In the weeks leading up to
the release of "Mars Needs Moms," Disney knew interest in the film was
tepid at best. But no one was prepared for such a disastrous box office wipeout.
From a financial standpoint, "Mars" could be one of the biggest
write-offs in modern Hollywood history, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The motion-capture animated film cost $150 million to produce but earned
only $6.9 million in its debut at the domestic box office, the 12th worst
opening of all time for a movie released in more than 3,000 theaters and one of
the lowest openings for a major 3D release.
The price tag doesn't include a hefty marketing spend. All told, Disney has
likely invested $200 million or more in the motion capture pic, made by
Robert Zemeckis' now-shuttered ImageMovers Digital.
"The right audience came, but not in the numbers we needed," Disney
president of worldwide distribution Chuck Viane said. "I'm
disappointed for the filmmakers. They spent at least two years of their lives
making a terrific movie that people won't see."
The chances of recovery are slim.
Many times, a movie performing poorly in the U.S. can make up ground at the
international box office. "Mars," however, did just as badly in its
overseas debut, grossing a paltry $2.1 million from 14 countries (about 25% of
Domestically, it wouldn't be a surprise if "Mars" topped out at $25
million. Summit Entertainment's "Astro Boy," opening to $6.7 million in
2009, cumed $19.6 million, while Fox's "Aliens in the Attic" opened to $8
million, also in 2009, and cumed $25.2 million. (For a Disney toon to perform as
badly as a Summit title is a tough pill to swallow.)
"How do you throw a party and no one comes? This is outright rejection,"
one veteran studio distribution chief says.
"Mars" faced several obstacles, according
to box office observers. For one, moviegoers don't seem to like the
motion-capture technology. Other times, it can work, such as in "Avatar."
"The movie ["Mars"] looked downright
creepy," one observer notes. [Watch the trailer.]
The title also was problematic, specifically, the use of the word "mom,"
which might have been a turn-off for boys.
"The title shouldn't have been "Mars Needs Moms," but "Boys Need Not Come," one studio exec joked.
Those same boys might have instead opted to see Sony's sci-fi action pic "Battle: Los Angeles," according to another box office observer.
"Mars" skewed slightly female.
For younger kids, watching a movie about a mom being kidnapped by aliens
could be scary.
"Who wants to see a mom abandoning you? It's very odd," one studio marketer
says. "Also, animation works better when they aren't people. That's why things
like gnomes do well."
Disney knew there was a problem more than a year ago when screening an
early cut of the film. It's no coincidence that the studio, under the new
leadership of Rich Ross, decided to part ways with ImageMovers
shortly after the screening. But it was too late to shelve "Mars" without
eating significant costs.
One of the most successful directors of all time, Zemeckis famously gave up
his live-action career to pursue motion capture. But it's an expensive
technology that has yet to yield huge box office profits, unlike other forms of
Disney bought ImageMovers in 2007, giving Zemeckis an official studio home
where he and his company could perfect performance capture (ImageMovers remained
based in Northern California).
"A Christmas Carol," costing as much as $200 million to make, was
released in November 2009 -- not long after Ross replaced Dick Cook as Walt
Disney Studios chair. The holiday film, directed by Zemeckis, grossed $325.5
worldwide, a so-so result.
"Mars Needs Moms" was well underway by that time. Simon
Wells wrote and directed the film, with Zemeckis producing.
Already, "Mars" has landed on the list of Hollywood bombs, joining
Sony's recent miss "How Do You Know." The romantic comedy, directed by
James L. Brooks, cost roughly $100 million to produce after tax
breaks, but grossed just $42.9 million at the worldwide box office.
Hollywood history is replete with box office disasters, including how
"Cleopatra" nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Years later, "Heaven's
Gate" ultimately forced United Artists of business.
Studios are far more protected today, with diversified interests. Also,
some of the costs of a big-budget production can be amortized over a period of
Other infamous financial flops include Renny Harlin's
pirate pic "Cutthroat Island" -- listed in the "Guinness Book of
Records" as the biggest bomb of all time -- "Sahara," "The
Adventures of Pluto Nash" and "Gigli."
There also have been high-profile misses on the animation side, including
Disney's "Treasure Planet," released in 2002.
"Mars" was always designed to open in the $20 million-$30 million
range. When tracking showed the film was in serious trouble, Disney downgraded
its forecast. As the toon opened, Disney executives braced themselves for a $10
million opening. Even that turned out to be too optimistic.
Disney had been enjoying a sustained winning streak at the box office,
which helps to cushion the blow of "Mars." The two top 2010 releases at
the worldwide box office both belonged to Disney; "Toy Story" ($1.06
billion) and "Alice in Wonderland" ($1.02 billion).
"Tangled" also has been an overachiever, grossing $551.5 globally,
making it the No. 8 2010 release.
For now, though, Disney faces the arduous task of detangling itself from "Mars."
Watch a clip from "Mars Needs Moms":
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