Movie Projector: Few signs of life for pricey fantasy 'John Carter'
"John Carter," Walt Disney Studios' $250-million-plus fantasy epic, is poised to disappear into a box-office black hole.
The film's debut this weekend will likely be upstaged by the nation's current No. 1, the animated 3-D hit "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax."
The family film, which opened last weekend with $70.2 million, could bring in as much as $40 million this round, whereas pre-release audience surveys indicate that "John Carter" may only sell between $20 million and $25 million worth of tickets over the three-day period.
Disney, however, is hopeful that the movie starring Taylor Kitsch as a Civil War veteran who ends up on Mars will start off with at least $30 million. In either case, media analysts expect the studio to take a write-down on the movie.
The two other pictures debuting this weekend also look to be headed for disappointing openings, each under $10 million. Neither "A Thousand Words" -- an Eddie Murphy comedy that has been sitting on the shelf since 2008 -- nor the thriller "Silent House," featuring Elizabeth Olsen, is expected to make a big dent at the box office this weekend.
"John Carter," one of the most expensive films Disney has ever made, has been plagued by bad buzz since early footage of the movie was unveiled at the studio's D23 convention for fans last summer. Despite a pricey marketing campaign, Disney has been unable to drum up substantial fan interest in the movie, based on a character author Edgar Rice Burroughs created a century ago.
Because it was fearful of turning off female audiences, Disney changed the film's title during reshoots, from "John Carter of Mars" to simply "John Carter." As a result, many moviegoers have complained that the film's title and its ads do not clearly indicate what the picture is about.
"This has been a tough one to peg, because everyone who has walked in and seen the movie has enjoyed it," said Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice president of distribution. "The ease with which you explain what it is has been some of the challenge, but I'm holding out hope."
The movie marks the first major film part for Kitsch, who until now was best known for his role on the long-running football television series "Friday Night Lights." The 30-year-old actor is also headlining another big-budget movie later this year, May's "Battleship," which cost Universal Pictures about $211 million to produce.
Directed by Pixar Animation Studios veteran Andrew Stanton, "John Carter" will need to reach approximately $700 million in worldwide ticket sales just to break even, according to several people familiar with the film's economics who requested anonymity because of the confidentiality of the matter.
This weekend, the movie is set to open in over 70 foreign countries, including Russia, South Korea and Mexico. Although it has generated strong buzz in those countries, the picture does not yet appear to be resonating in places such as Brazil and Australia, where it is also scheduled to open this weekend.
"A Thousand Words" was made by DreamWorks while the company was still owned by Paramount, and remained at the studio when Steven Spielberg's company became independent.
The movie, starring Murphy as a fast-talking literary agent who may die after he speaks 1,000 words, was meant to capitalize on a career resurgence for the comic. When it was filmed in 2008, the actor had recently been nominated for an Oscar for the DreamWorks movie "Dreamgirls" and had appeared in the 2007 hit "Norbit."
But since then, Murphy has seen his stock plummet in Hollywood, appearing in the box-office flops "Meet Dave" and "Imagine That" and withdrawing from a commitment to host this year's Oscars.
"A Thousand Words" is premiering in 1,500 theaters this weekend, less than half the number of locations for "John Carter." DreamWorks spent about $70 million to produce the film, according to two people familiar with the production who were not authorized by the studio to speak publicly on the film. A Paramount spokeswoman insisted the movie cost $40 million.
"Silent House," about a young woman trapped inside her family's eerie lake house, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. After the festival concluded, Liddell Entertainment acquired the low-budget movie, which is being marketed and distributed by Open Road. It is the second film featuring Olsen, the 23-year-old younger sister of famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley.
In limited release, the romantic comedy "Friends With Kids," written by, directed by, and starring Jennifer Westfeldt, will debut in 375 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. The movie, about two best friends who decide to have a baby together, was bought by Lionsgate, which is paying to market and release the film through Roadside Attractions.
Also opening in a handful of theaters this weekend is "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. CBS Films, which acquired the film at the Toronto Film Festival, is releasing the movie, about a wealthy sheik trying to bring fly-fishing to the Middle East, in 15 locations.
-- Amy Kaufman
Photo: Taylor Kitsch stars as "John Carter." Credit: Walt Disney Studios