Low budget movies that become hits are easier to recognize as they emerge out of the blue and become must-see phenomena. Think of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. Even bigger budget films can reach the stratosphere of undeniable success -- the Lord of the Rings trilogy cost over $100,000,000 to produce but earned over four times that in profit.
How do we measure something like John Carter with all its planned merchandising tie-ins and post-theatrical release ancillary sales? The truth is that breaking even isn't good enough.
John Carter had sparked doubt even before its premiere as prognosticators predicted its feeble performance. Or did such doomsday predictions prematurely and unjustly cripple its chances? Some troubled productions overcame such early negativity to prove the naysayers wrong, defying the odds to win the box-office crown. Titanic is the greatest example.
There are many theories about the reasons for John Carter's failure, everything from its generic title to the fact that its Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom source material was archaic. A good summary of some of those explanations is provided in an excellent article on io9.com.
Will John Carter join the ranks of other notorious duds (the cinematic kind, not the Milk Duds candy variety)? I will hopefully see it and review it shortly, but I don't think it will sink to the depths of Heaven's Gate, Waterworld, or Howard the Duck, but it has a long hill to climb in order to disprove the doubters.