Why John Carter Bombed: The Hubris Of Andrew Stanton

JC of Mars

Like most sf/fantasy writers, I have read Edgar Rice Burroughs and was looking forward, though hesitantly, to John Carter Of Mars, later truncated to John Carter.  You almost want it to be:  John Carter, CPA, just to give the guy some identity.

Now, as with most bombs (think WATERWORLD, ISHTAR, HEAVEN’S GATE, MARS (note to Disney:  avoid!) NEEDS MOMS. , we clutch our hair in disbelief, falling prostrate on the ground and yelling “Why?  Why?” with the agony of Nancy Kerrigan.

I think that I know why.  I’ve done extensive research on the Web (where we know that everything we read is true), and, coupled with my fifteen years of servitude in the bowels of Hollywood studios (including Disney), I think I’ve found a scapegoat:  The director, Andrew Stanton.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’ve never met Mr. Stanton.  I cooed with as much pleasure as the next gal at the charm of Finding Nemo; marveled at the first half-hour of Wall-E, as graceful as a Chaplin short.   Clearly, this guy Stanton was a master storyteller; hell, he’d co-written all of the Toy Stories, and his finesse with CG was acknowledged with two shiny Oscars for Best Animated Film Of The Year.

Stanton was riding high, as high as Woody on Bullseye. His two animated masterpieces had earned Pixar a cool $1.3 billion, and he was the Buzz who could do no wrong.  Per his peer, Pete Docter, director of Up, “He can outthink and outtalk anyone in the room.”  Stanton had apparently started believing his own press – he hung a sign in his home office reading, “I don’t want success to follow me home.”  If you have to remind yourself not to be a prick to your family, it might be time to go in for an Ego Deflate.

Regardless, Stanton had a pet project bathed in the affection of childhood (like Peter Jackson with King Kong), and Disney, convinced of his infallibility, blew kisses and a $250 million budget to film the live-action John Carter.

This is what he said, in a lengthy interview given to The New Yorker (web link below): “We came on this movie so intimidated: ‘Wow, we’re at the adult table!’ Three months in, I said to my producers, ‘Is it just me, or do we actually know how to do this better than live-action crews do?’ The crew were shocked that they couldn’t overwhelm me, but at Pixar I got used to having to think about everyone else’s problems months before all their pieces would come together, and I learned that I’m just better at communicating and distilling than other people.”

Do you hear what I hear? The tinny blast of hubris, which felled a lot of people before Stanton:  Achilles, Ajax, Oedipus, Leona Helmsley, Bernie Madoff.  Stanton thought he was better at the live-action game than its longtime practitioners, and that he could play the same hand as he had in animation:  lots and lotsa reshoots.  However, there is a big difference between manipulating pixels on a screen and supporting a full cast and crew on location at a rough cost of $1 million a day (factoring in CG and post).  In April 2010 alone, he reshot for 18 days.  This is what he told the New Yorker:

“Reshoots should be mandatory,” Stanton insisted. “Honestly, if we had the time and everyone was available, I’d do another reshoot after this one.” When I said it sounded as if he longed for the old studio system, he replied, “That’s exactly what Pixar is! And some of the Pixarness we’re trying to spread at Disney is ‘It’s O.K. to not know, to be wrong, to screw up and rely on each other.’ Art is messy, art is chaos—so you need a system.”

Guess what?  You had better goddamn know before your ass hits the set on a mega-movie. You do what the big boys do:  storyboard, wireframe, rehearse, get a locked-in script, so that you don’t march out to the Utah desert and start bleeding hundreds of millions.

For that kind of green, you cast at least one movie star.  As your lead.  Not an unknown hunk from a low-rated TV show.  You don’t have the only names in the cast hidden behind CG (in this case, four-armed and green).  It has been brought to my attention that certain little films named Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings didn’t have lead stars.  What they had were great directors, stellar special effects, and one primary difference:  they were good.

You write a script that actually makes sense.  Don’t incorporate two lengthy framing narratives at the head, because that’s the way to lose the audience.  The so-called Pixar “Braintrust” tried to tell Stanton, but he wouldn’t listen:  have the audience learn about Mars the same time as JC does. Don’t bore us with exposition for characters we don’t know (and it is still dry exposition, even if spaceships are exploding).  Don’t introduce a cutesy character named “Burroughs” since that’s the way to make us lose our lunch.  Even if it was in the book. Maybe the late Johnny Weissmuller could have leapt from a canoe into the “River Iss.” With Cheetah co-starring as a Thern.

I fully understand that A Princess of Mars, the ostensible basis of this film, was published in 1917.  We all know that filmmakers like Lucas, Cameron, Spielberg, et al have stolen from the source material until only the bleached skeleton remains.  That’s why a set piece like the gladiatorial combat with White Apes was done better by Lucas in 1980.  That the steampunk contraptions flying above Barsoom were co-opted by Terry Gilliam in Baron Munchausen.  That the pulpy serial tone was done, and done better, by Spielberg in Indiana Jones.  Alas, this project was too late, and too little.  But instead of using their brains (as Nina Jacobson, former head of Disney production did, when she passed on M. Night’s execrable Lady in The Water script), the Disney execs bent over and asked for more more more.  Yes, they were trying to please Herr Direktor.  But there was a bit more involved.

None of the execs at Disney have a fucking clue as to what they are doing.  The CEO, Bob Iger, is an ex-ABC man.  His hire for the spot of Studio Chairman is Rich Ross* – former head of the Disney Channel.  The President of Marketing during the JC campaign was one MT Carney – probably great at what she did in the world of New York advertising,, but she had zero movie experience.  See the trend here?  This new slate of suits, while trying to do something “different”, did: they hired people who had never been closer to a movie than the screen at their local Cineplex.

Let’s talk about the advertising campaign for a moment.  Pair a novice (M)adwoman and a hubristic director, and what do you get?  $100 million worth of crap.  Stanton didn’t want JC portrayed as a kids’ film – so he refused to put “By The Guy Who Directed Nemo And Wall-E” in the ads.  He assumed, that since he was a major John Carter fan, this hero was as familiar to audiences as Superman, Thor, and Conan.  Wrong.  So what we got by dint of an advance poster was a strange reddish mishmash of a man – in some kind of caveman gear – walking.  The huge, enigmatic text?  “JOHN CARTER.”  The trailers stank and didn’t attract anyone:  not women, who would have gone for the love story; nor men, since the emphasis was not on action (unlike the film).

Take all of these toxic ingredients – no stars, a bad script, a tired premise, a lackluster ad campaign — shake, then pour, and what have you got?  A $200 million write-off for Disney, acknowledged even before the second weekend.

Yes, the studio was at fault:  Know Nothing executives, unthinking worship of a Cash Cow, an overly compliant marketing staff.  However, I contend that Stanton – with his arrogance, his complete misunderstanding of how live-action is made – shoulders 90% of the blame.  What will happen to him now?  Will he return to the bosom of Pixar, to make animation forever more?  Or will he be given another chance, perhaps on a much, much lower budget?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, he can hone his superior “communicating and distilling than other people” skills to a sharper, perhaps more modest, edge.

Read more:

* now fired


All quotes taken from this article

The Two Americas Part I: Justice

Lady Justice

I’ve been thinking lately about the Greed that oozes down Wall Street and the Too Big To Fails: you know, the folks who make million-dollar bonuses and wrecked the U.S. economy by bundling toxic loans and selling them to Muppets –uh, investors.

Now, when a member of the 99% (that’s you or me) commits a crime, we are generally punished.  If you’re African-American, you’re punished at a ratio of 3.5; if you’re Latino, nearly 1.5.  Whites are a straight 1:1. Roughly translated, this means that relative to their population, blacks and Latinos get the short end of the stick – from their jailers.

On Wall Street, where “Greed Is Good” and everyone is too smart for their own good, criminality has not only been legalized but lauded.  Manipulate the silver market and plunge S&L’s into crisis?  Great job!  Come up with the concept of “junk bonds” which proves as trashy as its appellation, and you’re a billionaire who builds schools with your name on them. OK, so you might do some time at Club Fed, and not be allowed to wear your toupee, but that’s a small price to pay for Livin’ Like A Rock Star, right?

These days, the short  stint behind bars has become déclassé (unless you’re Bernie, and then they have to put you away).   Kerry Killinger, erstwhile CEO of Washington Mutual, received a $24 million bonus the year the bank failed (the biggest one in US history, but who’s counting?).   Angelo Mozilo, the Mob-like boss of Countrywide, settled with the SEC for $67.5 million on charges of insider trading and fraud – fraud so pernicious that it made WaMu’s stinking loans smell laundry-fresh.

John Thain, the Last Emperor of Merrill  before it was annexed to B of A, was removed by Ken Lewis (soon to be beheaded himself) for granting huge executive bonuses just before Merrill fell.  Oh, and he also redecorated his office to the tune of $1.2 million while his firm was going down by the head.  But  everyone needs an $18,000 George IV desk, don’t you think?  He has been punished by becoming head of CIT Group (not be confused with Citigroup), the latter of which is still around thanks to Uncle Obama.   BTW, Lewis “retired” from B of A in 2009 with pension benefits totaling $53 million.  I hope that’s enough to get him through.  If not, he can always buy B of A stock  – hoping it rises from $9.00.  Maybe he can just buy the Board of Directors a nice bottle of Chevas.

You’ve probably heard about Dick Fuld, The Tool Who Started It All, whose compensation from Lehman before his dismissal was said to be $500 million (from no less than authority than Congressman Henry Waxman).  A company lawyer swears that this Brobdingnagian sum was understated by some $200 million. [1]   After all, what’s a few mil between friends?

The ex-head of AIG, Maurice Greenberg, is actually suing the U.S. for $25 billion since he feels that the initial bailout ($182 billion) wasn’t big enough.  You know, I don’t feel I’m compensated enough at work. Maybe the Feds can set aside a paltry million or two so I can buy a George IV desk.  To end with a nuclear bang, Bernie M. is thought to have perpetrated his  Ponzi scheme for forty years before a whistleblower finally made himself heard by the SEC.  As long as those investors were “making” money, it was a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow. . .

Here in my state, California, we have a Three Strikes Law which puts a person away for life if their third “strike” happens to be stealing a pizza (thankfully, this  sentence was later commuted to six years by a judge with a heart where Dick Cheney’s ought to be).  My friend Anthony has been pulled over by the LAPD for “driving while Latino” and I think we’re all acquainted with Rodney King.   In the L.A. Rampart scandal, a cop admitted to shooting a black gang member, then placing a gun in his hands to “stage” the scene.   Not sure if that was before or after the cop’s theft of a cache of cocaine. On a white-collar note, If I’d stolen millions from my vanished ex-employer, WaMu, I’d be playing backgammon with Bernie right now.  And we’d be having a laugh over all those idiot “Muppets.”

My point, Dear Reader, is that the Masters of this Recession, whose financial machinations bore the stamp of 33rd Degree Masons, who have plunged a fair portion of the populace into poverty, hunger, misery, and foreclosure, are still out there, enjoying the fruits of their greed.  Not a one has gone to prison.  They are all still multi-millionaires and more.   In the Old White Boys Club, they either go through the turnstile to another lucrative job, or retire among Bond girls and yachts.   The drooling avarice of Kerry Killinger and his lieutenant, Steve Rotella, personally cost me a ten-year career, my house, my credit, my car, and my health.   Yet those two are unscathed – along with all the others – doing The Happy Dance  while families sleep in their van and use the bathroom at Wal-Mart.

Truth, Justice, and The American Way – and the way of America is that if you’re rich, you have your own justice and your own truth.  Even if it completely conflicts with reality.  And destroys countless lives.  Emile Zola was right, when he has the artist Claude Lantier comment at the end of Savage Paris, “What scum respectable people are!”  Indeed.

WELCOME, EARTHLINGS! (now do my bidding)


First of all, welcome to my blog!  Who am I, you ask, clutching your mouse (or i-something) closer, fearful of the unknown that lurks just a pixel away!  Not to worry, Dear Reader.  I am just a lowly writer – a graduate of Clarion West ’92 – with thirty-eight published short stories, two in REALMS OF FANTASY and one in INTERZONE.  Yes, there was a time I wrote fantasy – before reality intervened with a steel-toed boot to the tuchis.

I have written a memoir of my downward slide during the Great Recession:  Don’t Let Me Die In A Motel 6,  which, God and my agent permitting (sometimes I equate the two), will make its way to Amazon and a bookstore near you before we all die of sporadic healthcare.

Besides my authorial career, I labored fifteen long years for the Hollywood studios, living through highs like Star Wars and Alien and the shameful lows like Gimme An ‘F’ (for “fun”):  which featured cheerleading girls.  Away at Camp “Beaverview.” Since you asked, I worked for Fox, Warner, Universal, New Line, DeLaurentiis, Lorimar Pictures and Savoy.  I was involved in feature film advertising, which sounds a lot more interesting than it is.  While at the Della Femina Ad agency, my colleague & I came up with the immortal tagline for Michael Caine’s Shock To The System:  DIE, YUPPIE SCUM!  If you ever saw a movie ad in a newspaper (that’s that thing made of paper, Millennials) I might have played a modest part.

What else can I tell you?  I did standup at The Comedy Store in Hollywood (in the same room which founded Whoopi & Roseanne), and a not-so-funny sit-down when my employer, Washington Mutual, decided to go supernova, leaving vast nebular remnants – and employees – clutching the night sky.  What followed wasn’t pretty:  2.5 years of unemployment; foreclosure; bankruptcy; repo; and at the last, Stage II breast cancer.  Of course, you’ll read about it in my upcoming book.  Over a nice cup of coffee. In the meantime, my intent is to blog about issues that interest me, mouthing off into cyberspace to anyone willing to listen.  WARNING:  I am a left-leaning Progressive.  As I said in my routine:  I have nothing against Republicans — I just won’t have one in my house.

Happy reading, and fill free to leave comments galore!  Keeping it civil would be nice, but there is nothing you can say that some studio exec (or hurled chair) hasn’t said –with a thud – before.  Since most Tweets and comments on the Web are of the imma sell my ho variety, I’m hoping to elevate the discourse.