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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Dear Disney,

Yes, I know you said you wanted to gross $700 million before you’d agree to either of the two sequels Andrew Stanton had planned for John Carter. And I know you’re still miffed about everyone making fun of you when the opening weekend flopped. But who was laughing when foreign sales pushed it over the $250 million budget in its fourth week? Yeah, I know, there’s still the $100 million in advertising. But those oversea millions are still flowing, and add in the DVD sales lined up for June, and we all know the red planet will soon be in the black.

Sure, the $350 million profit you were dreaming of back in February would have been nice, but you’re probably just happy to have dodged that “biggest flop in movie history” bullet. Congratulations. Now all you want to do is pack up those noisy Tharks and Calots and put John Carter behind you.

But is that how you capitalize on an investment?

I’m sorry Mr. Stanton convinced you that Carter was just like Tarzan, a beloved Burroughs classic with a massive fanbase begging to be exploited. Which explains why your marketing plan went so wrong.  You should have been recruiting, not supplying Superbowl ammo for an army that didn’t exist yet. There was only one species of John Carter fan: readers. There had never been a movie, a TV show, a cartoon, a 40’s film serial, nothing.  When I asked my 14-year-old daughter about the character, she said “Who?”

You now know that you should have been building infrastructure.  Why, for instance, was the new edition of A Princess of Mars (with that eye-catching intro by Junot Diaz, the second Pulitzer winning novelist attached to the project) released AFTER the film? You should have pushed that through the presses as soon as you green lighted the movie. Ditto on a new comic book adaptation (from a market-dominating publisher like Marvel, not the very respectable but very tiny Dynamite or Dark Horse who both have miniscule Mars niches). Or what about an animated TV series on Cartoon Network? Or a series of animated films the way DC keeps its roster of superheroes alive and literally kicking while hatching long-term blockbusters?

Some of these you could still do. But you’re thinking, What the hell for? John Carter isn’t about time travel. The marketing window is long closed.

And that would be your next big mistake.

Yes, you blew the lead-up to the movie. But the window on the character is still wide open. John Carter is a long-term commodity that you control. You didn’t just squander $100 million in marketing. You invested $350 million in a franchise, and the movie itself, not those wasted ads, supplies the missing infrastructure.  Have you been by Facebook lately? In addition to those loyal novel readers, John Carter has a fierce film cult begging for a sequel. These people will devour anything you toss at them.

No, I’m not suggesting you give them and Stanton another $250 million. In fact, I’d go in the opposite direction. Think B movie budget. Remember the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies from the 30’s? MGM made those for one reason and one reason only.

They had the footage.

Trader Horn was the first big budget Hollywood film shot on location. The production was a disaster. They came back from Africa with scene after scene of inaudible dialogue, a star infected with malaria, and the suitcases of crew members devoured by crocodiles and trampled by rhinos. They also had miles of jungle footage, way more than could ever go into a  single movie. Trader Horn came and went, but to capitalize on all that location shooting they’d already paid for, MGM rolled out Tarzan the Ape Man the following year. It was a cheap hit that spawned five low-budget sequels.

MGM could have walked away from their original investment. They could have put the Trader Horn fiasco behind them and never gone near Africa again. But that would have made bad business sense.  Disney is in the same position with Mars. You already have the location footage—those hard drives brimming with otherwise unusable CGI that could fuel a decade of Martian adventures.  You already paid for it. It’s just sitting there.

Just keep your human cast in pre-fab Helium and those Tharks in some distant subplot, and your sequel is already half made. And, yes, you’re probably still kicking yourself for letting Stanton move forward without a big name star. But now that plays to your advantage. Kitsch and Collins are cheap. All your costs are capped.

So let’s add this up. A loyal and expanding fanbase at home, a voracious market abroad, a modest new production budget, and a marketing infrastructure you’ve already paid for.

Suddenly those dreamed-of profits are in reach of all four of your little green arms.

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