10 years ago, the biggest box office flop of all time was released in cinemas 10 months ago

10 years ago, the biggest box office flop of all time was released in cinemas

There are box office flops... and then there is THIS.

Movies cost money to make, obviously. And blockbusters need a lot of money to be made properly, seemingly costing more and more money as the years go by.


And as movies continue to cost more and more, there is more and more risk that financial investment won't be returned, when audiences stay away from a product because it is either bad or simply doesn't interest them.

In the last few years alone we've had some huge box office bombs - Mortal Engines ($180 million loss), Battleship ($169 million loss), Wonder Woman 1984 ($139 million loss) - but on 9 March 2012, the biggest box office flop in cinematic history was released upon the world.

John Carter had a reported production budget of $264 million, not including any promotional costs, which generally - in the case of big blockbusters - essentially doubles the total cost of a movie. By the time the movie left cinemas, accountants had tallied up a total loss of $200 million for Disney.


One year later, Disney would lose $190 million on Lone Ranger, and another two years after that, they'd lose another $150 million on Tomorrowland. This one-two-three punch essentially killed off Disney's interest in making anything live-action that wasn't an adaptation of a pre-existing animated classic (not including Star Wars and Marvel, of course).

The specific problems with John Carter was that the movie was based on a book first released in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the same guy who created Tarzan), which had pretty much already been fully mined for ideas by other movies in Hollywood's sci-fi history, most notably Star Wars.

However, Hollywood had been trying to adapt John Carter - or at least the book it was based on, A Princess Of Mars - for decades. Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett tried to make a movie from the book in 1931, six full years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which would've made it the first American feature length animated movie. But MGM ultimately pulled the plug when audiences reacted negatively to the outlandish story of an Earthman on Mars.

Stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen attempted to adapt the books during the late 1950s, to no avail.


In the 1980s, Disney's first attempt at the series had John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator) to direct, Tom Cruise to star, with a script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who would hit gold for Disney decades later creating the Pirates of the Caribbean series). Disney wanted an in-house competitor to Star Wars - they didn't own that franchise... yet - but the whole thing collapsed when McTiernan ultimately realised that the visual effects didn't yet exist to properly realise his vision.

In the 2000s, both Robert Rodriguez (Alita: Battle Angel) and Jon Favreau (Iron Man) were attached to the adaptation when Paramount owned the rights to the books, but both versions of the project fell through. Ironically, both directors have since worked on Star Wars projects at Disney.

Finally, in 2010, production on John Carter officially began, under two-time Oscar-winner Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E), making his live-action debut with this gargantuan movie. Stanton pitched his idea as essentially being "Indiana Jones on Mars", and amassed a fantastic cast including Taylor Kitsch in the title role, as well as Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy and Willem Dafoe.

With cutting edge technology and special effects, the movie finally looked as good as it was always supposed to, but the primary problem remained: audiences felt like they'd seen it all before.


It wasn't that John Carter was bad, it was that it cost too much money to end up this unoriginal. Stanton had failed to find a way to make a 1912 story feel fresh for a 2012 audience. Even those amazing special effects didn't really impress the way they should've, with the Oscars overlooking them in favour of giving nominations to the likes of Snow White & The Huntsmen and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Critics didn't hate it - 51% on Metacritic is the shrug of a response effectively felt by all - but the two-star review by The New Yorker puts it most succinctly:

"Burroughs invented a primal fiction: a man winds up on another planet, and has to find his way among strange creatures. Sticking to that fable, which was central to Avatar, might have saved John Carter, but Stanton loses its appealing simplicity in too many battles, too many creatures, too many redundant episodes."

Audiences are more likely to see something terrible than something aggressively mediocre, and no amount of hugely budgeted special effects or massive publicity pushes was ever going to generate enough interest to save John Carter from itself.

Should you want to - and genuinely, it is a fine enough but totally forgettable two hours - John Carter is available to watch right now on Disney+.


Clips via Walt Disney Studios