In 1987, shortly before the release of “Ishtar,” Columbia Pictures realized the film was going to flop in catastrophic fashion. But rather than cut advertising spending to minimize the financial damage — as the studio’s top marketer advised — Columbia did the opposite, pouring even more money into ads.
The reason? The studio was desperate to stay on good terms with the two stars of “Ishtar,” Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. “Ego trumps logic in Hollywood,” said Peter Sealey, who was Columbia’s marketing chief at the time.
Studios have repeatedly pledged in the 25 years since to modernize their clubby business practices, but the more Hollywood promises change, the deeper it seems to fall into its ruts — as evidenced by “John Carter,” a big-budget science fiction epic from Walt Disney Studios that opened Friday and flopped over the weekend. Disney spent lavishly (some say foolishly) on the movie in large part to appease one of its most important creative talents: Andrew Stanton, the Pixar-based director of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.”
“John Carter,” which cost an estimated $350 million to make and market, and was directed by Mr. Stanton, took in about $30.6 million at the North American box office, according to Rentrak, which compiles box-office data. That result is so poor that analysts estimate that Disney will be forced to take a quarterly write-down of $100 million to $165 million. The amount will depend on ticket sales overseas, where “John Carter” took in about $71 million over the weekend, a better total than Disney had feared.
Profitability for “John Carter” was always a steep climb. Because of its enormous cost and the way ticket sales are split with theaters, analysts say the film needs to take in more than $600 million globally to break even. The only silver lining for Disney may be a dubious one: last March the studio’s “Mars Needs Moms” flopped so badly that it also required a write-down, making year-on-year performance comparisons less brutal.
In recent weeks, as a weak marketing campaign failed to generate audience excitement for “John Carter,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, made it clear in conversations with senior managers that he would not tolerate finger-pointing; this may be a colossal miss, he told them, according to people who were present, but it’s the company’s miss and no individuals would be blamed — including Mr. Stanton. Learn from it, was Mr. Iger’s message.
On Sunday, Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said in a statement, “Moviemaking does not come without risk. It’s still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of ‘John Carter.’ Unfortunately, it failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped.”
Mr. Stanton declined to comment for this article.