Opening in the No. 2 spot with a relatively underwhelming weekend take, it seems as though the common wisdom on John Carter is going to be that it flopped and failed to connect with a mainstream audience. But part of me wonders whether that was the fault of John Carter, or something altogether bigger and more widespread?
While many people are pointing to the ad campaign as a reason why Carter stumbled out of the gate over the weekend– t here is a spectacular piece in New York Magazine about where the advertising may have gone wrong, and it’s an eye-opener if only for the assertion that the underwhelming ads came despite the Disney marketing department, and not because of them — the relative failure of the movie reminds me very strongly of Warner Bros’ Green Lantern last year, both in terms of the discrepancy between fan reviews and mainstream reviews, and the pressure of expectations internally at the studio against what seemed to be audience apathy both before, during and after release.
(Oddly enough, I’m also reminded of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which also had the review discrepancy as well as the apparent disinterest in the movie from the general public. The difference with that movie, I’m tempted to say, was that it was genuinely great, but a more salient point may be that it was also different enough from the blockbuster format the it’s possible that it really did just miss the mark for the majority of people out there.)
What the fates of both Carter and Lantern (and let’s throw in Cowboys vs. Aliens from last year, too) may be pointing to is the potential problem with successfully creating a “new” science fiction movie franchise in these increasingly-genre-flooded times. Taken in isolation, John Carter (and, to a lesser extent, Green Lantern or Cowboys) is a perfectly reasonable special-effects-laden action adventure movie; the set pieces are successful enough, the actors hit their marks and the story goes from point A to point B in a strong enough fashion. But we don’t see these things in isolation anymore, and so everything becomes immediately compared to everything else we’ve seen, something that really hurts Carter in particular, considering everything that’s been lifted from the original novel for previous (hit) movies.
We’ve seen too much, it seems. Or, perhaps that’s too ridiculous. How about this: We’ve seen the same thing too much. The reason that a Tron Legacy or, I’ll bet, Battleship fails to win big with audiences is that we already know what to expect, and they’re not offering us enough new to make it exciting. But it’s a fine line to walk, because too much new and you’ll turn audiences off by not giving them what they want (This is why Marvel has been smart: Thor, Captain America and Avengers manage to be both “original” non-sequel movies and the next chapter of the story audiences are already familiar with at once. It’s a win-win scenario).
So what is the solution? The obvious option would be “make better movies,” but as Scott Pilgrim showed, that isn’t a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination. Another answer, and possibly the way to go, would be to make cheaper movies. John Carter, apparently, needed to make twice its weekend box office in order to be deemed “a hit,” but that’s because it cost around $300 million. If it had been made for $150 million – which is not cheap, after all – then everything would be fine (or, at least, less disastrous for Disney’s PR machine). Why not scale back the size of these movies until the audiences start to feel more secure in going to see them? The alternative is that studios just decide that new doesn’t sell, and… Well, that’s an outcome I don’t think anyone wants to see.