Canada has produced numerous household names since the birth of cinema, from Mary Pickford in its earliest years, to Christopher Plummer in its midlife onwards, while modern-day flag bearers such as the Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, Rachel McAdams and Anna Paquin continue to make their presence felt in the industry. Three of the six have even won Oscars, while all but one has been nominated.
Yet, despite playing the titular lead in 2012’s Disney production John Carter, which still to this day is one of the most expensive movies ever made, Taylor Kitsch has never quite achieved the same recognition that was promised by the coveted role. It is worth noting that Kitsch has since maintained a successful career in Hollywood and continues to land roles, but his name fails to resonate in the same manner as those I mentioned above. One has to wonder then, what exactly went wrong with John Carter?
While there is certainly no one answer to this question, there was a perfect storm of costly mistakes that led to the movie’s downfall, all of which were out of Kitsch’s control, and perhaps hindered his potential as a leading man in the years that followed.
- Executive Mismanagement
In 2009 Rich Ross was named as the new chairman of Walt Disney Studios, which meant he was responsible for the company’s music, theatre and film groups. As acting chairman Ross oversaw the production of several hits for Disney, including Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3, all of which broke the billion dollar mark and, as of writing this, rank within the top 50 highest grossing movies of all time, while they each peaked within the top 10 by the end of their box office runs.
Yet, in spite of those major successes, it only took two major flops to topple Ross, as he was responsible for the gross over-budgeting of two productions: the critically maligned 2011 animated feature Mars Needs Mom, which cost an obscene $150 million dollars to produce, and John Carter the following year, whose production budget had ballooned to over $250 million. It can be difficult to quantify, but between these two movies Disney lost at least $311 million, with John Carter contributing to $200 million of those losses.
Only a month after John Carter’s release, Ross stepped down as head of Walt Disney Studios, stating in an email “I no longer believe that the chairman role is the right professional fit for me.”
- Poor Marketing
Marketing for John Carter added another $100 million dollars to the overall cost of the movie, which is mind-boggling when you consider that that is more than the average cost of a Hollywood production. Yet, for all that had been spent on it, the marketing division bungled its promotion time and again.
To begin with, the movie’s initial title was John Carter of Mars, but to avoid a similar fate as Mars Needs Mom, director Andrew Stanton avoided the word Mars like the plague and opted for the simplified John Carter, for all the good it ultimately did. The result was a generic title whose branding was never going to resonate with audiences in the way Stanton had surely been anticipating.
Uninspired title aside, the problems were truly apparent from its very first trailer, which is now infamous for its sparse showcasing of CGI – a general must for any big budget blockbuster – while its muddled delivery failed to convey what the story is about, who John Carter is, and why he is able to leap like Spider-Man on steroids despite being a seemingly average human. Its Super Bowl trailer fared no better, but still cost the Mouse House a hefty $3.8 million for a fleeting 30 seconds.
Its muddled marketing, to a degree, once again comes back to Rich Ross, who assigned MT Carney as the marketing chief despite never having worked at a major studio. Carney left at a pivotal moment in John Carter’s promotional push only to be replaced by Ricky Strauss who, despite possessing a great deal of experience in the industry, could not salvage the scattershot marketing campaign.
It didn’t help either that Stanton rejected much of Carney’s ideas during her tenure as marketing chief in favour of his own, such as misguidedly using Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ in another trailer for the movie, which was 36 years old when it aired. He was also instrumental in orchestrating a disastrous billboard marketing campaign, with each of his decisions adding to an ever-expanding budget.
- Lack of Brand Recognition
This ties into the movie’s marketing, but even before the campaign ever began, the team were fighting an uphill battle.
The John Carter series of novels were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is better known for creating Tarzan. The John Carter first novel was released in 1917, and while the likes of Dracula, Shakespearean plays and Rice Burroughs’ own Tarzan of the Apes prove that literature can transcend the ages and still have a place in modern pop culture, the series of novels based around John Carter acted as precursors to numerous science fiction classics, most notably Star Wars, which borrowed many elements that have since become mainstays in the genre.
Ironically, this made 2012’s John Carter come off as a Johnny-come-lately to the very genre its source material helped shape, making it feel like a stale mishmash of familiar tropes.
- Mixed Reception
Reviews of the movie reflected as such, and while they were nowhere near as bad as some had predicted, they nonetheless pointed to a so-so blockbuster that tries its hand at a number of genres other than science fiction but excels in none of them.
While we live in an age where Rotten Tomatoes can certainly hold great sway over what audiences choose to watch, reviews do not necessarily make or break a movie. That being said, John Carter did not do well out of the gates, and because it clearly failed to capture the imaginations of audiences through its poor marketing, the reviews did not help its case in the weeks that followed. It just goes to show that a bad movie with great marketing will do a hell of a lot better than a mediocre one with bad marketing. Just look at the success of Suicide Squad!
- The Bottom Line
All of these issues led to a yet-to-be-established franchise with little pop cultural sway that failed, though not without lack of trying from many of those involved, including Taylor Kitsch.
By comparison take The Avengers, which released the same year and was the sixth movie in a franchise that was already a box office behemoth, based upon legendary comic book characters no less. Yet, its budget (not including marketing) was an estimated $220 million; over $40 million dollars less than John Carter. Through established branding, on-point marketing and excellent reviews, the movie went on to gross $1.519 billion at the global box office. Marvel Studios might be a subsidiary of Disney, but Rich Ross had no part in its management.
Unless you are James Cameron producing a groundbreaking movie like Avatar, one has little hope of kickstarting a new franchise with an exorbitant budget, never mind turning a profit! Sam Worthington was fortunate in his blockbuster endeavour with one of the highest grossing directors of all time. It was simply unfortunate that Kitsch was offered a role he would have been crazy to refuse at the time, consequently suffering at the hands of higher ups who were in over their heads.
Kitsch also headlined another big budget release in 2012, Battleship, but that too was a financial disappointment, albeit nowhere near as devastating as John Carter. Since then, Kitsch has featured in six major live action features, none of which exceed an initial budget of $45 million, while only one, Lone Survivor, where he played a supporting role, can be considered a major box office success.
The actor continues to earn praise for his performances, most notably in his television performances in the second season of True Detective and the limited series Waco, playing a lead role in both shows. However, after the disaster of John Carter, and indeed Battleship, Hollywood has likely moved on from casting the actor as a leading man in big budget blockbusters.