Mega-budgeted blockbusters all face the same challenge: make back the money. Sure, profit is always helpful, but at a certain point, throwing the "event," impressing the audiences and earning back all the cash poured into the endeavor becomes the bigger priority.
Not an easy task, and no movie in theaters right now (or, quite possibly, in movie history) is starring up that mountainside like Disney's John Carter. The movie opened last weekend with a $30.6 million domestic gross, which wouldn't seem too shabby…if it weren't for the reported budget of $250 million (which may be closer to $400 million after marketing). The silver lining for the Taylor Kitsch-led adventure flick is that it was a hit overseas, bringing in another $40 million and finally crossing the $100 million worldwide line this week. That may sound like the path to breaking even, but the zen road to financial inner-peace is a bit trickier than it may seem.
The amount of money a movie grosses doesn't simply funnel directly into the pockets of the movie studio. Hollywood.com's Box Office Editor Paul Dergarabedian explains:
"[The studios] have to split theatrical with the exhibitors at about 50%, Disney might wind up with $175 M off the theatrical alone. Now there will still be ancillary sales, DVD, VOD, broadcast rights etc. so it will not be a total bust. However, anytime you spend this much on a movie it gets very tough to recoup your costs. They needed this to be $800 million to $1 billion movie worldwide at that budget to really make it worth their while. Remember too, that success at the theatrical level has a positive (or conversely) negative ripple effect on later sales. For John Carter, the lack of theatrical success hurts its long term prospects to make its money back."
March has become an increasingly profitable stretch of the year for studios—Disney tops them all, in fact, with their billion dollar hit Alice in Wonderland—but with middling buzz and less-accessible source material, John Carter was little chance of it matching that Alice's success. March movies in the vein of John Carter that took home $30 - $40 million in their first weekend, like Battle: Los Angeles or Scooby Doo 2 or Blade 2, all fizzled out at $80 million total, $200 worldwide—meaning only a $100 million final profit. To break even, John Carter needs almost eight times that. Probably not going to happen.
Here's the silver lining: the movie's great. Regardless of whatever the movie is able to amass dollar-wise, those who catch in theaters still win. So while the executives at Disney may be reworking their strategy moving forward, we can only hope that the quality continues.