What went wrong with ‘John Carter’?

There will no doubt be a lot of finger pointing on the Disney lot over the next couple of weeks about what exactly went wrong with the release of potential tent pole “John Carter” this weekend.  Of course, anyone with a clue in the Mouse House knew they were battling a losing cause for weeks (if not months) and only the miracle of unexpectedly positive reviews (which didn’t happen) or over the top international grosses (well, there’s Russia at least) could help the project break even.  What’s most distressing about the entire situation is that if you were to step back a big screen version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original “Princess of Mars” novel should make an intriguing film for a broad audience.  So much so that filmmakers such as John McTiernan, Jon Favreau and Robert Rodriguez were all attached to direct movies based on the material over the past 30 years.  And yet, even with Oscar-winning Pixar legend Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) passionate about bringing his childhood inspiration to life, “John Carter” is now a name that will live on in Hollywood infamy.

Make the movie first, then determine if there is a brand
From a strategic standpoint, CEO Bob Iger’s intention to focus on films that have the potential to be lucrative brands that generate profits outside of the initial film release has merit.  In fact, Disney may have lost money on the hand drawn animated feature “Winnie the Pooh” last year, but they more than made up for it by reviving the company’s merchandising around A.A. Milne’s creations.  And yet, outside of the already established “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, the studios efforts so far have mostly fallen flat.  “The Muppets” is deemed a success by its $88 million domestic gross, but the marketing was so generic it likely hurt the film’s box office prospects (how could a family film with such glorious reviews and multi-generational appeal gross under $100 million during the holidays?). The studio let Stanton make his own movie (more on that next), but from a marketing perspective they looked at it as a brand first and not a movie.  That may work in television or other entertainment arenas, but not so much in the movie business.  From the first teaser trailer to the first poster to the outdoor advertising to the final poster and almost every piece of marketing material in-between, too much of the “Cater” campaign was fashioned as a brand campaign, not a movie campaign.  The studio did everything possible to try and sell those words “John Carter” in your face as something to associate with fantastic imagery while forgetting the need to sell either a marketing hook or the movie’s storyline.  By the time they got around to trying to fix it, moviegoers and TV viewers (subject to TV spots and a useless Super Bowl spot) had already reacted to the film with general ambivalence. At that point, you’ve only damaged your brand, not grown it.

Inflated expectations and pandering to a Pixar filmmaker

It won’t help his standing in the filmmaking community that Andrew Stanton pretty much made it a mission in his publicity efforts to note that the way everyone has been making live action films over the past 100 years is “wrong.”  Instead, they should reshoot and add scenes and shots not once (a process traditionally called “pick up”) but just as often as animated films do (which can mean completely starting over from scratch).  Of course, that assumes that the cost for that process is similar to a CG or animated film and boy is it not.  Granted, that didn’t really affect box office on its own, but it led to the film being released considerably later than originally planned.  After shooting for almost seven months, “John Carter” finished principal photography in July of 2010.  Because of Stanton’s massive reshoot “process” it finally was released in the late winter of 2012.  That’s a long time to generate negative buzz in the media, even if it’s unwarranted.

Star power has its advantages

There is a problem in a live action film when your most recognizable actor, in this case Willem Dafoe, is unrecognizable under a motion capture animated facade.  Taylor Kitsch may have a long career in front of him, but a role on the low-rated “Friday Night Lights” and a bit part in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” should not be the qualifications for a film like this.  Even in Kitsch’s next film, “Battleship,” he’s been surrounded by familiar faces to the public including Liam Neeson, Rhianna and Alexander Skarsgard. If Stanton was going to eventually spend $250 million (a conservative estimate), he should have at least cast a star or two to help open the film (how about one of a dozen well known actresses to replace Lynn Collins?).  Granted, we’re not sure someone such as Ryan Gosling would have taken this role, but at least more of the moviegoing public would have recognized him.

What’s a movie title anyway?
Stanton knew that the film could never survive at the box office Burroughs’ original title, “A Princess of Mars,” but like many filmmakers before him he figured “John Carter of Mars” would suffice.  Instead, he recalls Disney came to him saying that they had done extensive research proving that the “of Mars” portion would turn off women (perhaps because of the novel “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” or something like that).  Of course, the idea “John Carter” would ever be a completely four-quadrant film (meaning it appealed to both men and women, over 25 and under) was a major miscalculation.  Having somehow forgotten the lessons of their Bruckheimer successes in the late ’90s and early ’00s (whoops, wrong regime), the studio mistakenly went from the proposition that “John Carter” could be a family franchise in the “Pirates” vein.  In their view, if the movie was to succeed it would have to be simply titled “John Carter.”  And yes, it’s a title that means nothing to 95% of the moviegoing audience and likely sounds more like an inspirational drama more than a planet hopping epic.  Keeping the original title could have gone a long way in perception in the genre community and obviously would have given it a sense of wonder. Speaking of the genre community…

If you have a genre movie embrace the genre community

Disney is the only studio to completely re-launch a cult 1980’s franchise with “Tron: Legacy” (cough, grossed more worldwide than J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek”) and still question how they did it, why they did it and whether to make a third film.  That trepidation is partially why the studio skipped bringing “John Carter” to Comic-Con which was probably the one event featuring 125,000 geeks and genre fans who might have immediately gotten behind it eight months out (and lord knows the reaction if it was called “John Carter of Mars”).  Sure, Disney will say Universal’s experiences with “Scott Pilgrim” and “Cowboys & Aliens” over the past two years proved their theories about Comic-Con were right, but we’d throw HBO’s success with “Game of Thrones,” 20th Century Fox’s buzz-building for “Prometheus” last summer and Sony’s re-launch of “The Amazing Spider-Man” as examples of Comic-Con done right.  Oh, and the studio’s early groundwork for “Tron: Legacy” wasn’t bad either.  When the studio didn’t send “John Carter” – which obviously had been in production for over a year and a half – it sent huge red flags within the genre community and created a worse result: unintended negative word of mouth.

It looked like ‘Prince of Persia 2’
You have to wonder if either Stanton or the Disney marketing execs saw the studio’s own film released in the summer of 2010, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.”  The idea Stanton would costume Kitsch so closely to “Persia’s” Jake Gyllenhaal or create a desert world that looked so similar is eyebrow raising.  Moreover, if Disney execs red-flagged this for Stanton and he ignored them than he only has himself to blame.  When the film’s first teaser debuted last summer, the most common refrain was “Gee, doesn’t that look like ‘Prince of Persia’?”  And that was hardly the first impression Disney needed as they rolled out their campaign.

PR campaign rule #17: Make your movie seem special

It’s hard to sell a lump of coal to audiences as gold (although it has been done), but “John Carter” isn’t a bad movie.  Unfortunately, it just isn’t outstanding or groundbreaking.  Neither Disney’s beleaguered publicity team or its overall marketing efforts could do anything to make it seem special besides pushing the “brand.”  Moreover, starting to compare the film’s source material as the inspiration for films such as “Star Wars” or “Avatar” was a tactical mistake.  James Cameron, George Lucas and others may have mined Burroughs’ grand ideas, but it only reiterated to audiences that “John Carter” isn’t anywhere near as original as those modern classics.  

Red-orange is not a great color scheme for a movie campaign (aka, ‘That was one bad poster’)

Again, Disney (and possibly Stanton) took the brand idea for “John Carter” too far with the film’s poster.  Do you know what colors successfully dominate most movie poster or key art (the industry term) campaigns?  Blue, black, white, red and gold.  So, while going with a dominate orange and yellow design may seem like a smart way to differentiate yourself from the competition it did the opposite.  It created a retro-esque campaign look that made the film look even less appealing to the under 25 demo.  Notice, Disney’s international marketing division went in a completely different direction (and an alternate look here).  It may not be a perfect solution, but at least it’s more intriguing.  The studio also didn’t help itself with an outdoor campaign with a tiny John Carter battling white monsters (white apes) that anecdotally made the film seem more strange than intriguing. The irony is that Stanton actually created intriguing imagery that should have sold the film in print form. We’ll likely never know how much of the print look Stanton signed off on and how much Disney’s president of marketing at the time (the now departed M.T. Carney) pushed on him, but considering his experiences at Pixar he should have realized the campaign they had going forward was not going to work.

Will Disney change its tune regarding its brand philosophy?  The company has jettisoned former New York Advertising Agency wunderkind Carney in favor of Participant Media’s Ricky Strauss who is credited with helping guide a strong campaign for DreamWorks Studios and Participants’ “The Help.”  Can he make sure the studio’s next tent poles – “The Avengers,” “Brave,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Oz: The Great and Powerful” – avoid “John Carter’s” fate? We wouldn’t worry about Marvel’s expected blockbuster or the first Pixar film in a year, but the latter two?  Hollywood and Disney investors will be watching. 

Why did or didn’t you go see “John Carter”?  Share your thoughts below.

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