Can a Pixar Whiz Conquer Live Action?

Disney is betting on John Carter, a movie about a Civil War vet leading Martian rebels
"John Carter" has the same director as "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E." Disney hopes it has the same success Illustration by Nikola Odic

In the new Walt Disney film John Carter, a Civil War veteran transported to Mars fights giant saber-toothed apes and four-armed, sword-wielding aliens. Things are only a little less scary here on earth, where the pricey picture—researcher Box Office Mojo pegs its cost at about $250 million, not counting marketing—is already battling bad buzz, reports of cost overruns, and criticism of Disney’s early marketing.

Hollywood studios in recent years have made fewer, more expensive films that can spawn sequels and become long-lived franchises. When it works, the payoff is big: The Harry Potter string of eight films has brought in $7.7 billion at the box office. But for every Toy Story, there’s a The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which made back less than a 10th its estimated $100 million budget through ticket sales.

Data:; Photographs Courtesy Everett Collection

John Carter is also a test of whether Disney can spread the magic of animation powerhouse Pixar, which it acquired in 2006 for $7.01 billion, to live-action films. Andrew Stanton, the writer and director of John Carter, previously co-wrote and directed Pixar hits Finding Nemo and WALL-E, for which he won Academy Awards. He was a writer on Monsters, Inc. and all three Toy Story movies. But John Carter isn’t just different because it uses real actors, it’s also more costly than any of Stanton’s previous films. Notes Vasily Karasyov, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group: “It can hurt earnings if it’s not huge.”

So far, John Carter, which opens March 9, isn’t looking huge. Entertainment website estimates the film will take in $60 million in its domestic theatrical run, based on the performance of similar films, the release date, and online chatter on websites such as Twitter and Facebook. “This is a movie that should be hitting the sweet spot of males age 18 to 34,” says Phil Contrino, editor of the site. “It better make a killing internationally.”

Stanton’s Nemo, produced for an estimated $94 million in 2003, took in some $868 million in global ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. WALL-E, a 2008 release, cost $180 million and grossed $521 million worldwide. That résumé hasn’t shielded Stanton from doubters. “When people make a $250 million picture, they’re putting themselves in the middle of a bull’s-eye,” says James Jacks, a producer of The Mummy, who himself spent eight years trying to bring the John Carter story to life at Paramount Pictures. Jacks says he liked Stanton’s film and told him so at the Feb. 22 premiere for industry notables. Still, he says, “I would have made it for a lot less money.”

Critics point to marketing gaffes, such as an initial trailer that appeared too similar to other movies, and the studio’s decision to drop the identifying words “of Mars,” from the title after Disney’s similarly named Mars Needs Moms bombed last year. “It doesn’t have an audience looking forward to it,” says Harry Knowles, a reviewer for the website, who says he enjoyed the film. “Disney marketing has been lazy and too late.” Disney’s Marvel unit has published a series of John Carter comic books, while other merchandise, from action figures to costumes, has yet to appear.

John Carter joins Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as among the most expensive films Disney has produced, according to Box Office Mojo. First place goes to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End at $300 million, which had successful predecessor films before its large budget was set.

The movies are part of a trend at Disney of placing larger bets on fewer films. The studio expects to distribute 12 of its own pictures in the U.S. this year, down from 19 a decade ago, according to company filings. Disney put 80 percent of its fiscal 2011 production budget into multifilm franchises such as Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean, up from 40 percent in 2010, Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo said last year.

Matthew Harrigan, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities, says some of John Carter may be unsuitable for small children, and it’s unlikely to spawn products elsewhere in the Disney universe, such as theme-park rides or cartoons. The film is based on a 100-year-old series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan. Stanton recalled reading the stories as a child and has long itched to bring them to the big screen.

Disney spokesman Paul Roeder says criticism of the film’s budget and marketing are unfounded. He says Stanton finished the film on time and stayed within the original budget. It’s also too soon to judge the still-unfolding marketing campaign, he says.

Stanton has already outlined two potential sequels should John Carter become a hit. Asked by a fan via Twitter on Feb. 24 whether he was nervous about the opening, Stanton replied: “Wouldn’t you be? (but it’s a good nervous.)”

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