How to make a monster flop: Disney's blockbuster John Carter is joining a long and inglorious Hollywood tradition
21:44 GMT, 22 March 2012
21:47 GMT, 22 March 2012
There’s something eerie about sitting almost alone in a large cinema. It’s as though something has happened somewhere else and you are the only one who doesn’t know.
That’s how it felt this week as I bought my ticket and sat down to watch the new Disney epic, John Carter. I soon discovered why the crowds had stayed away.
John Carter is a terrible film with an incomprehensible story, ludicrous, mutton-headed characters and unspeakable dialogue, and already Disney have announced that it is likely to lose 126 million on it, so abject have been the first box office takings.
Beastly waste of money: Taylor Kitsch in disastrous sci-fi movie John Carter
From what I saw in my West London local, that figure may be an under-estimation, with John Carter heading rapidly for the movie flops record books.
But how did it get like this No one sets out to make a flop.
At the start of shooting of any film, everyone involved is filled with hope and expectation about the wonderful entertainment they are about to create and the money they might make.
That would have been how it was when Disney gave the green light to invest 220 million in John Carter.
Based on a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also brought us Tarzan, with writer/director Andrew Stanton riding high as a Hollywood power player after the success of his animated movies Finding Nemo and Wall-E, all it needed was astonishing special effects, which is pretty much a given these days in high-tech Hollywood, and a popular star.
U.S. TV star Taylor Kitsch stepped forward to play the intrepid Carter on a 19th-century trip to Mars, where he finds not just red dust, but monsters galore.
With so much going for it, the movie should, on paper, have been a shoo-in for success. Yet once again a vastly expensive movie is failing.
Crucially, the ingredient that should be the cheapest in the whole blancmange, the screenplay, wasn’t good enough.
Disney's John Carter film, starring Lynn Collins, fundamentally has a poor script and unspeakable dialogue
On paper John Carter, with Taylor Kitsch starring as the film's namesake and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, should have been a big success
Once denigrated as ‘schmucks with typewriters’, screenwriters have never been the most visible stars in the Hollywood firmament, though the best are extremely well paid these days.
But the rules still apply. If they don’t get the screenplay right, no amount of money, beautiful stars, stunning special effects, brilliant cameramen or visionary directors will make it work.
Everyone in Hollywood knows this yet, somehow, a lot of people continually manage to forget it, sometimes even the writer himself when, like Andrew Stanton, he also happens to be the director.
How else do we explain the disaster that was Heaven’s Gate, which was written and directed by Michael Cimino
Having tasted financial and critical success with The Deer Hunter, Cimino set out in 1979 to make a modest 5 million Western starring Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken.
Two years and 28.5 million later, he presented an unshowable five-hour movie to United Artists, the studio that had backed him.
In his book about the film, Final Cut, former UA executive Steven Bach explained how Cimino fell in love with the sumptuous images he was shooting rather than the story he was telling.
John Carter's writer and director Andrew Stanton has previously produced big hit such as WALL E in 2008
The result was, Bach says, that the ‘viewer became a victim of sensory overload’.
But why did United Artists let Cimino keep on shooting when they could see the budget was out of control
Basically, because of some very fancy Hollywood-style contracts that protected Cimino and, perhaps more important, because it couldn’t afford not to finish the movie.
There’s little as worthless as an unfinished film and sometimes it seems, or at least it seemed to them, that the only solution is to keep throwing money at it in the desperate hope that something magical would finally emerge.
It didn’t. Heaven’s Gate sank at the box office and, less than a month later, United Artists had to be sold to MGM.
The Hollywood habit of engaging one screenwriter after another (many uncredited) to work on a project, while sometimes successful (as with Gladiator, on which British writer William Nicholson made an important difference), can also indicate that something was wrong with the idea of the movie right from the beginning.
On the 2005 African adventure movie Sahara, starring Penelope Cruz, had too many writers and 20 producers
Battlefield Earth, which starred John Travolta in an adaptation of the book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, involved at least two writers.
One American critic was unimpressed by their efforts. ‘A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth,’ he wrote of the movie, which cost 26.5 million and recouped 14 million.
On the 2005 African adventure movie Sahara, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, it wasn’t just that too many cooks in the writing room may have spoiled the script; it was also that there was a plethora of producers, 20 in all.
Stuck in the sands of Morocco for endless months as the budget edged up to 152 million, one of them, a friend of mine, had to take a year off after shooting to get over her experience.
Of course, it’s easy to be amused by the hubris of movie directors, the interference of executives, the overweening vanity and demands of some film stars and the eye-watering financial losses. But it’s easy to be wise after the event.
If Ishtar — a 1987 ‘comedy’ about two lounge singers — had been a hit, no one would have criticised Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty for being too obviously in love with themselves on screen.
But it wasn’t. The famous American critic Roger Ebert called it ‘truly dreadful’ — which Hoffman and Beatty were.
On a more modest level, if the rom com Swept Away in 2002 had been as successful as director Guy Ritchie’s later efforts, it wouldn’t have mattered that it looked like a vanity project for his then wife, Madonna.
Now I don’t want to hold out too much hope for the makers of John Carter, they don’t deserve it, but it doesn’t always follow that all movies that do badly in their opening weeks are destined to be complete flops.
Blade Runner opened disappointingly in the U.S. in 1982 — shortly after E.T. had smashed all records. But foreign sales, TV and video rights and eventual acclaim as one of the classic films of all time, have followed.
Whether that means it’s ever gone into profit, I rather doubt. Net profit can be a hazy concept in Hollywood book-keeping.
The 1963 film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, broke even after director Joseph L. Mankiewicz rewrote the screenplay every night to fit around last minute filming changes
Surprisingly, one film that, against all expectations, is said to have gone into profit was Cleopatra, the 1963 movie on which Elizabeth Taylor hooked up with Richard Burton.
Dogged by Taylor’s delicate health, with director Joseph L. Mankiewicz rewriting the screenplay every night to negotiate the vicissitudes of filming, it cost the equivalent of $300 million in today’s money, but broke even in 1973 with sales to TV.
Back to John Carter. Though there turned out to be only eight people in the cinema when the lights went up the other night, Disney isn’t about to go bankrupt because of its losses.
No doubt it will produce other hits again soon enough, but it’s surprising to say the least that a company so renowned for having its finger on the pulse of public taste has got this one so wrong.
And what is the best way to start getting it right
By making sure the screenplay works before filming starts and the hundreds of millions start flooding out.
Ray Connolly’s novel Shadows On A Wall, about the making of a movie on which the budget is out of control, is now available as an eBook from Amazon