We’re busy working on the press kit for John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood and one of the pieces that been created is a transcript of the presentation I made at the Edgar Rice Burroughs Centennial Celebration — Dum Dum 2012 — on August 16, 2012. It’s really long — I don’t know how I said that much in 45 minutes but I guess I’m a fast talker. I’m going to post it here in case anyone is having a leisurely Sunday morning and wants to wade through it.
Here it is:
INTRODUCTION BY DR. ROBERT ZEUSCHNER
As you all know, this is the hundredth anniversary of Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars.
This is our annual celebration, the Dum-Dum to end all Dum-Dum’s perhaps.
This is pretty amazing.
We’re wonderfully happy about the turnout and the calibre of the presentations, and everything else.
This is only the first day and we’re just doing fabulously.
It’s my honor and my privilege to introduce Michael Sellers who is a Hollywood insider. Mr. Sellers is a Burroughs reader and a Burroughs fan and a Burroughs scholar. He has been very active in the John Carter project, trying to get a sequel made. Many of you are probably familiar with his website, www.thejohncarterfiles.com; if you are not, you should check it out. He has written a book, and the title is John Carter and The Gods of Hollywood. He has done research as to why John Carter was handled as it was, by Disney.
I will let Mr. Sellers explain why.
PRESENTATION BY MICHAEL SELLERS
Thank you, Bob. The Hollywood insider thing, I have to clarify. My Hollywood is sort of North Hollywood. It’s the low end of town. It’s the little houses with the grips and the gaffers and so on. I’m a filmmaker who makes independent feature films budgeted from about a dollar ninety five up to about three million dollars. That does not put me in the same zip code as John Carter and Disney — although I actually live in the same zip code as Disney. I live in Burbank right outside the gates of Disney but I have rarely had the opportunity to go inside until something having to do with John Carter gave me that opportunity.
In getting organized for this, I discovered that every time I started practicing I would get really longwinded, and so I’ve got a timer over here that’s going to go off, and that’s going to signal the end of it. I do think I have a bit of an organized structure for it, but at the same time I wanted to leave a little time for some questions, if people have some.
The beginning of my involvement with this was really on November 30th. Some of you might remember that Disney was going to debut the trailer on November 30th on Good Morning America. I had not been paying a tremendous amount of attention to the promotion. I knew the movie was coming and I was excited – I had been an Edgar Rice Burrough fan since I was twelve years old when I had discovered these books at the Stars and Stripes Newsstand when I was living on an Army post in Germany, and they really carried me for my whole adolescence. I’ve gone back to these books from times as I’ve gotten older (and older), and they always pay off for me, they work. I don’t have that experience of going back and it being — that was cool when I was twelve but now, not so much. Quite the opposite. If anything, it’s cooler now.
So I was waiting for the movie to come out, I had my DVR going, and I’m waiting to see this trailer, and it was not a trailer. It was a forty-five second TV spot and the first twelve seconds was a zoom in on the Times Square jumbotron, so it was presented very poorly, and I was like — wow, that was kind of disappointing. So I went online because now there is sort of instantaneous reaction because the debut of a trailer is sort of an event. And so right away there was a lot of chatter out there like “they botched the trailer debut” and immediately Disney put out guidance, “Oh no, it wasn’t the premiere of the trailer, it was a sneak peek, the premiere will be tonight on Jimmy Kimmel,” so there a bit of damage control going on right from the moment the trailer that wasn’t a trailer premiered.
This was the beginning of my looking at it and wondering — what’s going on here? At this point I was in fan mode completely. I was not looking at this in some professional context. I was just excited to see the movie. That said, the film professional in me understood that the chioce of November 30th to roll out the trailer was no mistake. That was 100 days before the release date, and that signaled the beginning of the big final push. But my point is — I was pretty casual in my interest at this point. I was like one of those people who only starts paying attention to the Presidential campaign on Labor Day — that was sort of the thought process.
Over the next few days I started looking online and saw — there’s a lot of negativity here. I was surprised. What have I missed? I haven’t been paying as much attention as I should. So as a first little tiny bit of professional approach to it, I went on to IMDB Pro — the Internet Movie Data Base and if you’re on the pro version of it where you pay like 30 bucks a year, there are some other features and one of the features is they have for each movie, from the time it is announced, each week it gets a ranking — a Moviemeter ranking — and they have what they call the data table, they have every article that was written that week, and they have a link to it. So my thought was that since I’m just getting caught up on November 30th, I’m going to look at what’s been happening the last few months. And as I did, I was shocked at what I found.
I found, first of all, John Carter, a $250M tentpole giant release was ranked number 985, a hundred days out — and I thought that’s pretty odd, that’s like an indie movie ranking — that’s like one of my movies. Why is it ranked so low? How have they been promoting it? Then I looked at the articles and I went back through the previous twelve weeks week by week. There were a total of 45 articles that had been published and monitored by IMDB. Forty-five articles in 12 weeks? And this is a giant release? There should be many, many more. So I thought maybe I’m missing something here . . . let me check another couple of movies, you know, for comparables and see what I can find.
So I thought – Hunger Games – because that was John Carter’s big competition for the March buzz. I looked at that, and Hunger Games — now put this in context, John Carter ranked 985, with 45 articles in the last twelve weeks — Hunger Games ranked sixteen — 1100 articles in the previous ten weeks. I said well — that’s more like what I would expect for a tentpole release. And please understand — this is a measure of effort, these articles don’t just happen, they happen because the publicists are publicizing the movie, they’re releasing stills, they’re releasing interviews, feeding the whole buzz machine.
Let me see if this is a Disney strategy, let me look for another Disney movie. Let’s see, is there another Disney $250m action adventure tentpole franchise film? Yes of course — the Avengers, right? Avengers was coming out two months after John Carter. So I thought, well, John Carter is two months ahead in the pipeline, theoretically it should have more buzz, more things going. So I looked at Avengers.
Avengers, during the same 12 week period when John Carter had 45 articles, Avengers had 1400, and was ranked number 22
So . . . I was alarmed. But I thought, well, there are still 100 days to go., and this can turn around. I mean, a movie campaign is different than most any other kind of marketing campaign. It’s more like a political campaign – it all culminates on one day. And as you go along, you are constantly getting feedback, you’re adjusting the message, all the things you do in a political campaign. There are no do-overs for a theatrical movie campaign. I started checking out other aspects — I looked at Facebook and Twitter. From an indie film point of view, we know a lot about working that side of things because we don’t have the big bucks for a massive advertising campaigns, and so I have a software that lets you monitor social media, lets you see where it’s being mentioned, what the positive-negative sentiment ratio is, and things like that. All of this is part of what big corporations do as reputation management now, so I assumed Disney was doing it. They want to know what the buzz is in the social media sphere, and then they want to be able to take corrective or countermeasures, and so they have this monitoring software.
And so I looked into all of that, hoping to find something that would negate the deficiency I was seeing in publicity — but by all measures, John Carter was just dead in the water. It just didn’t have much going on. As an ERB fan — this was disturbing.
THE JOHN CARTER FILES
I thought well . . . can I do anything? Obviously one little tiny guy is not going to be able to make a lot of noise. But the with digital media and publicity I thought okay, well, I can do a little something that might help. So that’s when I created The John Carter Files. And the reason I called it that, was that it was really intended for journalists and bloggers, as a place where every day they could get an update of all the news about John Carter. Doing that would be a simple thing, because using a blogging plugin, you can create an aggregated feed around a keyword. You just order an aggregated feed on John Carter, push a button, and ten seconds later you’ve got all the articles, then you go through and toss out the ones about John Carter the politician from Texas and you end up with the articles about the movie, and then publish that as one t “News About John Carter” post for the day. Then I would pick out the good ones and give them their own post with a summary and link to the full article. Doing all of this takes about half an hour each day, about one cup of coffee’s worth of time, and then go on about your business
I reached out to all the entertainment sites that were following John Carter and said, here’s a place where you can get your daily dose of John Carter, and even without having thousands and thousands of people coming, the ones that were coming were quality, and I could see they were starting to replay some of the articles, so it helped a little bit. But I wasn’t under any illusions that this could be a game changer — it’s like a blade of grass against an elephant, to try to make much of a difference, but at least I felt like I could do something. And it was fun, I was enjoying it, it made me feel like I was engaged.
On December 16, Disney released the first TV spots. I immediately whipped out the social media software and started looking to see what was the reaction, and there was almost no reaction. I mean, there should have been very measurable bumps, and there was very little. And the positive negative sentiment ratio was running about six positive to four negative, which is really not good. For example – Hunger Games at the same time was running nine to one, plus the volume was ten times greater. It was absolutely clear at that point — with the TV ads playing and generating almost no reaction — that the buzz was really not going where it needed to go.
THE DISNEY MEETING
Over the holidays as I continued to watch the promotion basically flatline, I became . . . I started thinking . . . I started fantasizing, that maybe I could talk to Disney. I mean, I live right down the street from Disney Studios in Burbank. I’m in the business — I’ve made a bunch of movies and done a bunch of theatrical releases. Maybe they would listen to me.
But then I would think — who are you kidding? One of the things I write about in the book is Gore Vidal who talks about how Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing resonates because he evokes our “dream self”. According the Vidal, our real self has trouble managing our real world, and this is frustrating. Meanwhile our ERB dream self, John Carter or Tarzan, is able to dominate his environment, and this is very satisfying to vicariously experience. So in thinking I might actually hae an impact by talking to Disney and getting them to listen — my dream self was running away with me a little bit. But then I’d think — who knows, stranger things have happened.
I looked at their output over the whole month of December on their Facebook and Twitter, and I looked at my output on John Carter Files, and it looked pretty good. I had a lot more articles out, I had 75 articles that had gone out, and I thought well maybe they’ll take me seriously, and anyway, maybe we can mobilize some fans to help, because part of the whole social media thing–and again, this is an area where indie filmmakers pay more attention traditionally although the big studios do now — is how do you mobilize fans, how do you mobilize people on the internet to help generate the buzz, and so I thought well, we have a fan base. Everybody’s saying, Edgar Rice Burroughs, 100 years ago, not a big fan base. But it’s small but mighty, right? We have a really loyal and really interesting group, who could give interviews, who could do all kinds of things, so with that as sort of the overt request, and after checking with ERB Inc and everybody and kind of making sure that nobody else was already doing that, I got in touch with my old pal Jack Scanlan, a longtime Hollywood publicist, and with his help put in a request to go in and have a meeting to talk to the Disney people running the campaign. The agenda was to breif them on what I was doing with the John Carter Files, what we might be able to do to bring fans into the social media equation, and to just talk a little bit about the campaign, which was really what I wanted to do.
They were very gracious, we were invited in, we met with Ryan Stankevich, who is the head of publicity for all live action movies, including John Carter, and Samantha Gerry who is head of digital marketing, their internet stuff. In advance of the meeting I sent in a fifteen page “white paper” presentation. I sent it in advance, hoping that maybe it would get forwarded around and result in a more substantive meeting — and I’m pretty sure that’s why Samantha Gerry came because they saw it was getting into digital marketing and social media, which was her area.
So . . . nothing came of it. It was nice, it was cordial, and that was sort of our one effort to try and get in there. We did exchange email addresses and were able to communicate but that was the end of that.
THE SUPER BOWL DEBACLE AND THE FAN TRAILER
The next thing that happened that was significant was — in that meeting she told us they were going to have a Super Bowl Ad — so don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine. We’re going to start kicking …….after February 1st, and the Super Bowl Ad’s gonna be great. I said okay . . . .
So, the Super Bowl ad, as you all — did you see that? (crowd murmurs). Okay. So, I’m sitting there, I’m excited, this is where it’s all gonna turn around, and you know — the ad plays and it was a dud. Now, what actually happened to torpedo it was that they bought a sixty second spot, but they got cut to a thirty second spot because they came up in the rotation during an an injury timeout, and in football, that’s something that happens and the result is your sixty second spot can get cut to 30 seconds. Because this is a possibility, you have to submit both. But normally, you’ll submit your best 30 second ad, and your best sixty second ad, and live with what happens. In this case Disney had this Super Bowl sweepstakes thing going on, there was a hidden clue, inside that pullout, they had to go with that, twenty two seconds of pulling out from the title, and then eight seconds of jumping over the ape. So the 30 second spot was really weak — and as luck would have it, that’s the one that played. It was ranked dead bottom in terms of the movie ads in the Super Bowl, and it was ranked in the bottom five overall . And watching it — my expectations were dashed and I was like — give me another margarita . . .
It was that night, fueled, I suppose, on margaritas and guacamole, I decided to cut my own damned trailer. And so I enlisted my filmmaking buddy Mark Linthicum and we downloaded everything, put it on movie editing software, and then we cut a trailer that night. The next day
I put it on John Carter Files but said, this is a draft trailer, we’re doing a poll, here’s the official trailer here’s the draft trailer. We didn’t say where it came from or express any preference of our own, and we let the poll run for two days. And the poll came back 86% for the new trailer, and 14% for the official trailer. So then we sent that to Disney, and said maybe, you know, could there be something here that you might want to consider? (laughter)
Of course we didn’t hear anything back.
So two weeks later we decided to go ahead and publish it on YouTube, publicly,and we did, and at that point, by now I was talking to some members of the film crew, and some people inside Disney, so I sent it around, and it got forwarded up the chain, and it landed with Andrew Stanton, who liked it and then he tweeted about it.
So it was a Sunday night, and I was feeling just …. everything is going wrong, and all of a sudden emails start popping in, and people start texting me — oh, Andrew Stanton pimped you, he tweeted about you, and I looked — and sure enough, he had said, “Great fan trailer! They get it!”, and then a link to the trailer.
Well, this is where the viral thing can be really amazing. The director tweeted about it and the entertainment sites all keep and eye on his feed — then , well immediately Ain’t it Cool News, Collider, Slashfilm, a lot of the hot movie sites picked it up and they replayed it — you can embed it (the trailer) — it went on about ten of them the first day, and it was eventually on four hundred movie sites, and had a good little viral buzz, and it was being talked about — and then LA Times called and wanted to do an article on it, and CNN did an interview on it, and things like that, so we were kind of — all of a sudden it felt like hey, maybe we can actually have an impact. And there was– in social media you could see a little bit of an impact being had. Then Stanton wrote me an email — he was coming down on the 27th — this was the 21st — he was coming down on the 27th to the Hero Complex Screening in Burbank, and he said, “I’d like to meet you, do you have any more of these?”
And so it was cool . . . I thought, “I’m a member of the team,” my dream self was getting fired up again. But in reality, the way that the whole buzz thing works, is you’ve got to do it early. You’ve got to do it months earlier when the only people following it are the influencer media, at that stage this kind of thing could make a difference because at that stage you can effect the actual foundation of the buzz, but now, it’s 12 days til the release with negativity swirling everywhere, you know — a few hundred thousand people see the fan trailer and commenting about it aren’t going to offset but meanwhile millions and millions are seeing the regular stuff that’s going out from Disney and and reading the negative articles in the mainstream media that was now covering the release in its final days. So it caused a ripple that seemed like a wave to those of us really immersed in it . . . . but it wasn’t a game changer, it was too late for that.
THE RELEASE AND THE AFTERMATH
You all know the rest of what happened as far as how the release turned out. It was brutal but right away there were fans who loved the movie and felt it was being given a very bad rap. Three days after the movie was released, one of the filmmakers started the Back to Barsoom Group on Facebook. He sent me an email about thirty minutes after he started it — there were fifty members at that time, he said all fifty are Pixar employees, and he said I want to announce this and let people know that it’s here. So I announced it on John Carter Files, and he was announcing it, and it got to like 3,000 people in two days.
Just . . . put it in perspective. Prince of Persia, when somebody tried to do this for Prince of Persia they got 175 people and it petered out. I mean, it was significant, the numbers don’t sound that huge, but remember these are people that can be influencers, and so it grew to 5,000 in a couple of days, and then it started gradually slowing down, but continuing to grow. And at the same time that was happening, we were hearing from the filmmakers that they really wanted to see the films continue on. Meanwhile, ten days into it, Rich Ross makes the announcement that they are writing down $200m, making John Carter the biggest flop in the history of cinema, when only about 40% of the theatrical income had come in, and the reasons — they give the reasons, eventually, they gave their explanation, which was that it was a disclosure requirement, but they had never had to disclose somethign like that before– they put it in their quarterly financials normally. It was a unique announcement.
ORIGINS OF THE BOOK
So I wrote an article called “John Carter, the Flop that Wasn’t a Turkey”, it was actually a series, and some people started suggesting that, you know, maybe there’s a book in there. And I thought about it and went well . . . maybe.
But I had a problem. I didn’t really want to just do, sort of a crash investigation. You know this is sort of like if Titanic hit the iceberg — why? I’m not Bob Woodward and I don’t have the stature to do that. Moreover, it’s just more negativity, and there is already so much negativity already associated with the situation, I don’t want to just pile on to that.
I thought about it and I thought, what would be my objective in such a book — and eventually came to the conclusion that my objective is to make the case to not give up on John Carter.
Regardless of how you feel about the perfection or imperfection of the adaptation, a worldwide gross of $285M works out to more or less 28 to 30 million people who saw John Carter in theaters and 80% of those claimed they loved it and would recommend it, so there are fans out there. And I know in certain quarters there is skepticism about whether or not we are getting new readers of the books but we are — I know chapter and verse among the people, now the 12,000 or 11,000 on Facebook, there are a lot of people who have discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs because of the movie and have gone from the movie to Edgar Rice Burroughs. And they will continue to discover it, even if there is no sequel. But it will be so much better if there is a sequel.
So I decided I would write the book and this would be the approach: I wanted to cover the following things….before anything else I had to acknowledge that I’m an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, diehard, true and true, and therefore what I write has to be read with that as an understood framework.
With that as a framework, I then wanted to show people why the underlying literary property is so special. There is a perception out there — yeah, Edgar Rice Burroughs, pulp writer, blah blah blah, you know, been picked over, the thing has been “strip mined” is the term that they use, and it’s not fresh, and this and that and the other. And I think that there’s so much more than that, so I wanted to deal with that a little bit.
I wanted to address the history of this property, a property that was created in 1912, we all know the story of how many times Hollywood had tried, and how much interest there had been over so many years and how it had inspired — obviously, we all know, George Lucas and James Cameron, but also the whole Flash Gordon piece, Superman, all having roots in John Carter and to help people understand that there is something special there, but also to try to drill down a little bit into what was Burroughs magic, what was the elixir there — what made him different, what made him be the most widely read author on the face of the planet in 1950 when he died, translated into 58 languages, obviously a global appeal. There’s something there that hasn’t been fully mined. So that was number one.
So the first part was the Burroughs magic; the second was the history of Hollywood’s efforts with the material.
Number three was to look at the Stanton adaptation — look at the production and the decisions that were made, and how those decisions might have affected the performance of the movie. This was important in part because there were certain people who expected me to say it was all about the marketing. It’s not all about the marketing. It’s largely about the marketing, but there were issues in the adaptation and I wanted to drill down into that and analyze what he did and show the process by which they had made the decisions that they did, and what the impact might have been.
The next piece was the ones that the fans, the unhappy fans, were sort of clamoring for, and that was — what the hell happened with the marketing? And how did it unfold the way that it did? And so I wanted to look at that.
I want to stress, though, that the purpose of looking at that is not to savage Disney, but to show in concrete terms how, for a sequel, it would be much better, that the marketing would work. I felt like I had at least some credibility in that because of the success of the fan trailer — and there was another fan trailer we made that did well too. By the way, the number of likes for every dislike on YouTube for the official trailer is 13 likes per dislike. Our fan trailer had 93 likes per dislike and it turns out that the closest any official trailer comes to that is the Avengers with 51 likes per dislike. Anyway, I felt there was some credibility flowing from that.
The next part is the fans, because the fans rose up spontaneously and began to do something that doesn’t happen with every movie, it just doesn’t. And they are out there now. And if you look at the fan approval rating, the fact is that 75-79 percent of people who saw the movie said they would recommend it, and you know how many people saw the movie, and if you work the numbers on that, there’s about 20 million fans around the world who would be ready to go see another film, and would be ready to recommend it, and of course you have a smaller core group who are really active trying to make things happen and trying to shape the story. And it was that fan story, int he age of social media, what can fans do? We all know Star Trek, we all know some of the things that can happen, now is there a stronger voice, can fans use their voice and be heard, moreso than in the past, and if so, what does that mean for the prospects of a sequel?
And then finally, the hardest part, was the pitch – the case for a sequel to John Carter. I kind of rolled up my sleeves at the end of this and I put it in there and I worked the numbers and it’s not a spoiler to say that if the budget can come down, the only real thing stopping a sequel is the stigma that’s attached to the movie now. You know that Prometheus did $310M and it’s got a sequel. Well, it was $140M to produce. That’s the formula — get John Carter into a reasonable budget package and a sequel makes sense. Can that be done?
WHAT I HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH
So that’s part of — at the end of this whole thing, what do I hope to accomplish?
I hope that the takeaway — if one person reads this and that person happens to be Alan Horn or another studio chief and his takeaway is, you know, maybe Iger doesn’t really have it right, maybe there is something here, let’s just look at it. It’s weird to write a book which in the end may be for one person, but that sort of thing comes into play. And other than that, it’s been a great therapeutic exercise . . . (laughter).
So that is sort of the outline of how I approached the book, what’s in there, and I want to then say — what did I learn? Obviously I want you to be motivated to read the book, so I’m not going to say everything — but a few things real quickly that came out.
WHAT DID I LEARN ABOUT WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
My process started with building a giant timeline and the way the timeline goes, I’m gonna go through it kind of fast and maybe a little confusingly here because we’re running out of time, but we can talk about it a bit more, is that, first – Paramount gave up the property at the end of 2006. In early 2007 Dick Cook called Andrew Stanton, who was at that point two years from finishing Wall-E, and he was just doing a check-in call. Cook is a talent oriented studio head, loves talent, gets along with them, he was just massaging his talent, and Stanton, who’d been a Burroughs fan, said, you know — Princess of Mars is back on the market, you guys should get it, and if I don’t turn out to be a one-hit wonder, (he was referring to Finding Nemo which had done $867M and was the biggest animated film ever) I would love to direct it. Well, John Lasseter of Pixar got in there and also talked to Cook, and a few months later Cook calls Stanton back and says they have the property and would like him to direct it.
From 2007 to 2009 it was all about screenwriting, Mark Andrews and Andrew Stanton, and the story starts getting a little bit interesting in the spring of 2009. In the spring of 2009, the screenplay is not done, Michael Chabon is brought on to do another draft, that means that without a final draft screenplay, they don’t really have a firm budget, and yet they are casting and moving forward with production. And one of the most crucial thngs in this whole equation was – how did the budget get to be $250m? When they cast Taylor Kitsch on June 15, 2009, they announced it and in the announcement they announced the budget at $150M. At that point they were still talking about 150 and it appears that the real final budget meeting hadn’t happened because they are waiting for the Chabon rewrite to come in because you can’t have a real budget without a final screenplay to break down, it’s like you can’t build a house without a blueprint.
So, they cast the people that they cast, and over that summer of 2009 two or three things happen that are really crucial. One is that studio head Dick Cook comes under fire from Disney Chairman Robert Iger. Iger starts criticizing Cook publicly in May of 2009, so he knows he’s on his way out. Meanwhile Iger’s big project at that point was acquiring Marvel. So, over that summer — they get Marvel, and Marvel solves their whole problem. Disney is known to have a “boy franchise” problem. They’re good with princesses, not so good with the boys. So this gives them exactly what they want. They suddenly have more of this than they know what to do with, and now the champion of the John Carter project, Dick Cook, is under fire, and on September 18th, Dick Cook is fired.
So at that point, John Carter, which was scheduled to go into production in November 2009, no longer has a champion in Dick Cook; and Iger has landed Marvel; and all of a sudden John Carter starts looking like . . . . baggage. Right? They always knew it was going to be hard to market but Cook was a “grown your own” old school studio head trying to spawn a new franchise. Whereas Iger’s vision was like George Steinbrenner and the Yankees used to be — go out and buy up the free agents and load up that way.
So John Carter became a bit of an orphan. To some degree it had always been a concession to Pixar, because Disney had acquired Pixar, Pixar had brought in a lot of money, and Stanton had brought in a lot of money, and Lasseter felt Disney owed him the opportunity to try this. And so gradually — and the book goes into it in a lot more detail and gives you the whole chain of events — but it gets pushed off to the side. Iger puts in his man, Rich Ross, who replaces Dick Cook. Ross would like to have canceled the project but it was too late, because it was already fully mounted, all the contracts were there. He did cancel Captain Nemo, which was the next big $250m film. That was going to go into production in March 2010, he came in in October, and he canceled that one.
John Carter was allowed to go forward, but they kind of strangled it. Not production wise — they gave Stanton the money he needed to make the movie and never challenged that. They strangled it on the marketing side. They decided right then that they wouldn’t do merchandising, licensing, all the things that you need to do, and yet here’s this film that’s got a $250m budget, it’s going to need to make 500-600m to be considered a success, and yet you make a conscious decision to not give it the full scale promotion.
From there it just goes on, other things happen, new people are hired, MT Carney – many of you have heard about — who was the marketing head who was brought in by Rich Ross, there’s a whole storyline there, about what happened with them.
There’s the timer! (reaches over and checks the timer).
In the end, just a couple of points that I think are important.
One, I didn’t want this to read like a Nikki Finke Deadline Hollywood article. If you ever read those — you know, a “rival studio executives”, insider sources, no attribution. It’s great for day to day chatter about Hollywood — but a book like this needs to have more weight than that, and three needs to be attribution of sources whenever possible. I was able to get people to talk to me, but there was a challenge about attribution because everybody at Disney is under a Non-Disclosure Agreement, everybody who worked on the film is under a Non-Disclosure Agreement. So if they talk, they can’t be quoted. But what I found was that in almost all cases, when the sources who couldn’t be quoted gave me information, if I followed up on it I was almost always able to find a source that could be quoted that made the point that needed to be made. So there’s very little of this sort of — trust what I’m telling you, even though I can’t tell you the source. 95% of the time there’s a footnote and a source.
I also want to point out that the work that I’m engaged in, and the fans are engaged in, is not just about a sequel — there is a stigma attached to John Carter, we all know it. The work is designed to gradually have that stigma removed, to the benefit of both the movie and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
There are other movies that started out this way. Blade Runner is a good example, even 2001 got exactly the same kind of mixed reviews down the middle. If you read the critics response to 2001, it was 50/50, and it was very hostile from the ones that didn’t like it. These things can be changed over time. And the day to day work that fans are doing can help it. And even if there is never a sequel, from an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan point of view, that’s important because that burnishes the legacy. We kind of got a black eye, but the future is brighter than if none of this had ever happened — as long as that stigma can be removed. It’ll take time, but even if I know the fans feel it’s all about he sequel, but it may end up being a reboot ten years from now. But that work is accruing to the benefit of Edgar Rice Burroughs legacy, and that, I think, is really very important.
I’ll stop there. If there are questions?
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
Q: What do you think it’s going to take to turn Disney around, because I think part of the stigma is coming from the fact that you have all of these journalists out there who are kind of cheat sheeting, copying off of the other articles — they’ll keep yelling $250M and $200M writedown and all that other stuff because they got that from somebody else.
A: Well, this [questioner] by the way is Daria Brooks, very famous person . . .(laughter). Daria saw the movie 38 times in theaters. (applause) The question was, what is it going to take to turn Disney around? I have to be realistic. I think the problem is going to be that they’re going to reach — they’ve got the rights for a few more years, and they are not interested in this while Robert Iger is the chief of Disney. And he’s leaving in 2015. He may leave sooner – there are a lot of rumors that he might leave sooner. If Iger were to leave, there are champions within Disney who might want to give it another try, but Iger won’t hear of it. Alan Horne, the new studio chief who replaced Rich Ross, is sort of noncommittal, but he’s a sane person, he’s not somebody with a big agenda, and so there’s some possibility, but I think it’s going to be . . .I hate to say this when people think there may be an announcement of a sequel coming in six months — it’s not. It’s a long road. But tell you what – if Disney lets the rights go, there’s a good case to be made for somebody else to do something. It’s not over, but it’s going to be a long haul.
Q: The first two Narnia movies were from one studio, and third was from another. Can that happen?
A: It happens. And one of the things I think is that well before the rights revert back to ERB Inc, there is the opportunity for discussions with other studios because it takes time to get things going and if Disney is looking like they are not going to move on it, there’s an opportunity there. It all comes back to the budget thing. I think if you can make a credible case for a budget that isn’t so high — you have $300M as a baseline for global theatrical gross … imagine you have $300m in worldwide gross and that’s with the worst marketing campaign in cinema history. I mean really — that’s what people call it. So how much is that worth? $50M, $100M? So maybe the true baseline with an adjustment for the horrible marketing is $350m or $400m. Any first film in a potential franchise series with $400m gross would normally command respectful consideration of a sequel.
Q: I want to add to that a lot of the things that had to be created as prototypes are set — all the things they had to create for the first one that they don’t have to create again for a sequel. So that would keep the cost of a sequel down too.
A: Actually there is a weird accounting thing that happens. It reduces the budget on sequels sort of, but it also reduces the budget on the original movie too. Because what happens is that if they do sequels, they are now going to amortize all of those one-time costs over the whole franchise, not just the first movie. So if you’ll notice, Avatar got its budget reduced by $30M when they decided to make sequels. It loads up the sequels with a portion of that cost, but it releases the first film from having to bear all that. The sequels do have a lesser load than a one-off — but they bear some of the load. Hollywood accounting.
Q: Bonnie and Clyde didn’t do well when it was first released, and they gave it another shot. Is that possible with John Carter?
A: You know, there are a couple of examples, where people talk about that, 2001 had a re-release that did better than the first one, sort of, but there’s no appetite for that at Disney – they’re not gonna do that. And it is really a longshot. The number one maxim in theatrical marketing is that there are no do-overs. You get one chance and that’s all you get. That ship has sailed, I’m afraid.
Q: Why was it so popular in Russia and China?
A: This is one of those movies that Hollywood can do better than anyone else. Nowadays what’s happened is that the indigenous film industry in each country is doing better and better, they’re thriving — fifteen years ago it wasn’t like that. But the one thing that they can’t generally do is something on this scale, and this sort of fantasy other world thing, and so there were a lot of people going into it who flet that it would do well overseas, and that this kind of film is a pretty good get overseas. The same people were saying it was tough in the US. It was tough, and the marketing made it worse.
Q: Are the DVD sales going well?
A: They are, they’re going well compared to … let’s put it this way. A film that did $80M theatrically in the US would be expected to do about $20M in DVD sales and maybe 25-35M overall, with Blu-ray and DVD, and it’s doing better than that. It’s outperforming what you would expect of a movie at that level. But it is not Spiderman – that’s the all time biggest at 200M in DVD sales. It’s not doing like that. But it’s doing respectably. And it did really well at the beginning because everyone under-ordered, the stores didn’t anticipate, and so the demand exceeded–they flew off the shelves but they hadn’t ordered that deeply. So it’s doing okay, and it hows a good trend, but it’s not enough to save the day.
Q: Do you think it was accurately reported — the amount of money that Russia and China made?
A: The conventional wisdom is that Russia is accurate, China is probably not. It’s probably understated. China also has restrictions on how much the foreign owner can make. So you make relatively less. A dollar in China generates 20 cents for Disney whereas a dollar in Russia or England will generate more like 35 cents. So there’s that too. But China does not. Box Office Mojo, who is sort of the bible for box office reporting, considers China unreliable.
Q: What is your opinion on the adaptation itself and the changes that were made?
A: I love talking about that! But we don’t have enough time! Real quickly: Number one, the single most common complaint from reviewers was that it was confusing and unengaging. And that was based on the fact that it was very confusing at the beginning. Right? You’re throwing a lot at the audience. What did Edgar Rice Burroughs do? This gets to what Stan was talking about this morning. By using the first person narrative, ERB drip feeds the exposition so the audience absorbs it little by little–that was part of his genius. We learn about Barsoom as John Carter learns about it. John Carter arrives and he’s naked in a desert. He knows he’s on Mars. Then he meets the Tharks. And then he spends time among the Tharks learning their culture, doesn’t even know that Red Martians exist until “Fair Captive From the Sky” Dejah Thoris comes down, she’s human, and now we start learning about Zodanga and Helium. All of that rolls out little by little in the books but in the movie it’s all dumped right at the beginning. . . .
One of the things that happened was that Stanton did a screening, it’s called the “Braintrust Screening” among the PIxar Braintrust. This was in December of 2010, a 170 minute version of the movie in work-in-progress. And one of the first notes that came back to him was, the beginning is too confusing, maybe you should consider having the audience experience Barsoom as John Carter does. They said that without knowing that’s what Burroughs did. And Andrew did not want to do that. He said no, that’s “lazy”. That’s his term. He said we’ve got to get it out of the way at the beginning, it’s not important . . . he says the only takeaway you’ve got to have on the piece on Barsoom is that there are these people , and these people, and they’re fighting each other, and there’s a third party bringing a power to one side and that’s all you need to know.
And you know, audiences sort of accepted it that way, pretty much — but the critics did not. The critics wanted to understand everything and when they got confused, they got irritated, and when they got irritate, they became “unengaged” and that affected their view of everything else in the movie. They never bought in to the movie and it all started with the confusing beginning.
Stanton’s response to the criticism from the Braintrust people was to redo the opening and make it shorter because originally there was a scene that had a lot more going on than just the narration piece that’s there now. But that didn’t really solve the problem. And because of that, the film gets off on what many critics considered to be a bad foot, and I think decision had the most impact on the negative critical response.
But it was the change to John Carter’s character that was the most aggravating to we “ERBophiles” because it was like, why did you have to do that? It turned John Carter into the kind of damaged goods hero we’ve seen a hundred times and that’s not who John Carter was. But while it bothered the core ERB fans, it didn’t really bother the critics and it didn’t really bother the audiences and the people who came to the movie without knowing the books. Almost all of the non-ERB book-reading crowd found the choices for the John Carter character to be just fine.
The only other thing I would say is that there are so many moments that are missed, it’s like they have a two hour and twelve minute movie that needs to be two hours and forty five minutes. You don’t get a chance to absorb . . . that’s one of the reasons that people see it so many times and get so much more out of it, is there are all these little moments that you don’t get the first time through. Even the second time or third time.
And for me as a Burroughs fan, it took five times through for me to leave “A Princess of Mars” behind and just take Stanton’s ride. And at that point I enjoyed the movie a lot more. The first times I’m looking at it and I’m thinking — well, why is it that way — it was hard.
Q: What about the Therns, why did they change them?
A: You know — we’re out of time, they’re telling me we’ve gotta go. That one is bar talk. I mean — why the Therns? There are a lot of people who don’t like what happened with the Therns. I think Stanton would say be patient — it pays off in the second, third movie.
He felt that he needed a single central villain that would extend over all three movies. And the structure of the original didn’t quite allow that, and so he felt that that was important but ….I didn’t. What I really hated was the floating . . . . it really felt like a Star Wars kind of a thing.
I gotta go — thank you guys!