John Carter just bombed.[i] People have been writing about this a lot this past week. A lot. One of the reasons given for audiences’ mild reaction is that people are unfamiliar with the character. And that is true. I am mostly a nerd,[ii] love Conan, and yet I had never heard of this John Carter guy until this movie went into preproduction. The lack of a widely recognized character was also one of the reasons given for the failure of the Green Lantern film. However, at the same time popular media and audiences assert their hatred of the lack of originality in Hollywood. Which one is it? That audiences hate seeing remakes, sequels and adaptations, reflective of the lack of originality in Hollywood? Or that we only want to see things we have already seen or read, about characters we are already familiar with?
An article posted by the LA Times actually lists one of the causes of John Carter’s financial failure being the “dissonance” created by the film’s setting, Mars. Apparently audiences, aware of the fact that no one lives on Mars, just can’t believe the film’s story. That is, before they actually saw the film. I guess we must be thinking, “This story, which I am told I know nothing about…oh wait, I do know it takes place on Mars. Hey, that’s impossible—Mars? Isn’t there only like water or something there?” So while on one hand we are supposed to believe we don’t want to see this movie because of what we do know, that there are no monsters and people on Mars, on the other hand that we don’t want to see Carter because of what we don’t know, which is everything. Other than these two insights being mutually incompatible they point to the simple fact that in the hundred or so years since the birth of cinema people don’t really know exactly why some films bomb and some are successes. Cutthroat Island, which I believe is still the least successful film of all time, “proved” that people just don’t want to see pirate movies. At least that was what critics thought in 1995 until less than ten years later one of the most successful contemporary franchises was born, based on a ride, featuring a lot of pirates. Avatar could have been the least successful film of all time until it was one of the most successful. Same with Titanic. And in both cases critics didn’t really know which one was going to happen. 3D was a joke for the longest time until it was the next big thing.[iii] Even Netflix with its now defunct algorithm contest doesn’t always get it right. It does a better job recommending movies and TV shows to me than a grapefruit or Armond White[iv] but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, “Netflix just really…gets me.”
The LA Times article, “Why John Carter Tanked Big Time: Disney Spectacular Joins Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar and Howard the Duck in Moviedom’s Gutter” echoes longstanding opinions about contemporary film that are now accepted as fact. Every time a movie becomes a financial failure there is a mad rush to meet copy deadlines to be the first writer to make a pun on either Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Oh, oh, let me try. Ishmars? Eleven’s Gate (because there are 11 volumes in the original novels)? Damn, I’m just not good at this. Edgar Rice Burroughstar? I’m just waiting for someone to refer to this as John Cartergate and then struggle to make clear that they are referencing Watergate and not Heaven’s Gate. Now, those three films have nothing in common except they are often used in the same sentence. The NY Times also invoked the dreaded Ishtar with the heading—“ Ishtar Lands on Mars.” I remember reading once that Elaine May, Ishtar’s director, said that if everyone who claims to hate the movie actually saw it, it would have been a success. Anyway, referring to these three movies in the same sentence obfuscates not only the fact that the reasons these movies underperformed at the box office are very different but also the question: what does how much money a movie made have anything to do with how much I like it?
Heaven’s Gate is actually one of my favourite films. Narratively, I feel the film is quite strong although sometimes boring in that there is little use of spectacle. I have thought for many years that the film’s reputation, as not only encapsulating the megalomania of the movie brats but the driving force behind changes in the studio system, hides the real reason companies looked away from directors like Cimino and Bogdanovich and turned to directors like Spielberg. As Peter Biskand convincingly argues, the late 70s was not only the birth of the Blockbuster but also the beginnings of the formula film. The success of Steven Spielberg led to the Bruckheimers, Bays and Ratners of the Hollywood machine—filmmakers able to produce a product carefully designed to appeal to an undifferentiated market. Relying on stereotypes such as—women don’t like action movies—the 1980s saw the rise of the formula picture. Women don’t like action? No problem, tack on a love story and Kelly McGillis. Movie too serious? Add a cute dog. People like dogs. Movie not funny enough? What about a sidekick? Sidekicks are hilarious. Not so coincidently, this time also signalled the cementing of the sequel as a driving formula for success. Anyway, Ishtar is genuinely funny and not only has both Hoffman and Beatty but also the vastly underrated Charles Grodin. However, the two actors are cast against character type with Beatty playing the loser and Hoffman the ladies’ man, challenging audience expectation of these men’s star personas. Dustin Hoffman explaining to Warren Beaty how to pull women is funny, right? And Warren Beatty has always challenged his audience. I mean, he directed Reds? And the last film in the trinity of fail, Howard the Duck? Ok. That movie is a genuine piece of crap. I remember the first time I watched that movie thinking that it was perfect—perfect in the sense that you couldn’t make one change to Howard the Duck that wouldn’t make it better.
Film critics like to think they are responding to trends, merely observing things, but they create trends. Even some of the writers of the articles critical of John Carter admit that the film never had a chance because of popular attitudes about the film before it was released. But they are the ones who created those opinions. It’s like when media pundits complain about someone being overexposed whilst they are the ones doing the overexposure. John Stewart has practically made a career pointing out the irony of media pundits and politicians referring to themselves in the third person. What all of these films, John Carter, Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, etc. have in common is that their failure was entirely based on how the media framed these films before their release. These movies were “bad” before anyone knew whether they were bad.
The commentaries on John Carter also reflects on “tentpole strategies”—a term that describes managerial strategy more than filmmaking. One of the concerns is that these tentpoles, films that serve as a locus for spinoffs and other related media, don’t always work. The Avengers, to be released very soon, will show just how much tentpole strategies can work. The Avengers is going to make lots of money employing a similar strategy intended in the marketing of John Carter. Besides, what do I care how much more money rich people are likely to receive? I just want to see some good movies.
The NY Times article focuses on Andrew Stanton, Carter’s director, saying that he had too much control, was inexperienced with live action, etc. I’m glad Stanton, better known as one of the driving creative forces at Pixar, tried to bring the sensibilities that make Pixar films so good. In fact, Pixar boasts a stronger record than maybe any filmmaking company in history. The author writes:
If Mr. Stanton has any comfort, it may be that he keeps good company in the trophy-movie-gone-wrong hall of fame. Baz Luhrmann is there for “Australia,” along with George Lucas for “Howard the Duck” and Michael Cimino for “Heaven’s Gate.” And, of course, Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Beatty for “Ishtar.”
Brooks Barnes, the article’s writer, “covers media.” However, most of his articles seem more like business reports to me. In fact, all of the reporting I have read on John Carter is business news. Movie news should be about the things I see in a movie theatre. I don’t care about marketing and I don’t care about how much things cost.[v]
The argument ultimately for the film’s failure is that companies should exert more control of the movies they finance. In other words, companies like Disney should reign in their creative talent. This is a company that once supported efforts to eliminate the “reds” from Hollywood as a thinly veiled attack on unions. That is how much they respect talent. At the risk of invoking cliché, I would rather filmmakers try to make something good and risk failure. We have all watched the creativity of American filmmakers increasingly stymied for the last three decades. At the same time, movies have gotten worse and worse. Related?
I think what is really going on here is that people are tired of movies being so terrible and we just don’t know how to express this. One of the only ways to indicate you don’t want anyone to get elected is to spoil your ballot—and the decline in tickets sales is audiences spoiling our ballots. I would argue, and I think I can make a pretty solid case, that American film has been in slow decline since the 1970s—a decline that rapidly increased in the late 1990s. A couple of years ago the people who run the Oscars decided to actually increase the number of nominees in the “best picture” category. At the same time, there are less and less movies that are best pictures. They are only best in the sense that they are better than The Tourist. Nine movies were nominated as Best Picture this year. Try even naming nine good movies released last year, let alone one that stands anywhere close to a Chinatown, Godfather II or The Conversation—three movies that were actually all released in the same year. Ricky Gervais merely gave voice to what we were all thinking. If the American film industry is going to spend so much time congratulating itself, maybe they should spend more time working on things worth congratulating. Now, The Green Lantern isn’t the best movie—it had its problems—but is it really worse than Thor? Really? I think the reception of films like John Carter doesn’t reflect a “no vote” for that film but an entire industry increasingly managed by a few media companies interested in cloning Michael Bay. The reason that Bay is so successful is that his films perform equally well regardless of their quality. Some of his films are probably not that bad (The Rock?). Others are just terrible (Transformers 2?). Some are overrated (Transformers?), some are underrated (Pearl Harbor?). But other than the last film I mentioned, regardless of their individual merits, the guy knows how to convince people with less money than he has, to give their money to people with more money than they have. Cutthroat Island is the biggest box office bomb of all time. But that film hardly gets mentioned. Rather, the films that are criticized for failing are criticized because they are some of the few examples of filmmakers making movies and not companies. Ultimately, the framing of Carter’s failure reflects the ways that we supposed to think that movies should be made. And the way that movies are supposed to be made is with greater managerial oversight. I’ve seen movies made by lawyers and I long for the 1970s.
[i] Apparently–if I ever made 100 million dollars on a weekend I would be happy.
[ii] Totally a nerd.
[iii] It has now gone back to being a joke.
[iv] I actually like Armond White’s writing as cultural criticism, just not as a measure of quality.
[v] That I don’t have to pay for.