28th Mar 2012

Movie Flops: John Carter and Consumer Power

A prime example of consumer resistance to corporate strategy according to John Fiske’s cultural economy thesis is the movie flop. A whole host of Hollywood blockbusters have suffered at the box office – remember Cutthroat Island? Waterworld? Thunderbirds? - and John Carter is the latest victim of the cinema-goer’s wrath.

Not everyone hates the film – respected Internet film critic Harry Knowles quite likes it, though his claim to have written a 140,000-word review turns out to be phony – but most people have no interest in watching it, even if, like me, they have the good fortune of finding a 2D screening (the 3D version rubs salt into the wounds).

Movie flops prove that throwing money at a film doesn’t always produce consumer demand, though the huge marketing engine behind The Hunger Games, make no mistake, would attract audiences no matter how poor it may turn out. Has any film ever been blessed with such an expansive post-production promotional budget? I must have seen The Hunger Games advertised at least a dozen times, on the side of buses, on TV, in free and paid-for newspapers, on billboards… and it hasn’t been released yet!

Interestingly, John Carter has had far less marketing, despite its considerable production costs, but then Disney may have seen a bad thing coming and decided to to try and keep the reception low-beat. Damage limitation – yes, tens of millions of dollars will be lost, but the truth is that the world’s largest media conglomerate can take a financial hit, or two, or three, every year.

This is the crucial difference between big/established and small/emerging media business models. Disney, News Corp and the other big guns can afford to make mistakes; the smaller firms cannot. Which is why the political economics of big media still holds the upper hand over consumer power and resistance. Choice is stifled because the big players rarely suffer enough to let in the competition.

It would take a very long, lean patch to bring Disney to its knees – but before then, an old favourite (a Dickens adaptation perhaps, or a fairy tale, or a remake of a remake of a remake) will be revived to satisfy the public taste for cultural inertia. Strong brand recognition is everything in these days of economic uncertainty, and will ensure a continuing conservative attitude to film and media output in the immediate future.

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