John Carter – Flop; Hunger Games – Smash; Why?

Michael Sellers

The Hunger GamesTwo weekends ago, A Tale of Two Trajectories examined the factors behind “Hunger Games” epic US domestic opening weekend of $152M Box Office Gross, and contrasted it with the paltry $30.1M domestic opening that Disney’s intended blockbuster “John Carter” had earned  two weeks previously.   Judged by their domestic  performance only (which is the metric used by the vast majority of the entertainment media who declared John Carter a mega-flop and Hunger Games a blockbuster)  – the two films hardly belonged in the same conversation.  Two weeks later the domestic comparison remains as one-sided, with Hunger Games almot at $303M and John Carter at almost 68M:  Bliss for Hunger Games and Lionsgate, torment for John Carter and Disney.

But now that the foreign numbers are in, the storyline is not at all as clear as it initially seemed. With foreign numbers included in the tally,  John Carter and Hunger Games are doppelgangers of a sort, with John Carter having a strong foreign run and splitting its income 26%/74% Domestic/Foreign, while Hunger Games is doing relatively poorly overseas – pulling in 66% of its income from the US and only34% from overseas.  Here are the totals to date:

  • Hunger Games:  Domestic $303M, Foreign $157M  Total $460M
  • John Carter:  Domestic $67M, Foreign $196M, Total $264M

All data Box Office Mojo as of April 9, 2011

Lottery Scene from "Hunger Games"

What are we to infer from these diametrically opposed responses to two films which are, after all , both sci-fi, both based on novels, and both released in roughly the same timeframe?

One obvious conclusion is that the anomaly in the equation is the anemic performance of John Carter in the US.  This argument would be that Disney’s “marketing flop” left an absurd amount of money on the table in the US for John Carter, and if the marketing had just been adequate, John Carter would have opened at somewhere near $50m and would be looking at a domestic total of $150m or more – not $70 – and this in turn would mean that’s numbers do not skew so heavily toward foreign.

But even if that were true – a properly marketed John Carter would still be experiencing about 40% from domestic, and 60% from foreign – still markedly different from Hunger Games.

So what gives?

Did Lionsgate drop the ball with its foreign marketing?  Did Disney do something brilliant?

In Part 1 we looked at the domestic marketing and found that Lionsgate had clearly excelled in comparison to Disney in almost every category of buzz-generating activity – Websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc were all clearly much better handled by Lionsgate for Hunger Games than Disney handled the same social media for John Carter.

What about overseas?

Well, the same pattern observed in the US is also observed overseas.  Hunger Games seems to have made “all the right moves” overseas. For example, Lionsgate put up regional Twitter Accounts, and regional Tumbler pages for Hunger Games – refinements that were not in evidence for John Carter.   But – for reasons that are worth studying but are not yet fully clear – the marketing effort overseas for Hunger Games did not pay off much better for Lionsgate than the marketing effort for John Carter in the United States paid off for Disney.

“Disney was on fairly solid grounRd in having a reasonable expectation that John Carter would resonate overseas. This kind of of fantasy universe, VFX laden fare first of all avoids hitting an ‘it’s too American’ tripwires, and is the kind of film that can only be produced by Hollywood,” said one European distributor we talked to about this.  “Hunger Games just has a much stronger flavor of ‘American culture of the moment’, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

Another film enters into the equation as well – Wrath of the Titans, released a week after the Hunger Games, is experiencing a pattern much like John Carter.  It opened at $33m in the US (John Carter opened at $30m) and $76M oversas (John Carter opened at $70M oversas).   On the surface, Titans – while not exactly a sword and sandal sci-fi epic—has much in common with John Carter, and their similar pattern would seem to make sense.

Is there an emerging model for “blockbusters” that are mainly a blockbuster overseas, and which concede that they will not be a major hit in the US as a “given” in the studio business plan?  Or are there too few data points  to yield a pattern?

One thing for certain – budgets matter.  Wrath of the Titans was never touted as a hugely expensive film, with a reported budget of $150m in spite of it being laden with special effects and including better known cast that John Carter including Liam Neeson, Sam Worthington, and Ralphe Fiennes.

The Lesson:  Don’t overspend on a product with no established audience.  Just keep it real. Had Disney heeded this and simply  produced John Carter at a perfectly achievable $150m price point, it wouldn’t be going down as the greatest flop in cinema history, or even as a flop at all.  But at $250m, not only did the numbers not add up – the “fail” narrative sprang up a year or more before the film was released, and the “burden of proof” shifted from “prove it’s a success” to “prove it’s not a failure”.  No amount of foreign viability would meet that burden, and John Carter sails into history as the greatest flop in cinema history in spite of a very respectable global showing.  And, of course, the champagne is flowing at Lionsgate even though John Carter, the mega-flop, outperformed Hunger Games in most markets around the world.  As Kurt Vonnegut said: “So it goes.”

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2 Responses to John Carter – Flop; Hunger Games – Smash; Why?

  1. Tom Donelson on April 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Here is a question, in a global market does the foreign market matter more than let say two or three decades ago?

    • rgs on July 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      Even more plus ussually foreign markets are now a better measure of what a movie really is these days. John Carter, tron, and even the called flop battleship has been seen as really good action movies and did way better foreign. The problem is USA is that now everyone is a critic and has an opinion of something that should be just to entertain people

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