‘Mars’ on track for biggest movie flops list

Why Disney's 'Mars Needs Moms' Bombed

The $150 million “Mars Needs Moms” faces “outright rejection” at the box office.

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 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.

“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.

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 animation.

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).

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