There's nothing more entertaining than imagining you could do a better job of managing things than the rich and powerful. That's why Disney's announcement last Monday sent such an ecstatic ripple of schadenfreude through the entertainment world – the movie John Carter is not just a disappointment but a $200-million writeoff, making it the biggest movie flop of all time.
As a failure it surpasses Cutthroat Island, Howard the Duck, Ishtar, Heaven's Gate and Pluto Nash. Every pittance-earning movie blogger claimed to be able to see the problems clearly: Director Andrew Stanton had only done animation before; the source material was too old; and the Disney branding machine had forgotten how to tell stories.
Piling on is fun, but John Carter seems distinctly overrated as flops go. With a Metacritic rating of about 51, it actually earned better reviews than current hits such as Dr. Seuss' The Lorax and The Vow, or even last summer's billion-dollar successes, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. As well, the CinemaScore polls of audiences gave John Carter a decent B-plus rating.
Nor was there any poetic justice meted out here. There is no tongue-wagging Liz-and-Dick scandal ( Cleopatra), no egocentric director (Michael Cimino, Heaven's Gate; M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender), no movie star-producer's vanity project (John Travolta's Battlefield Earth; Kevin Costner's The Postman; Warren Beatty's Ishtar and Town and Country).
Villains in this case were hard to identify: Andrew Stanton, the Pixar wizard who created the beloved animated films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, is still likable. B.C.-born star Taylor Kitsch, who was terrific in Friday Night Lights, will bounce back. Even Disney Studios chief Rich Ross can slide out of this one: John Carter was green-lit before he got the job.
Shouldn't a real flop at least bankrupt or close down a studio? A few examples include: Heaven's Gate (United Artists), Cutthroat Island (Carolco Pictures), Titan A.E. (Fox Animation), The Golden Compass (New Line Cinema) or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Squaresoft's Square Pictures).
John Carter's failure was inconsequential. The Walt Disney Company, with 2011 annual revenues of more than $40-billion, is hardly on the ropes like some southern European country. As veteran media analyst Harold Vogel told the L.A. Times, for Disney, John Carter's failure is a "a little unpleasant episode or scratch ... it's the equivalent of a ding on the side of your car. You wish it didn't happen, but at the end of the day, the car drives fine."
As critic Owen Gleiberman noted in Entertainment Weekly, "everything about [ John Carter]was made according to rules that work just fine in Hollywood about 90 per cent of the time." Is the inexperienced director to blame? In December, Brad Bird, another Pixar alumnus, racked up more than $600-million with his first live-action film, Mission: Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol last September. The dated material? Guy Ritchie has mined the century-old Sherlock Holmes stories for two blockbusters. The lack of a star? That didn't hurt Avatar.
The truth is John Carter is a case of business as usual in the modern blockbuster world, where movies produced by media conglomerates like Time-Warner or Disney open on 3,000-odd screens worldwide and usually, but not always, make money. Of the 11 movies that have passed the $1-billion box-office mark in history, only one, Titanic (1997), was released before 2000. At the other end of the scale, even adjusted for inflation, about 70 per cent of the biggest flops in movie history have all occurred in the post-2000 period.
Flops just aren't what they used to be. After acknowledging the ding to its second-quarter returns, Disney's press release went on to promote its May 4 release of The Avengers, made for $220-million. Now at least we know what they were really avenging: The brief but not fatal embarrassment of John Carter.