A closer look at the Hollywood flop phenomenon

News Ryan Lambie 21 Mar 2012 - 17:11

John Carter’s mixed box office fortunes have been widely reported, but where does this obsession with hits and flops come from? Ryan takes a closer look...

“Buzzards were circling John Carter, it seemed, long before it was even released” was the opening line in a brief Den of Geek post about expensive movies from a couple of weeks ago. Those buzzards, it’s fair to say, have now hungrily descended.

Over the past day or two, news outlets of every type have been reporting about John Carter’s tepid box-office with barely concealed glee. The revelation that Disney would incur a $200 million writedown on John Carter was trumpeted in newspapers, on websites and on television. Could it be a bigger flop than Cutthroat Island, some outlets wondered. Could it even be the biggest flop of all time?

Now, there’s no getting away from the reality that John Carter’s performed significantly below expectations. With $100 million spent on its advertising alone, the worldwide ticket sales of around $184 million won’t even cover the film’s marketing budget once the theatres have taken their 50 per cent cut.

What’s irksome about the way John Carter’s box office situation has been reported is that it leaves out so many important facts. The movie’s only been out for two weeks. In most territories, it hasn’t even had its second weekend yet - the time of week when plenty of cinemagoers venture into their local multiplex. John Carter only opened in Portugal on the 15th of March. It’s not out in Japan until April.

By the time John Carter’s out of the cinemas and released on DVD and Blu-ray, it’s likely that it’ll start to break even, and perhaps start going into profit - Disney’s predicted losses for the film are based on its projections for the next three months, since its fiscal year ends in March.

Of course, most news reports haven’t mentioned any of this. It was the same story with Waterworld back in the 90s, a film released to cries of 'flop’ and 'box-office wash-out’ that, once all the DVD sales, TV syndication revenues, merchandising and theme park rides were factored in, didn’t actually do that badly at all.

Flops make great stories, and always have. This explains why, when the first John Carter trailer came out last year and left many people nonplussed, reporters began to smell a failure in the offing. And when Disney announced the movie’s name change, the scent became stronger than ever.

We really can’t blame the media entirely for its enthusiastic reporting, though - Hollywood must shoulder some of the responsibility itself. For Hollywood movies, hype is oxygen. When a film has great pre-release anticipation, as, say, The Hunger Games has, the resulting feedback loop between marketing wizards and the public can reach deafening levels.

Hollywood movies exist in a strange realm of heightened emotion, full of glittering awards ceremonies, glamour and hyperbole. Titanic was released to a fanfare of slightly absurd proportions, where critics rushed for a thesaurus to find new superlatives, as awards statues were piled eagerly at its feet. “To describe Titanic as the greatest disaster movie ever made is to sell it short," one critic wrote in 1997. “James Cameron's recreation of the 1912 sinking of the 'unsinkable' liner is one of the most magnificent pieces of serious popular entertainment ever to emanate from Hollywood.”

Hollywood movies practically demand these kinds of euphoric highs, so it’s little surprise that, once in a while, a film is subjected to exactly the opposite - the kind of toxic, negative hype where everyone rounds on a movie with equal relish.

Movie making in Hollywood is, as is well known, a high stakes gamble. Titanic cost an estimated $200 million to make - a lot of money now, and a hell of a lot of money 15 years ago - and during its production, reporters’ noses began to twitch. Could Titanic be another colossal flop in the offing? Dark stories emerged of disgruntled crew members, strange poisonings, Cameron rants and a tired, miserable and soggy Kate Winslet.

A Times journalist visited the set and came back with the following, beautifully worded summary of Cameron in action: "[He’s a] 300-decibel screamer, a modern-day Captain Bligh with a megaphone and walkie-talkie, swooping down into people’s faces on a 162ft crane".

Delicious though the headline ‘Titanic Flop!’ would have seemed at the time, Cameron’s film was a big hit - the biggest hit in film history, until it was supplanted by Avatar a decade later - and any notion that it all could have gone terribly wrong was swiftly put aside.

What’s so depressing about the ‘flop’ monicker is that, once it’s applied, it’s damn near indelible. Look again at the list of biggest box office bombs; some of them aren’t terribly good, but few are utterly without merit. 1999’s The 13th Warrior was a great-looking film, if a little light on plot. Sahara wasn’t a bad pulp action adventure, and its release was largely overshadowed by legal problems.

Although some have been keen to quickly write it off as just another box office bomb, along with Mars Needs Moms or Ishtar, John Carter’s a fun, sumptuous fantasy adventure. There are many possible reasons why the film didn’t take flight at the box office in its first couple of weeks - its marketing campaign could be to blame, perhaps, or maybe its “delightfully unfashionable cheesiness”, as the Times put it - but despite what some critics might have you believe, John Carter deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits, whatever its financial future holds.

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