Here is a tale of how Hollywood works now, and how the entertainment press covers Hollywood, and why none of it matters.
There’s a movie coming out later this month called John Carter. I haven’t seen it; the people who have are under an embargo, which means that they can’t write about it yet. It stars an obscure actor named Taylor Kitsch, who made a powerful impression on the barely watched television series Friday Night Lights, and an actress named Lynn Collins, who is known for almost nothing. It is based on a 1912 pulp novel called A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan—an influential book in the development of the tropes of science fiction but little read today. (The movie’s original title was John Carter of Mars until the studio realized every movie that has had the word “Mars” in its title has flopped, especially the animated Mars Needs Moms, the biggest bomb of 2011.)
Disney decided to make John Carter, which had been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years in one form or another, in the wake of the colossal success of Avatar, with which it shares some plot elements—in particular, a human transported to a distant planet where he becomes a hero. The studio envisioned John Carter as a “tentpole,” a film that would serve as the source of a series of profitable sequels that could be released every two years (the Harry Potter movies being the model) and whose ability to generate cash reliably could be integrated into Disney’s corporate planning for the next 10 years. John Carter was especially desirable in this way precisely because it was based on antiquated works, the rights to which had already been secured; Disney would not have to share the considerable ancillary profits as Time Warner has had to do with J. K. Rowling.
And somehow, things got out of hand. The director of John Carter is Andrew Stanton, who won two Oscars for helming the Pixar movies Finding Nemo and WALL•E but who has never made a live-action film before. Stanton chose to attempt to make a realistic epic full of special effects in the Pixar way—a method that involves a lot of reshooting, rewriting, and rethinking as the movie is being made. As a result, it appears John Carter may have cost Disney as much as $250 million to make, but in this case the money was spent on a movie with no major stars, an unproven director, and based on a “brand” with meaning only to science-fiction geeks.
Granted, that $250 million is modest by comparison to Avatar, which cost close to $400 million or more (no one is saying). It also had no stars and a name that meant nothing to most people. But James Cameron, Avatar’s writer-director, had made four blockbuster pictures before it, including the all-time box office champ Titanic, and had demonstrated a talent for taking huge sums and putting every dollar on the screen. What’s more, Cameron’s name above the title was a guarantee of a big opening weekend just as if the movie had Will Smith playing the leading role.
A few weeks ago, the long knives came out for John Carter, in the form of hostile articles in the inside-showbiz press, led by Nikki Finke’s Deadline.com. “ ‘John Carter’ Tracking Shockingly Soft: ‘Could Be Biggest Writeoff Of All Time,’ ” blared a Finke headline. (Tracking is a form of polling used to determine what upcoming films are generating excitement among potential moviegoers. A “writeoff” is when a studio declares a project a dead loss and uses its failure to balance out its successes on its bottom line.) On the Daily Beast website, Chris Lee wrote the movie’s epitaph:
If Hollywood executives don’t know who John Carter is, they certainly know what John Carter is. It’s the kind of cautionary tale that keeps studio chiefs popping Ambien at night: a vanity project with sky-high expectations and a humongous budget that now seems destined to land with a massive thud at the box office.
What this means is that John Carter has become the latest in an endless series of tsk-tsk subjects of Hollywood-run-amok articles and books, as pop-culture spending excesses seem always to generate a kind of thrilled and sickened fascination on the order of reading about the Madoff family. The granddaddy of them all was Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, which took three years to make and cost $48 million in 1963 dollars—the equivalent of $340 million today, meaning that of all the motion pictures ever produced only Avatar cost more in relative terms. Then came Heaven’s Gate (1980), the Michael Cimino movie that destroyed its studio, United Artists, and whose only lasting value is that one of the studio chiefs, Steven Bach, wrote Final Cut about the experience—then and now the best book ever written about Hollywood. That was followed by Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), which was followed by Howard the Duck (1986), which was followed by Ishtar (1987), which was followed by Waterworld (1995), which was followed by who can even remember what forgettable picture that was never quite as bad as the advance negative publicity made it seem but which wasn’t all that good, either.
There have been times, however, when advance articles on potential flops have gotten it almost comically wrong. There were some in the months leading up to the release of Avatar. And most notoriously there was the November 7, 1977, article in New York by William Flanagan, who reported on an advance screening in Dallas of an expensive new film he declared would be “a colossal flop. It lacks the dazzle, charm, wit, imagination, and broad audience appeal of Star Wars.” On the Monday morning when the article came out, there was a flood of “sell” orders on the stock of Columbia Pictures, which had produced the movie in question and was awash in debt.
The subject of Flanagan’s article was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which had cost $22 million and went on to earn $303 million worldwide. That example demonstrates that everything that has been said and will be said about John Carter before its premiere will prove to be true—unless it’s really, really, really good. In which case it will be a smash, and everything said about it will have been false.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.