Why Disney’s ‘Mars Needs Moms’ Bombed

Pamela McClintock, The Hollywood Reporter
Movie TalkMarch 15, 2011
"Mars Needs Moms" Courtesy THR/Disney
"Mars Needs Moms" Courtesy THR/Disney

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.

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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

all territories).

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.

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"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.

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the Scenes

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).

THR REVIEW: 'Mars Needs Moms'

"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."

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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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