How to blow $164 million in a weekend

“Can you spare a dime…or maybe $164 million?”

UPDATE 3/20: It’s even worse than $164 million. Disney is writing off two hundred million bucks in the John Carter debacle. As I said, you could feed Africa with the money these studios routinely lose.

This past weekend the uber-pricy Disney epic John Carter opened to a dull thud at the box office. This follows the thudding of Nick Cage’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengence, Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld: Awakening, George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I in 3D, Mars Needs Moms, Cowboys & AliensGreen LanternConan the Barbarian, The ThingRise of the Planet of the Apes, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Thor. John Carter alone is expected to pinch the Mouse for around $164 million. In all fairness, a few of these movies have gone on or possibly will go on to at least semi-redeem themselves in overseas numbers and video game sales and Burger King tie-ins.

But what’s interesting to me is that you never hear the power players in Hollywood saying it’s time to stop this big budget special effects madness, that maybe, with the exception of a few franchises, most of which are now threadbare anyway (next time, Indiana Jones will battle rheumatism), movie-goers are sick of fake computer monsters? Instead they just go back, make excuses, and churn out more.

“Sure there are some that lose money,” the studio execs say. “But then you have a mega-hit that wipes out all the losses.” A while ago someone, I forget who, looked at studio releases and divided them into two categories: the big-budget effects films and the smaller, character-driven movies. A few films are hard to fit neatly into one category or the other (anything by Terry Gilliam, for example) but for the most part there’s not too much bias going on here. And this person added up the cost of the films of both sides vs. the grosses, and guess what? Percentage-wise, the small “indie” films that only get attention around Oscar time actually returned more on their investments than the IMAX and THX-sound boom-boomies. This is because, contrary to studio-head wisdom, it’s actually the losers that wipe out the mega-hits more often.

Back in the ’80s, when Michael Cimino nearly bankrupted a studio with Heaven’s Gate, there was this tremendous backlash against big ticket productions. Movies were shelved or their budgets cut, for no reason other than Michael Cimino’s had flopped. Heaven’s Gate is still code for a cinematic debacle, although there have been flops since, most of which involve comic book movies, that make it look almost minor league by comparison. (Pluto Nash, anybody?) And of course, we’re always hearing about how studios don’t make more small-budget indie films because people won’t watch them. They don’t want something like Sofia Coppola’s arty and downbeat Lost in Translation. They want another Tron.

Except…except Lost in Translation grossed more than $130 million, on a budget of just four million.

If you were a stock picker and you found a security selling for four bucks that returned 130 bucks, even Warren Buffett would be impressed. So, of course, the studios are just hammering on Sofia Coppola’s door wanting more, right?

Guess again.

If Tron did the same kind of business relative to its cost, you’d have seen ten more Trons, a Tron TV series, Tron: The Musical, Tron On Ice, Planet of the Trons, and Bella Swan Meets Tron by now. But nobody wants a little Sofia Coppola film to lead the way. They’d rather keep believing their industry will be saved by the next based-on-the-Happy-Meal flick in which Keanu Reeves or Will Smith stares down some monster with a snappy one-liner short enough to fit at the top of a movie poster or fast food placemat.

Despite the string of big-budget box office failures, the CGI houses are still overloaded with work. Despite the lame performance of Men in Black II, Men in Black III is coming soon. Despite the fact that Nicholas Cage has been losing studios money for ten years, his calendar is still full. Despite the fact that actors like Cage and Beckinsale and Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson and so many others came to our attention in substantive roles that requires nuance and richness and acting chops, they’ve chosen, now that they’re “A-list,” to don leather catsuits and play interchangeable superheroes and villains, or do movies where they’re fleeing a slasher with a knife, or a vampire, or a werewolf, or maybe all three at the same time.

A majority of these movies will go on to lose money—many of them colossal amounts of money, enough to feed Africa for a year—and studios will often rejigger their budgets by cutting smaller, non-CGI films out of their schedule to make up the difference. “Films like We Need To Talk About Kevin aren’t profitable,” they’ll say, while ignoring all the big films they greenlighted that did far worse. It reminds me of another phenomenon of the ’80s, the American auto makers saying the U.S. didn’t want small cars, you couldn’t sell them, don’t blame us for not trying. Then Japan kicked our asses, and we still haven’t recovered. “You can’t sell two-seater sportscars in America,” GM said to justify the failure of its horrible Fiero, only to have Mazda premiere the Miata shortly thereafter and make a mint.

Supposedly Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” Maybe all of Hollywood ought to check itself in.

5 responses

  1. Fair enough point, but I don’t think you can lump John Carter into that group yet considering it’s been out for only a few days.


    March 12, 2012 at 2:22 pm

  2. …As I said in the last sentence of my first paragraph. But in fact they do get a pretty good read on a film’s success by the first few days coupled with pre-release buzz. Especially considering next week it will be competing against new films. Sometimes films spring to life in the second week, but that’s rare. And the viewer reviews, on the various web sites that collect these things, aren’t great. As someone pointed out, the John Carter series doesn’t even have much of a following or awareness, so it’s not like there was audience anticipation in the first place.

    But you raise a good point. Stuff comes out so fast these days it doesn’t even get a chance to breathe before it’s shunted aside. Same with TV shows. In today’s frantic marketplace, classic programs like MASH, Barney Miller, All In The Family, Hill Street Blues, etc, never would make it.


    March 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm

  3. maureen owen

    Wow, John, this was a really good one. Why aren’t you working for the New Yorker or something? Or are they still OD-ing on Franzen and Easton-Ellis?


    March 12, 2012 at 3:56 pm

  4. Don’t get me started about Nicholas Cage. I’ve just never seen the draw.

    Along the same vein, Meryl Streep said recently that the big hit mega movies are geared for 18 yr. old guys who will buy games and “stuff” after they see the movie. Your post, as well as Streep’s statement, does of good job of revealing the adolescent mentality of a lot of Hollywood movies. Needless to say, I watch a lot of independent and foreign films.


    March 13, 2012 at 9:07 am

    • Something I’ve been turning to lately is pre-Code American films, which means before 1934. You may think these are too boring and clunky to be enjoyable or relevant today, but oh, you’d be wrong. Hollywood was fast, funny and sophisticated back then. In just a few years, things changed a lot. But because those films (such as Lubitsch comedies) became instantly unmarketable after the Hays Code kicked in, they have been largely forgotten even by film historians who should know better.


      August 17, 2012 at 10:30 am

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