Well, after months of trepidation, Disney’s John Carter opened this weekend. I believe the most accurate word to describe the consumer response would be “underwhelmed.” Seriously, this mess was outperformed by The Lorax which cost approximately one billionth of the money to make as Disney’s Martian epic.
As often happens when major movie studios make major missteps, everyone’s busily tying to figure out what went wrong. Ominously, Bob Iger was said to have warned his staff against pointing fingers in the press. I guess what he’s saying is that John Carter was such a big flop, everyone gets to shoulder a portion of the blame.
But there’s a lesson to be learned here, aside from the complexity of the plot and the vagueness of the marketing scheme. There’s a business lesson that reaches far outside the entertainment industry. I think the real problem behind John Carter is one that you can find in almost every corporate complex in the country. Sit back and think about it, how much time and energy or dedicating to projects that are never going to go anywhere? Today, I think we need to talk about a business phenomenon that I’m going to refer to as “JohnCarter-ing.”
Let’s be honest, someone at Disney realized that this movie was in trouble. With a $350 million price tag, plenty of people were involved in getting this thing made. Plenty of professionals looked at this thing and had to see the eventual issues. The problem was not simply a confusing story line. First of all, the movie is based on a series of successful books. Second of all, Hello Avatar! And the problem wasn’t just some vague Superbowl ads overseen by a fractured marketing department. This movie has been gaining press for months and the ads had been improving over time.
When it comes down to it, there was a fundamental problem with this movie, and I refuse to believe that an accomplished production company didn’t see it. And yet, Disney kept pouring money into this thing. The New York Times believes that it was to appease the ego of one of their most talented directors, Andrew Stanton.
Even if you aren’t working with critically-acclaimed directors, we all can relate to working diligently to placate a boss, even if their idea is a terrible one. I’ve been there, toiling away at a project that for whatever reason will not be profitable. Or maybe it’s just a waste of time. With that knowledge, I didn’t go back to my boss and explain my worries. I sat there and I kept working on something that I knew wouldn’t be beneficial.
How many Disney employees and contractors saw the signs on this multi-million dollar failure and just kept on working? Companies need experts who are able to stand up and explain their reservations about a project’s viability. And whatever your job is in your company, you’re supposed to be the expert there.
I worked in data analysis. I was my company’s data expert. The owner of our company decided that he wanted to start tracking all of our company goals to the one-ten-thousandth place, as opposed to the one-thousandth. We’d been using three decimal places since I took the job, but now he wanted four. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? Well, our software calculated to the third decimal place. That means that I had to use raw data and calculate all the numbers myself.
I knew it was going to take a tremendous amount of additional time to set up all my own tables and equations. I knew that the additional decimal place wasn’t going to give us any more usable information. The entire exercise was a waste of time. But it was a waste that the boss requested and so I went right ahead with it. And looking back, that was the wrong choice. I pulled a JohnCarter.
It was my job to stand up for my position and my knowledge and let him know that as the data expert, this wasn’t a productive use of my time. This wasn’t going to help achieve our goals. This project was a flop. Instead of stroking my boss’s ego, I needed to be providing him with my professional opinion.
Hundreds of people worked on John Carter, the movie. They saw the problems as they arose. Whether it was writers, producers, directors or special effects staff, these people are professionals and they had a job to do. Their job wasn’t to keep their head down and plug away at a project because the boss thinks it will work. Their job was to be professional experts in their fields. There’s no saying that they could have righted the ship. Disney might still have had a flop on its hands. But they could have scaled back their investment instead of doubling down. They could have broken even instead of writing off over $100 million. That could have happened if people would’ve spoken up and acknowledged the difficulties this movie faced.
Does your company have a JohnCarter? Have you ever worked long and hard on a project that was doomed to failure simply to keep your boss happy? Share your story with us in the comments.