”.   Meanwhile the film itself, while splitting the critics more or less down the middle,  has garnered a passionate fan base that, while not as large as may have been needed given the enormous budget and marketing cost, is  giving the film multiple viewings, exorting one another to support Stanton’s vision, and vowing to give the film the legs it will need to gradually change the perception of flop that has been hung around its neck in the wake of its less than stellar domestic opening weekend gross of $30.1M.  Where, in all of this, is the reasonable truth about the status of the film?  And what are the psychological forces at play in the way the story is being reported?

A pre-established narrative prior to the release

The truth, most reasonable observers would agree,  is, the  flop/bomb/epic fail label had already been taken out, prepped, and was ready to be affixed to John Carter before opening day ever arrived.  Report after report of “soft tracking” led to pre-release headlines like: “John Carter set to crater”, “Bomb in the making John Carter set for anemic opening”, and so on.   But why such gleeful delight in announcing the projected weak domestic opening?  And once released — why  is there so little acknowledgment of the healthy $70m in foreign gross which, coupled with the $30m domestic, gives John Carter $100M in its first three days?    Are the reports comparing John Carter to epic failures Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate accurate or fair, based on these actual numbers?

The pre-release buzz regarding John Carter was negative in part because it is inevitably so.  Whenever a studio invests “tentpole” dollars in a film that does not come with a built in “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games” fan base,  questions about the judgment exercised in taking such a gamble are just too easy to ask,  and the target is just too inviting to pass up.   The gleeful anticipation of failure is so strong that there seems to be an underlying psychological sense that the overall order of things will improve if risky,  mega-budget movies fail.  When the moment of truth comes, the narrative has already been set — and nothing, it seems, can derail that narrative  one the trigger is pulled unless the film in question vastly outperforms expections–as happened with Titanic, Avatar, and a few others.

In this case, the gun was cocked and ally he trigger that was needed was a less than blockbuster opening weekend of  $30.1M  which, while not “flop” territory for a “normal” film, was deemed to be a “flop” because of John Carter’s high budget and marketing costs.  Instead of referencing actual recent films which opened around 30m,  the reference point for John Carter was Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate.  Are such comparisons reasonable?  Not really.

“Those movies lived and died on domestic box office,” says Vincent Bruzzese, president of the Worldwide Motion Picture Group, a research firm employed by many major studios. “Unless someone knows the details of John Carter’s financials, the foreign sales, the DVD, pay TV, all that, it’s very difficult to comment.” But he adds that Disney’s huge investment in John Carter placed unrealistic pressure on the movie’s box-office performance. “If you have to be Avatar or Titanic to break even, then good luck.”

International grosses might be John Carter’s saving grace: The movie has already taken in over $70 million overseas. “Visually stunning movies translate into any language. And international audiences love the 3-D component as well,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office analyst at Hollywood.com. “I’m still saying wait and see. Nobody makes a $250 million movie hoping for a $30 million opening. But the $100 million worldwide was not a bad result.”  Entertainment Weekly

But if actual expert are saying “$100m worldwide was not a bad result”, why is it that virtually every major media outlet has joined in the feeding frenzy labeling the film as a disaster, a bomb, a flop of epic proportions?

The Psychology of Schadenfreude

If the actual facts of John Carter’s business situation are as Paul Degarabedian has stated — and they are — then why the feeding frenzy?  If it cannot be explained logically based on the business outcome, is it better explained psychologically?  What is the psychology of the enormous feast of schadenfreude that is on display?

James Shenton writes: “There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing a big-budget movie flop. Whenever we hear about these ambitious, special effects-laden extravaganzas going down in flames we get an odd feeling of schadenfreude. But why is this? Does it stem from the fact that we feel manipulated, almost exploited, by the movie industry? Perhaps. After all, movie studios make a lot of coin from tweaking our emotions, be it through adrenaline-filled action films or mawkishly tear-jerking weepies. Perhaps the best reason for our guilty pleasure at seeing a big-budget movie flop is the fact that we feel like we won a battle. We caught Hollywood trying to pull a fast one by releasing a bad movie and trying to hype it anyway — and we weren’t fooled. Gotcha. Better luck next time.”

Does this mean that film journalist schadenfreude is somehow tied up with the notion, psychologically at least, that with such a high profile failure, a kind of rough justice is achieved?

Norman T. Feather in a study in Australia in 2007 analyzed “Envy, resentment, Schadenfreude, and Sympathy: Reactions to Deserved and Undeserved Achievement and Failure” among college students.  The key finding of this study was that schadenfreude about a previously high achieving student’s subsequent failure was predicted by resentment and not by envy. Sympathy was not predicted by either resentment or envy. Deservingness was a key variable in the models that were tested.  In other words, schadenfreude kicked in most clearly when the person suffering the failure had previously experienced what was perceived to be undeserved success.

Is such psychology in play in the response to Disney and John Carter?

Is it more than ironic that the very journalists and analysts rushing to classify John Carter as an iconic Hollywood bomb are the same ones who complain that studios are too conservative, relying to heavily on sequels and failing to take risks?  An Irish blogger observes:

So, what happens when a major studio actually takes a chance, rather than spending money on a sequel to a tired franchise with no creative vision? We pounce on it. We mock it. We turn it into a joke as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not a box office prognosticator, but I am genuinely worried about the box-office returns on the film – but those numbers are so uncertain precisely because it’s not a safe bet, precisely because it’s an”out there” choice. I think that producing John Carter was a very brave move from an institution that we tend to mock for being staid and conservative, and I just find it odd that we are so quick to preemptively punish that sort of bold creativity and risk-taking, especially when we claim that’s exactly what we want.  The M0vieblog.com

What has all the empathy gone?

If Schadenfreude is the taking of pleasure at the misfortune of others, is it not the opposite of empathy?  And if so — where does empathy factor into the equation?  Andrew Stanton stepped out of a perfectly successful career as an animator to spend five years of his life lovingly crafting a film adaptation of the book series that captivated his mind as a child.  Why no empathy for him?  More than a thousand film-makers labored heroically to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs vision of Barsoom to life on the screen?  Why no empathy for them?

Even Disney, an easy target to be sure,  stepped out of the conservative mold and made a risky big bet on a piece of classic literature and a director whose genius was acknowledged in the animated realm, but was stepping into live action for the first time?  Why no empathy for Disney?

The answer, it would seem comes back to the notion that schadenfreude erupts when there is a felt perception that the failure restores balance, that a form of justice is achieved by the failure.  In this case, Disney is seen as being properly rewarded for foolishly investing mega-dollars in a questionable property, and then shoving the resultant product down the throats of unwilling potential audience goers with  mind-numbing, relentlessly obtuse marketing.  To the schadenfreudist, an epic fail is the only just reward for such epic hubris, and thus the narrative is pre-determined and nothing short of an outright “win” at the box office will derail that narrative.

Why do studios make themselves targets like this?

One has to wonder, knowing the psychology – why do studios trumpet the budget of a film like John Carter?  It is as if in the early stages they think that announcing a huge budget will bring glory to the film, make it seem more of an event, and so they rush to leak the budget — in this case $250m — even though doing so immediately and inevitably stokes the what one blogger called “pre-schadenfruede” — the gleeful anticipation of failure?  Why?

Given the fact that “announced budgets” are always a quasi fiction whose main purpose is to position a film in the marketplace, not truthfully report financials (that happens incorporate reports, and even there actual individual film budgets are obscured), wouldn’t it be better, particularly with a gamble like John Carter, to avoid triggering the pre-schadenfreude in the media by avoiding having the film labeled as a “mega-budget” effort.  I mean — with Hollywood Accounting and all, did Disney really have to peg the “budget” at $250m?  Is that, after all, actually the budget to get the film shot under Andrew Stanton?  Or is that the total production investment including all the development costs going back to 1989, and interest on all the 1990’s development, accruing for 15-20 years?   My point is–there is enough fuzzy math involved in budget-talk around Hollywood that Disney could surely have tamped down the pre-schadenfreude by simply avoiding the impulse to trumpet the film at a “biggest budget ever” blockbuster.

In truth — wouldn’t John Carter have been much better off entering the marketplace as the underdog it actually was — a labor of love, no big stars, animation director, heartfelt and made with passion.  If Disney had achieved that kind of positioning, we wouldn’t now be seeing the film written off repeatedly as a colossal flop – we would instead be hearing that it’s off to a slow start in the US, but with good international Disney’s investment in Andrew Stanton and Edgar Rice Burroughs may well pay off, just give it time?

That is, after all, the reality — it’s not a complete bust by any stretch of the imagination and is headed for global numbers in the $350-450M range that have never previously in the history of cinema been called a flop.   But a “flop” it is — just google “John Carter flop” and see for yourself.

Flops Turned Classics

It’s too early to tell, of course, but it is entirely possible that John Carter will eventually join the ranks of films that were considered box office failures when they were released, but which eventually went on to achieve cult and in some cases, classic status.

Anyone following the intensity of the fan-love for the picture, with multiple viewings much passion being expressed for the movie from those who, as Andrew Stanton has said, “get it”, could not help but wonder if Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate (which were, after all, monuments to actor and studio egos – not lovingly crafted sci-fi epics based on beloved source material)  ever got the kind of fan love that is emerging for John Carter.

What of others in the sci-fi genre who may have followed a similar pattern?

Blade Runner, after all, opened with a disappointing $6.1M and split the critics, only later emerging as the beloved classic it has become.

2001: A Space Odyssey split the critics when it was originally released and only made $56M at the box office — a figure which, when adjusted for inflation, comes out to $335m in today’s dollars, a figure which quite probably is at least $50m less than John Carter will eventually make.

If John Carter is a flop, it may well turn out that it’s in good company.