The $175m flop so bad it could end the 3D boom

Disney expected 'Mars Needs Moms' to strike it rich in cinema's new gold rush. Then audiences saw it... Geoffrey Mcnab reports

At cinemas in Hollywood and beyond, children have been watching a big-budget 3D animated feature called Mars Needs Moms. Most will have been happy enough with the film, produced by Robert Zemeckis (who ranks as a pioneer of digital 3D film-making along with James Cameron).

Wearing their "RealD" spectacles, viewers munch popcorn as they watch a far-fetched yarn about Milo, a nine-year-old who doesn't eat his broccoli and whose mother ends up being kidnapped by Martians. What these children don't realise is that the film is at the centre of a ferocious debate about 3D ticket pricing that threatens to derail 3D film-making altogether.

To put it bluntly, Mars Needs Moms has been a mega-flop. The film cost about $175m (£110m) to make and market – yet grossed less than $7m on its opening weekend in the US.

Worldwide box-office receipts were given an almighty boost in 2009-10 with the success of Cameron's Avatar. In its wake, studios and independents started cranking out 3D films in their dozens (or converting 2D films to 3D in post-production). Cinemas rushed to install digital 3D systems and exhibitors raised ticket prices for 3D films by up to 40 per cent. Industry analysts calculated that 3D was adding, on average, 20 per cent to a film's theatrical takings.

Now, though, a simmering backlash has reached boiling point. Angry parents are balking at the surcharge being levied on 3D movies and Mars Needs Moms has become the object of their ire. The New York Times described the film as "a consumer referendum for 3D ticket pricing for children". Cinemagoers voted by staying away in their droves.

Ben Stassen, a Belgian producer and director whose new 3D film, Sammy's Adventure, opens in British cinemas this month, has long warned that audiences would revolt against overpriced, second-rate 3D movies. "People are getting fed up with having the surcharge on 3D and not getting the goods," Stassen says. "People might reject 3D as a whole and say the hell with that."

Just as in the 1950s, the era of 3D films such as Bwana Devil and House Of Wax, or the early 1980s (when exploitation pictures Amityville 3D and Jaws 3D briefly piqued the curiosity of young audiences), there is a danger that the Avatar-era will be short-lived. With cinemagoers becoming exasperated by the quality and pricing of the fare, it may be left to home consumers to "rescue" 3D, as the format becomes popular among television shows and computer games.

In recent weeks, Robert Zemeckis has taken a drubbing in the press because of the failure of Mars Needs Moms. His planned 3D version of 1968 Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine has been cancelled and Disney has closed his digital film studio, ImageMovers Digital. The irony is that Zemeckis is one of the visionary figures in digital film-making. His Christmas film, The Polar Express (2004), made with the same motion-capture computer animation technique that was used in Mars Needs Moms, received mixed reviews on its release but is now seen by many as a classic. His version of The Christmas Carol (2009) was arguably too mawkish for adults and too scary for children but at least it used 3D in a genuinely inventive way.

"Zemeckis is one of the few US filmmakers who is taking 3D really seriously and is adapting his language to the medium," Stassen says of the American director.

So where now for 3D film-making? Should exhibitors cut prices? Many argue that there is no real justification for the current pricing structure. In London's West End cinemas,3D certainly doesn't come cheap. For example, if a family of four (two adults and two children) want to see Gnomeo And Juliet 3D this weekend at the Empire Leicester Square, they can expect to pay £56.60 for the tickets, including booking fee.

For Stassen, the pricing isn't the problem; the experience is what matters most. He argues that audiences will be prepared to pay a surcharge if they know they're going to watch a "real", fully immersive 3D movie that uses the format in an inventive and uncynical way. "My vision is that a 3D cinema should not cost 20 per cent more. It should cost maybe 100 per cent more – but everything should be perfect. When people come out of a 3D theatre, they have to say 'wow'."

How the stand-out hits add up

Avatar (2009)

Directed by James Cameron, the sci-fi blockbuster cost an estimated $500m (£308m) to make and grossed about $2.8bn worldwide.



Alice In Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton's re-telling of Lewis Caroll's classic tale cost $200m to make and brought in $1.02bn.



Despicable Me (2010)

Chris Renaud's animated film cost $69m to make and made $528m at the global box office.



Toy Story 3 (2010)

The Oscar-winning film directed by Lee Unkrich had a $200m budget but made $1.06bn. It is the most successful animated film of all time.

Up (2009)

The Disney Pixar animation, directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, had a production budget of $175m and grossed $731m.



Shrek Forever After (2010)

The Mike Mitchell-directed animation had a budget of $165m and made $750m globally.



How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

The Oscar-nominated film, directed by Dean DuBlois and Chris Sanders, was produced for $165m and earned $495m at the box office.



Monsters Vs Aliens (2010)

Rob Letterman's animation had a production budget of $175m and grossed $382m worldwide.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most