How did 'Battleship' escape the 'John Carter' flop furor?
If there is a truism in Hollywood when it comes to the media, it’s that people in the industry never think you’re nasty, mean or vicious enough when writing about someone else’s movie. It’s a business, after all, where people root just as hard to see their friends fail as their enemies.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear from so many studio execs, producers and agents this week, all wondering the same thing: Why hasn’t the entertainment press been giving “Battleship” just as big a whipping as it gave “John Carter” a couple of months ago? After all, both films cost more than $200 million to make, an additional $100 million to market and, despite OK performances overseas, were pretty much dead on arrival in the United States.
Their overall numbers aren’t all that different. Disney’s “John Carter” did a paltry $72 million in the United States and an additional $210 million overseas; “Universal’s “Battleship” is on track to do even less in America than “John Carter” while so far making $232 million overseas. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Universal could lose $150 million on “Battleship,” while Disney took a $200-million write-down on “John Carter."
Those are both huge bites out of a rotten apple, yet while “John Carter” got a noisy, prolonged thrashing from the showbiz media, “Battleship” has largely escaped scrutiny, except for a predictable round of opening weekend obituaries. (If I had a dollar for every headline that went “ ‘Avengers’ sinks ‘Battleship,’" I could probably finance a couple of movies myself.)
There have been a few solid inside-baseball accounts, including one at the Vulture website that actually predicted that Universal marketing chief Josh Goldstine would lose his job because of the poor performance of “Battleship.” But for the most part, the media are allowing “Battleship” to slide down to the ocean floor without much fuss or fanfare.
Why were we so worked up about “John Carter” yet so blasé about “Battleship?
First, I should cite one immutable media law: If there are two box-office stinkers, the first one gets far more attention. Being the first mega flop of the year, “John Carter” was a magnet for media scrutiny. The film was also hurt by the fact that Disney, whose top cadre of executives is about as open with the press as the rulers of North Korea, had few friends in the media who might be willing to cut the studio a break.
“John Carter” also became a fat target after Disney axed MT Carney, its controversial head of marketing, who had famously decreed that the film’s title be shortened from “John Carter of Mars” to the generic “John Carter,” as if Mars might be too esoteric a locale for a sci-fi adventure film. For media sharks, Carney’s departure was a sign that blood was in the water — it only heightened the awareness that something was amiss with the film.
With “John Carter” out in front, it became the poster child for studio excess, allowing “Battleship” to stay, at least to some degree, out of the line of fire. Even though the media exhibit enormous sophistication and historical perspective in a thousand different ways — not that I can think of a specific example right now — they are far too often bedazzled by the sheer novelty of a story. If you watch cable news, for example, you know all too well that if there are two child kidnappings in the same month, the first one gets far more attention than the second.
This same law applies to box-office bombs. With “Battleship,” the fascination with Hollywood flop sweat had already worn off. When I asked a veteran showbiz reporter why his publication had spent so little time covering the demise of “Battleship,” he joked: “I guess we all had the same reaction — didn’t we just write that story already?”
“Battleship” was also helped by the fact that it arrived after “Dark Shadows,” which had underperformed at the box office, muddying the waters a little in terms of what qualified as a dud and what qualified as a disaster.
It’s also possible that Universal managed its story better than Disney did. After all, “Battleship” had opened overseas weeks before it arrived in the States, so it took some of the negative energy out of the film’s weak U.S. opening weekend. Films that debut internationally before they open in the U.S. get a break from the box office press, largely because there still isn’t a simple measuring stick for overseas box-office performance. It’s harder to declare a film a flop when there aren’t as many box-office comparables in terms of one studio release versus another. ("John Carter," meanwhile, opened in dozens of markets on the same weekend of its March 9 stateside debut.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean anyone in Hollywood can rest easy, believing that if another film crashes and burns that the media will show even less interest in its box-office woes. To the contrary. Expect the media to go after the next bomb with guns ablazing. After all, three flops in a row is the kind of story everyone in the media can understand: It’s a trend.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: "Battleship" director Pete Berg pictured this January in the control room aboard the USS Spruance. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times