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Why 'Mars Needs Moms' bombed for Disney

Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture animated film cost $150 million to produce but earned only $6.9 million in its debut at the domestic box office.
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

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.

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).

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 time.

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.

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.