In the movie business, sometimes a flop is just a flop. Then there are misses so disastrous that they send signals to broad swaths of Hollywood. “Mars Needs Moms” is shaping up as the second type.
Walt Disney Studios spent an estimated $175 million to make and market “Mars Needs Moms,” which sold $6.9 million in tickets at North American theaters in its opening weekend. That grim result puts the 3-D animated adventure on track to become one of the biggest box-office bombs in movie history, on par with such washouts as “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “Cutthroat Island” and “The Alamo.”
“Scary” is how Chuck Viane, president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios, described the audience rejection of the film. “Was it the idea? The execution? The timing? There are a lot of excuses being floated.”
The financial impact on Disney’s studio will be severe. The company has already taken a write-down of about $100 million related to the film and the closing of ImageMovers Digital, a motion-capture animation division run by Robert Zemeckis, who helped produce “Mars Needs Moms.”
Tens of millions more in losses are expected, pending worldwide box-office results. The film opened in 14 overseas territories, representing 25 percent of the international market, and attracted $2.1 million.
Mr. Zemeckis, whose directing credits include seminal hits like “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump,” was unavailable to comment on Monday, a spokeswoman said.
“Mars Needs Moms” also signals broader movie business problems. Computer animation has been Hollywood’s most reliable moneymaker over the last decade — so much so that nearly every studio, including Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures , has ramped up production of such films. As the first big-budget computer animated movie to flop, “Mars Needs Moms” tells some film executives that the market is becoming saturated.
“Mars Needs Moms,” about a 9-year-old boy whose mother is abducted by Martians, followed quickly on the heels of “Gnomeo & Juliet” and “Rango.” “Hop” will arrive on April 1; “Rio” arrives two weeks later. Close behind are “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Cars 2.”
“There’s only so much room in the market for family films,” said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com.
Movie executives also suggest that “Mars Needs Moms” can be seen as a consumer referendum on 3-D ticket pricing for children. While child tickets to traditional screenings run about $8.75 in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, child admission for 3-D screenings is $13. Imax charges $15.50 for children. Box-office analysts have been increasingly concerned that consumers in general and parents in particular are starting to rebel. “We believe exhibitors’ core strategy of raising ticket prices through 3-D premiums” is a “dangerous strategy,” Richard Greenfield, an analyst at the financial services company BTIG, wrote last Tuesday.
It is quite rare for a Disney release to flop as badly as “Mars Needs Moms,” which is based on an illustrated book by Berkeley Breathed, best known for the comic strip “Bloom County.” Part of the problem may have been the story. What child wants to see a movie about his mom being taken away from him? But studio executives also pointed to the style of animation as a culprit.
“Mars Needs Moms” may lead to the end for the Zemeckis style of motion-capture filmmaking, which has proven increasingly unpopular with audiences. Unlike the digital animation used by Pixar, in which movies are created entirely by computer, the Zemeckis technique requires actors to perform on bare sets while wearing uniforms outfitted with sensors to record their movements. Those movements are then transferred into a digital model that computer animators use to create a movie.
Critics and audiences alike, with audiences voicing their opinions on Twitter, blogs and other social media, complained that the Zemeckis technique can result in character facial expressions that look unnatural. Another common criticism is that Mr. Zemeckis focuses so much on technological wizardry that he neglects storytelling.
Despite his pioneering work with the technology, Mr. Zemeckis was leapfrogged by James Cameron and his megahit “Avatar.” Mr. Zemeckis’s previous motion-capture film, “A Christmas Carol,” released in December 2009, was a commercial disappointment and contributed to the ouster of Dick Cook, the Disney executive responsible for putting “Mars Needs Moms” into production and bringing Mr. Zemeckis into the Disney tent.
Disney closed ImageMovers Digital last March after Mr. Cook’s successor, Rich Ross, viewed footage of “Mars Needs Moms.” About two months ago, Disney quietly pulled the plug on what was to be Mr. Zemeckis’s next directing project there: “Yellow Submarine,” a 3-D adaptation of the 1968 Beatles cartoon.
The company decided to proceed with “Mars Needs Moms” in part because it had already spent so much on it and in part because some executives, notably ones left from the Cook era, acted as cheerleaders for the project.
The next big test for motion-capture filmmaking will come in December, when Steven Spielberg uses the technology in his big-budget “Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” Meanwhile, Mr. Cameron is working on two “Avatar” sequels.