Is Paramount hobbling a potential franchise by changing ‘One Shot’ to ‘Jack Reacher’?

Paramount’s been making some odd and potentially expensive choices recently, and no matter what’s really going on behind closed doors, it’s making them look like they are rudderless and even desperate.

I was not at CinemaCon this year for Paramount’s presentation, but that’s where they first showed footage from what they hope will be a kickoff to an ongoing franchise based on the Lee Childs novels about Jack Reacher, an ex-military cop who wanders America and frequently finds himself in harm’s way.  They’re starting with an adaptation of the ninth book in the (so-far) seventeen novel series, “One Shot,” and until now, that’s the title they’ve been using for the film itself.  Today, though, it appears that they have decided to retitle the piece.

It will now officially be known as “John Carter.”

Oh, wait… I mean they’re changing the title to “Jack Reacher.”  But my entirely-intentional slip makes a point, and I’m curious how no one brought up Disney’s marketing debacle from this spring when they were having meetings about this title switch.  Of course, this is just the latest in a series of strange choices that Paramount’s made on this one.

When I started reading the series, I jumped in with “One Shot” and then went back to read the books sequentially after that.  It was just a random coincidence that I started with the same one that Paramount ended up using as their kick-start to the series, and while I don’t think you have to read the Reacher novels in order, Child has been very careful about how and when he’s revealed things about Reacher’s past and his personality, and it’s a good example of how an author relaxes into a series, making it richer and more rewarding with each successive book.  There’s no special reason Paramount should have decided to use “One Shot” as the first film in the series, but there’s also no particular reason this can’t be the place they choose to start things.

The casting of Cruise was evidently addressed by Cruise in the CinemaCon presentation, and he talked about how it wasn’t important that he be the same size as the character.  In the books, Reacher is 6’5″, about 230 pounds, with a 50-inch chest.  He has killed people with a single punch in the novels, and he can break a man’s neck one-handed.  He is a gorilla, but a soulful gorilla, and that’s no small part of the appeal of the character on the page.  Casting Cruise in the part means they’re going to have to write him very different for the films, and while I like Cruise in action movies and really enjoyed him in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” it just seems like a weak move to cast him as the character. These books are well-known enough at this point that Paramount could afford to try someone less proven in the role, like Dwayne Johnson, who has rescued enough franchises at this point that he deserves one of his very own, or Joe Manganiello, who has both the physical size as well as the emotional edge.  It seems like they went with a name, even if it makes no sense as originally designed.

But deciding to change the title is a monumentally bad decision.  It’s also a remarkably lazy title they’ve landed on, and one that tells the audience nothing.  If you’re a fan of the books, you are not the audience they’re going to try to reach with trailers and posters.  They’re going to assume you’re onboard since you’re already a fan of the character, so they need to reach people who are being introduced to the character and the stories.  Now they’ve managed to saddle the first film in what I’m sure they hope and pray becomes a series with a title that communicates absolutely nothing to a novice audience.

I got criticized heavily when I made the same observation about Disney’s decision to call their film “John Carter,” but it seems to me that the potential audience for that film just never quite understand the title or the premise based on their early marketing materials.  And calling this series “Jack Reacher” and trying to just sell the notion of Cruise as a wandering badass seems equally wrong-headed.  Sell us on the story.  Sell us on how Jack Reacher interacts with the world around him.  Sell us on anything aside from the character’s name.

I would love to be pleasantly surprised by “Jack Reacher” when it finally arrives in theaters, especially with Christopher McQuarrie writing and directing.  I just find myself baffled, choice after choice, by how they’re handling things so far.

“Jack Reacher” arrives in theaters December 21st.