Updated March 10, 9:25 a.m.
"John Carter" opened to the low domestic numbers Hollywood expected on Friday, and Disney's big-budget sci-fi gamble is on track to be badly beaten by "The Lorax."
Studio estimates show that "John Carter" took $9.8 million on Friday, while Universal's animated "The Lorax" grossed just short of $9.6 million. While that gives "John Carter" a win for the day, it's not a win for the weekend.
"John Carter" is on track for around $27 million to $28 million opening weekend, while "The Lorax" is poised to gross about $39 million in its second weekend of release.
Both figures are in line with Hollywood expectations, although Disney "aspired" to $30 million.
The weekend's other two major releases are debuting to soft numbers as well. "Silent House," which Open Road is distributing, took an estimated $2.6 million on Friday, while Paramount's "A Thousand Words" brought in an estimated $1.9 million.
That puts "Silent House" at $6.6 million for the weekend and "A Thousand Words" at about $5.7 million.
And it puts the movies on track to open at fifth and sixth place -- behind No. 3 "Project X" and No. 4 "Act of Valor."
And no one will be surprised.
For months, Hollywood has speculated that “John Carter” would flop. Now Disney is bracing to see how bad the damage will be.
Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs character, the long in-development movie was written and directed by “WALL-E” writer-director Andrew Stanton. It stars Tayler Kitsch as a confederate soldier who must save the Red Planet, and, ultimately, earth.
The pricey gamble opens at 3,749 domestic locations, including 289 IMAX and 119 premium large format locations. Of the 3,749 locations, 2,614 are 3D. It's also opening in 70 international markets.
Usually, studios underplay box office expectations, or at least provide conservative estimates. In “John Carter's” case, the studio says it “aspires” to an opening in the $30 million range.
Also read: 'John Carter' Review: Lifeless on Mars
Box-office watchers outside the studio say Disney is being optimistic. They expect something in the low-to-mid $20 million range.
“The Lorax” is on track to easily win its second weekend. Box-office watchers figure Universal's 3D adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book, which made $70.2 million last weekend, could take $44 million.
“The Lorax” has enjoyed strong midweek numbers -- $3.5 million on Monday, $3.7 million on Tuesday, $2.6 million on Wednesday -- which bodes well for a strong second weekend.
Disney has struggled with its marketing on "John Carter" for months, with new marketing chief Ricky Strauss taking over from ousted MT Carney midstream in January. Typically a movie with a $250 million budget looks for a $75 million opening – minimum. That's a far cry from the $20 million to $30 million it is expected to bring in this weekend.
The trailers haven't exactly resonated; critics have been tough on it, too. Metacritic gives “John Carter” a 53. Movie Review Intelligence gives it a 47.2. And Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 49.
“It feels very much like, ‘Been there, done that,'” a rival studio executive told TheWrap.
The executive said that Disney has “tried to hard to get this on the radar with exhibitors,” but has had a hard time. “It's been at so many conventions, so much footage, so many talks.”
Another studio's head of distribution points out that “John Carter” is trying to appeal to younger men, and they are not reliable as a quadrant. Furthermore, "I don't know that these images are good enough to get the young guys,” the executive said.
“Their main thing for this movie is males over 25," he continued. "For a movie like this, you've got to drag your wife, and my wife isn't going to come to this. I'd have an easier time getting her to see '21 Jump Street.'”
Disney is clinging to whatever good "John Carter" news it can find.
Audience response to prerelease screenings has been good, the studio says.
And the movie's tracking is reasonably strong: 75 percent of moviegoers surveyed by the research firm NRG say they are aware of the movie. Among men, the number is 80 percent.
Among the target demographic of men 25 and older, 41 percent say they have “definite” interest in the movie, and 19 percent say it is their first choice for the weekend.
Those numbers aren't horrible, but neither are they good enough to prop up a $250 million movie.
Disney will be paying close attention midnight Thursday showings. If those manage to capture an audience, “John Carter” could generate some momentum.
The weekend's other two new releases, “Silent House” and “A Thousand Words,” have modest expectations.
“Silent House” is an R-rated movie about a young woman, played by Elizabeth Olsen, trapped inside her family's creepy lakeside retreat. Open Road Films is debuting the movie at 2,124 locations, and expects the film to open in the single digits.
Liddell Entertainment acquired the $1 million movie after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Metacritic gives it a 48, Movie Review Intelligence a 61.8 and Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 56.
Finally, Paramount opens “A Thousand Words,” a $40 million Eddie Murphy comedy left over from when DreamWorks was at the studio, at 1,890 locations. Paramount expects the PG-13 film to open to $6 million to $8 million.
“A Thousand Words,” which also stars Kerry Washington, Cliff Curtis, Clark Duke and Allison Janney, is about a fast-talking literary agent who learns that every word he utters shortens his life – and that he has 1,000 words left to speak.
As of Thursday afternoon, the movie had a 25 on Metacritic, a 36.7 on Movie Review Intelligence and a 0 on Rotten Tomatoes.
In limited release, Roadside Attractions is debuting “Friends With Kids.” The R-rated comedy is directed and written by Jennifer Westfeldt, who also stars. John Hamm, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig also star in the film, which opens at 374 locations.
And CBS Films is opening its PG-13 “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a Toronto Film Festival favorite, at 18 locations.