How Disney Created the Biggest Box Office Flop of all Time

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Under Creative Commons License
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote nearly 80 books, including 26 Tarzan stories. (Photo via Wikipedia Under Creative Commons License)

In 2012, Disney released John Carter, a movie that’s rights spent eighty years bouncing from studio to studio and writer to writer.

The movie is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 novel, A Princess of Mars. Burroughs was a very private writer. Instead of publishing the first book, he had it issued in All-Star Magazine in mini installments similar to comic books. It wasn’t until later that these issues were collected as A Princess of Mars, the first in an eleven book series.

In the 1930s, there was an attempt to create an animated series based on the books, however, executives instead asked the animator to create a Tarzan cartoon that was never completed. According to David Hugh’s The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, Disney acquired the rights to the book series in the 1980s. However, nothing appears to have come of it. Fast forward to 2004 when two companies, Columbia and Paramount, become locked in a bidding war over the rights. Paramount ultimately won, and they pitched the film to multiple different directors; all of their attempts failed and no result was ever produced. Finally, in 2007, Disney obtained the rights to the novels once more.

The project fell into the hands of Andrew Stanton, director of Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and Finding Dory. John Carter finally came to the silver screen. According to The Atlantic, “His original cut of the film (which cost a reported $250 million) was nearly three hours long, and there are tentative plans for at least two more sequels.”

The Princess of Mars is known for inspiring many different sci-fi films including Star Wars. (Photo Via Disney Under Creative Commons License)

It wasn’t until 2013 that the true production cost of the movie was revealed. Most experts estimated that the budget was somewhere around $250 million when in reality, it was $306.6 million. According to Forbes, “These new figures were gathered after the British tax authority revealed they had paid Disney $42.9 million to film John Carter in London. Disney was forced to declare their John Carter costs because of Britain’s tax credit scheme.” 

According to Cinema Blend, John Carter would have had to make $600 million to break even. Thus, John Carter is the 9th most expensive movie ever made.

Throughout its worldwide box office run, Stanton’s live-action directorial debut earned $284.1 million. One of the reasons Burrough’s live-action adaptation failed so badly is because of its marketing. The title was changed from John Carter of Mars to John Carter after the failure of Mars Needs Moms. The movie’s marketing team also decided to downplay the western elements of the movie after the failure of Cowboys and Aliens. On top of all of this, one-third of the Superbowl ad was just an elaborate title sequence.

When the movie finally opened in theatres, it was met with mixed reviews. Scoring a 6.6 on IMDb, 52% by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 60% audience score. In the end, John Carter is Disney’s third most expensive movie they ever made (not including the company’s subsidiaries Lucasfilm and Marvel Studio’s films), and the movie is most commonly cited as the biggest box office flop in history.

Since 2012, the rights to Princess of Mars have reverted to Edgar Rice Burrough’s estate. The movie is now streaming on Disney +, and you can watch the trailer here.