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From the Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature, this is the Ballantine paperback edition of A Princess of Mars that I cut my teeth on in my science fictional formative years. The Mars novels were reprinted in 11 volumes starting in 1963.  These covers (from the mid-1970’s printings) by Gino D’Achille have always been my favorite complete series of the novels.  The movie John Carter borrows a bit of its look from these particular paperback covers. 

From the Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature, this is the Ballantine paperback edition of A Princess of Mars that I cut my teeth on in my science fictional formative years. The Mars novels were reprinted in 11 volumes starting in 1963.  These covers (from the mid-1970’s printings) by Gino D’Achille have always been my favorite complete series of the novels.  The movie John Carter borrows a bit of its look from these particular paperback covers. 

By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

July 15, 2013

Two eagerly anticipated films from Disney, two baffling box
office flops: John Carter and The Lone Ranger.

So what went wrong? Both of them were highly entertaining
films, both should have a long life on Netflix. But they polarized their audience,
a few patrons loving them, and many either hating them or not bothering to show
up. 

Why do we, at a blog about antique popular literature, care
if Disney movies flop?  Because it isn’t
that often that literature we are really passionate about (in this case, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars series) gets
a shot at the big screen. And in the case of The Lone Ranger, we care because No. 1: it’s a western; No 2: it’s
about an iconic American hero, star of radio, newspaper comics, and the silver
screen; and No. 3: because it has Johnny
Depp
sans pirates, and we’ve loved him since he was Edward Scissorhands. 

We care because John
Carter
should have been a franchise, and now that Disney screwed it up, we
won’t get to see more installments. We care because we’d like to see Johnny
Depp get back to demonstrating his real dramatic talents (he used to do
interesting art films, like Chocolat) and not just mugging for
the camera
in strange make-up and funny hats. 

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter to the individual filmgoer
whether a movie is a hit or not. I met a woman recently who said that Howard
the Duck
, one of the more notorious flops in Hollywood history, was her
favorite movie when she was 4 years old. 
I personally have delighted in movies that my entire family hated. For
instance, I happen to like Alicia
Silverstone
, and I was thoroughly enthralled by her film Excess
Baggage
—but my family felt like they had been dragged through a bad
experience going to see it, and does anybody out there besides me even remember
that movie these days? 

But it is sad to see a couple of good movies—these two
Disney products in particular—get panned as flops, when they are actually
pretty darn good. Trends in Hollywood are fickle. If you like Westerns, you are
justified in your concern that a huge budget Western flop may have a chilling
effect on Hollywood’s desire to do Westerns for awhile. If you are a pulp
magazine era science fiction fan, it is painful to see an Edgar Rice Burroughs
story that you’ve waited to be on the big screen since your childhoods go down
in flames, financially speaking. 

So what went wrong? Three things, really.  No. 1: Trying to make blockbuster hits out of
80-year old material that most of the audience doesn’t know about or care
about; No. 2: Failing to target the audience that does know about and/or care about
the source material; and No. 3: Out-of-control production budgets that doomed
the films to failure before they ever opened. 

Regarding No. 1: John Carter was based on Edgar Rice
Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars”, which would have been a better title for the
movie. I met people who couldn’t remember the name of the film, because it was
just some dude’s common name. If they’d kept Mars in the title, at least they
could have attracted people who were interested in movies about outer space or
Martians. The movie was released in the 100th anniversary year of the
novel’s first publication. The last time it was revived to big paperback sales
was during the Burroughs’ revival of the 1960s and early 1970s. How are you
going to get teenage ticket buyers interested in that?  Likewise, The Lone Ranger was a
radio show starting in 1933, and the last time he was popular was during his
successful run on television from 1949 to 1957. Hollywood can make old action
heroes cool for a new generation. Witness Sherlock Holmes and the X-Men, but it
isn’t easy. 

Regarding No. 2:  I
loved John Carter partially because I had waited for it all of my
life.  When I read the books at age 14, I
imagined how I would film it; who I would cast; what camera angles I would use.
The costuming, the flying ships, everything in the film, are made to look like
it was lifted from an old Buck Rogers movie serial. In every respect, the film
is wonderful for the 40/50 year-old men who grew up reading paperback reprints
of the Burroughs’ novels. Even the Princess herself, looking a little too old
and little too dressed (Burroughs depicted her a bit more naked), appeals to
middle-aged men and definitely not to a teen audience. And yet, the film was
budgeted so generously that it would have had to be one of the biggest hits of
the century to turn a profit, which of necessity requires a teen audience. The
Lone Ranger
has the same set of problems. He was already a memory when
I was a kid, and I’m 52 years old. 

Finally, regarding No. 3: 
Both of these films had rumored production budgets of about $275 million.
Factoring in the cost of prints and advertising, that’s probably another $175
million. If you consider that a common rule of thumb in Hollywood is to regard
a film as financially successful if it brings in two times the production
budget, then the math clearly shows that both of these films were almost
certainly doomed to failure before they even opened. Both of these films could
have been made for easily one-third of their actual price tag and been just as
good or better. The old silent movie comedians filmed exploits on trains that
were every bit as exciting and fun as the shenanigans in this version of The
Lone Ranger,
and they did it on a shoestring budget.

The economics of Hollywood filmmaking is screwed up. Ever
since the first Tim Burton Batman
movie, which paid off with a big opening after a clever advertising
build-up, Hollywood has been planning for the next huge blockbuster with the giant
record-breaking opening. But there have been more miscalculations than hits. This
notion, that every new event picture has to have the biggest opening of all
time, has completely distorted the funding process of Hollywood movies, led to
bloated budgets and cost over-runs and a string of major disappointments. The
films would have been better if they hadn’t been made to collapse under the
weight of trying once again to be the biggest event of all time. It simply
doesn’t make any sense to have a production budget so high that a film needs to
make a half billion dollars before it breaks even. 

Still, I like these two films. They may be maligned today,
but they’ll probably have long afterlives streaming on the Web. The crazy thing
is that, despite being a huge embarrassment for Disney financially, millions of
people have already enjoyed John Carter since its release in
June of 2012. The bizarre economics of Hollywood declared it a failure, but according
to www.the-numbers.com it’s already
made $280 million worldwide. If a book sold that much, it would be a huge
bestseller. If a music album sold that much, it would be a multiple platinum
release.  Is there hope yet for a
sequel? 

 

This still from the 1956 Warner Brothers movie of The Lone Ranger features Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, the duo that has been most identified with the roles.  Interestingly, the movie was in theaters while the series was still on television.  

This still from the 1956 Warner Brothers movie of The Lone Ranger features Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, the duo that has been most identified with the roles.  Interestingly, the movie was in theaters while the series was still on television.