Disney loses JOHN CARTER rights; new films in development

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I really, really loved John Carter despite James pointing and laughing in my general direction for doing so. Is it a perfect film? Not by a long shot! It has some pacing issues, a few silly plot moments and lead Taylor Kitsch employs some techniques from the Keanu Reeves School of Acting far too often. But it also boasts inventive world building by director Andrew Stanton, spectacular visuals, an incredible retro score by Michael Giacchino and a gigantic, pulsing pulpy heart that just made me feel like a kid again.

So naturally I was rather miffed that it ended up tanking hard at the box-office. So hard that it didn’t just kill off all hopes for a proper franchise, but led to the resignation Rich Ross, the head of Walt Disney Studios, as a result of its colossal financial failure. It had taken nearly a hundred years and who knows how many false starts for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic character to finally make it to the screen, and now it was dead in the water.

At least that’s how it appeared until yesterday, when a press release was issued stating that Disney’s film rights for the character has now lapsed and reverted back to Edgar Rice-Burroughs Inc. Most of the author’s other creations, like Tarzan, are firmly in the public domain and have been for many year, and it was assumed by many that was where John Carter would eventually end up as well. Relegated to a series of poor knockoff movies.

But instead, it’s now in the hands of a group of people who seemingly want to make good on their investment and have thus started the ball rolling on developing some films based on the property.

“We will be seeking a new partner to help develop new adventures on film as chronicled in the eleven Mars novels Burroughs wrote. This adventure never stops. Along with a new TARZAN film in development by Warner Bros., we hope to have JOHN CARTER OF MARS become another major franchise to entertain world-wide audiences of all ages.”

So what does this mean for fans of Disney’s movie like me? Well the easiest and probably likeliest answer is that there’s a reboot on the way. But there’s actually also no legalities stopping Edgar Rice-Burroughs Inc. from making a straight-up sequel set in the same movie universe as Disney’s movie, possibly even bringing back the same cast and director (Kitsch has already stated that he would only ever do a second film if Stanton directed again). The catch is that they would probably have to work for a fraction of the money though.
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The reason for this is simple: It wasn’t that John Carter didn’t make money – it just didn’t make enough money! A $281 million haul at the box office is usually nothing to scoff at, but when your production costs (excluding advertising costs) are $250 million then that becomes a problem. That huge budget is mostly as a result of numerous expensive reshoots that Stanton had ordered – a mistake that possibly comes from his history at Pixar. Stanton had been a wunderkind at the animation studio, responsible for such modern classics as Finding Nemo, Wall-E and Monsters Inc., and also co-writing all three Toy Story movies, but as successful as he was there, John Carter – his very first big budget live-action gig – was a whole other ball game. When your movie exists solely on the hard drives of a bunch of servers, doing constant “reshoots” is not only cheap and easy, it’s the industry norm. The same rules don’t apply when it involves real life people interacting with real life sets. This constant and costly reinvention of the wheel (which really shouldn’t have been allowed by Disney execs), coupled with scope and budget creep on a number of other factors on the production, put John Carter in a bad spot even before the first frame of footage ever hit a screen. For the movie to have broken even, it would have needed to push past the $600 million mark, an achievement that only 63 titles in the history of movies have ever accomplished.

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This failure was also not helped one bit by the scattered and sloppy marketing campaign for the movie. Stanton and the film’s marketing exec butted heads constantly, fighting over ideas, and superseding each other. The film’s title was shortened from the original John Carter of Mars because they thought the alien planet angle would drive away the non-boy/sci-fi geek demographic. The film had non-specific billboard ads that left people scratching their heads, and the trailers failed to show off anything that really established what the movie was actually about. The most grievous marketing crime though was the complete exclusion of Burroughs and his legacy. When you have a property from the man who created Tarzan, and which was the blueprint and major influence for just about every major sci-fi franchise of the 2oth and 21st century, why would you not mention that even once?!  The result was a movie that contemporary audiences, unfamiliar with its heritage, accused of being a ripoff of the very stories that had been ripping it off for the last hundred years.

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The fact that Edgar Rice-Burroughs Inc. have already mentioned the Tarzan connection in their very first press statement is already a sign that they’re learning from past mistakes. Whether they deem the whole thing a mistake and decide to wipe the slate clean and do it all over again, or whether they bring back the original cast and crew is anybody’s guess though. They may save some time with Stanton and co – the director had already begun work on scripts for at least two more sequels – but whichever studio decides to roll the dice on this will probably be aiming at something that’s too small of a scale for them.

Whichever way things pan out, I’m just glad that we’ll possibly be going on more adventures on Barsoom again!

Last Updated: October 23, 2014

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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