The first "John Carter" story by Edgar Rice Burroughs made its debut in 1912 in a magazine serial. Thus, the 2012 feature film marks the centenary (100th anniversary) of the character's first appearance.
The film probably holds the record for the longest time in "development hell": 79 years. Preproduction first started in 1931, when Robert Clampett, director of 'Looney Tunes', approached author Edgar Rice Burroughs to make an animated feature out of the first book in the series, "A Princess of Mars." Had plans gone through, 'John Carter' could have become America's first animated feature, beating Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It finally left development hell in January 2010, when filming officially started in London.
Financially, the film was considered one of the largest box office losses in Disney history. Even though the film performed stronger than expected outside the US, it contributed to Disney's Studio Entertainment division reporting an $84 million loss in the first quarter of 2012. Such a large loss was attributed to issues with marketing, management changes at the studio, and a lack of merchandising normally associated with such a large budget film. As a result, any plans for the two sequels that were already in development prior to the film's release were scrapped.
Robert Zemeckis turned down the chance to direct, quipping "George already pillaged all of that" with the "Star Wars" films. In other words, most of the best elements of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars fantasies had already been "borrowed" for George Lucas' space operas.
"A Princess of Mars" was originally published as "Under the Moons of Mars" by Norman Bean (Edgar Rice Burroughs' pseudonym) in The All-Story (six pulp magazine issues February - July, 1912). Burroughs was originally afraid that he might be ridiculed for writing such a tale, so he decided to use a pen name. The pseudonym was supposed to be a pun "Normal Bean" (as in "I'm a normal being") to reassure people, but the man who typeset the text thought it was a mistake, so he changed it to "Norman". However, Burroughs' fears turned out to be unfounded: the story and its sequels, collectively known as the "Barsoom series", were almost as popular (and arguably more influential) as those of his most famous creation, Tarzan.
Andrew Stanton has already confessed that he isn't too satisfied with how the movie turned out. He confessed that part of the problems came from a first-time live action director being "drunk with power" after receiving too much money and creative control.
In the arena, Carter fights a pair of white apes. Tarzan - the most famous creation of the same author Edgar Rice Burroughs - is sometimes nicknamed "white ape" in the book (although the name "Tarzan" itself means "white-skin", not "white ape," in a fictitious language).
The film was originally titled and marketed as "John Carter of Mars", but director Andrew Stanton removed "of Mars" from the opening credits and promotional material to make it more appealing to a broader audience, stating that the film is an "origin story... It's about a guy becoming John Carter of Mars." The entire title "John Carter of Mars" is displayed during the end credits.
The change in title from "A Princess of Mars" to "John Carter of Mars," and later simply to "John Carter" is the subject of some controversy. Conflicting reasons given include that the Disney marketing department or director Andrew Stanton wanted to appeal to a broader audience, or that the studio had hoped to create a film series with the "John Carter" banner title. Industry lore also suggests that films with "Mars" in the title tend to under perform financially, most notably Mars Needs Moms (2011) which was also distributed by Disney and proved a colossal flop for the studio. Ironically, "John Carter" would prove to be the biggest financial disappointment for Disney since "Mars Needs Moms."
Andrew Stanton often rejected marketing ideas from the studio, according to those who worked on the film, and used his own ideas instead. For example, he ignored criticism that using Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir", a song recorded in 1974, in the trailer would make it seem less current to the contemporary younger audiences that the film was seeking. He also chose billboard imagery that failed to resonate with prospective audiences, did not include the name of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs in advertisement, left out most of the romantic subplot from the trailer that might have attracted female moviegoers, and put together a preview reel that did not get a strong reception from a convention audience.
Disney was sceptical about Andrew Stanton directing. He had never directed a live-action film before, and wanted to make the film without any major stars whose names could guarantee an audience, at least on opening weekend. The screenplay was seen as confusing and difficult to follow. But since Stanton had overcome similar preproduction doubts to make Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL·E (2008) into hits, the studio approved him as director.
The music in the first theatrical trailer uses two instrumental arrangements of "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin. The first (starting at 0:53) was performed by Australian/British string quartet Bond, the second (starting at 1:25) was performed by Corner Stone Cues (this arrangement is called "Ten Years Kashmir Mvt II (Orch, Choir & Perc Mix))".
Mario Kassar had the project at Disney in the 1980s, but it was also listed under his development projects during his deal at Paramount in the mid-'90s. In 2004--when the project was still known as "A Princess of Mars" after the book on which it's based--Robert Rodriguez had originally been signed and announced as director and had begun pre-production early that year (it would have been his largest project to date, with starting budget reported at $100 million). Rodriguez' most notable contribution was to hire fantasy painter Frank Frazetta (whose most acclaimed works have included striking illustrations of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, most notably the "John Carter on Mars" books) as production designer. However, when Rodriguez resigned from the Directors' Guild of America (DGA) the same year (due to a dispute over his film Sin City (2005)), Paramount was forced to replace him. The studio has a long-standing arrangement with the DGA in which only the organization's members may direct Paramount films. He was replaced with Kerry Conran, who had just finished Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). In 2005 Conran left the project and was replaced by Jon Favreau just before the release of Favreau's movie Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005); Favreau was on-board to direct until around August 2006. At that time Paramount chose not to renew the film rights, preferring to focus on Star Trek (2009), and Favreau left to work on Iron Man (2008). In January 2007 Disney regained the rights (it had rights to film the story previously: in the 1980s with director John McTiernan), and enlisted Andrew Stanton from Pixar to direct.
Studio executive Rich Ross resigned his position as Disney Studios leader weeks after Disney predicted they'd lose $200 million on the project. Although Ross had become head of the studio while the movie was already in development, he took the blame because he could have stopped the movie or limited its budget, but instead, he approved the 260 million dollar budget that director Andrew Stanton had requested.
Andrew Stanton lobbied the Walt Disney Studios to reacquire the rights from Burroughs' estate. "Since I'd read the books as a kid, I wanted to see somebody put it on the screen," he explained. He then lobbied Disney heavily for the chance to direct the film, pitching it as "Indiana Jones on Mars."
In September 2014, studio president Alan Bergman was asked at a conference if Disney had been able to partially recoup its losses on this and The Lone Ranger (2013) through subsequent release windows or other monetization methods, and he responded: "I'm going to answer that question honestly and tell you no, it didn't get that much better. We did lose that much money on those movies."
Andrew Stanton often sought advice from people he had worked with at Pixar on animated films (known as the Braintrust) instead of those with live-action experience working with him. also was quoted as saying, "I said to my producers, 'Is it just me, or do we actually know how to do this better than live-action crews do?'"
It is generally believed that inadequate marketing of the film was the main factor responsible for its commercial failure. Director Andrew Stanton had been given full creative control over the movie as well as its marketing campaign, but according to insiders, he greatly overestimated the universal appeal and popularity of the character John Carter with a contemporary audience. Due to Stanton's inexperience with life action movies and slow pace of filming, there were simply no big special effects shots available when it was time to create the first teaser trailer. Stanton purposely left out references to his earlier work at Pixar (not wanting people to think that it was a children's film) and to the works of author Edgar Rice Burroughs from the teaser. As a big fan of the book series, he wanted to stay as true to the source material as possible; to avoid marketing the film as purely an action blockbuster, he focused on its origin story rather than the action and special effects, much against the wishes of studio executives. When the teaser left audiences unimpressed, the studio was set to create a second trailer that would focus on both the action and the story, in order to appeal to a large audience. However, due to Stanton using his veto on many shots, the resulting trailer contained mostly action and special effects shot that were felt to be too reminiscent of the Star Wars saga. As the awareness of the movie among prospective audiences was shown to increase prior to its release, their interest declined, resulting in a disappointing 30 million gross in the first weekend. With altered trailers, the film ultimately fared much better overseas, and enjoyed a major success in Russia.
Andrew Stanton denied assertions that he had gone over budget and stated that he had been allowed a longer reshoot because he had stayed on budget and on time. However, he did admit to reshooting much of the movie twice, far more than is usually common in live action filmmaking. He attributed that to his animation background.
The Teaser features the song "My Body is a Cage", originally written by Arcade Fire. The version used in the teaser is by Peter Gabriel, released on his 2011 album of cover versions, "Scratch My Back".
Although being based on the first book of the series, A Princess of Mars, the film was originally titled John Carter of Mars, but Andrew Stanton removed "of Mars" to make it more appealing to a broader audience, stating that the film is an "origin story. It's about a guy becoming John Carter of Mars." Stanton planned to keep "Mars" in the title for future films in the series.
Jim Morris noted that although he had less time for pre-production than for any of his usual animated projects, the task was nevertheless relatively easy since he had read Burroughs' novels as a child and had already visualized many of their scenes.
Rich Ross, Disney's chairman, successor to Dick Cook, who had originally approved the film for production, came from a television background and had no experience with feature films. The studio's new top marketing and production executives had little more.