'John Carter' of Where? Disney's Bad Marketing Mars Launch of a Fun Sci-Fi Romance

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John CarterDisney's (DIS) new sci-fi epic John Carter performed poorly at the box office on its opening weekend, garnering only $30.6 million in ticket sales. It's said to have cost more than $250 million to make. Adding insult to injury, the film failed to dislodge the previous weekend's winner from the top spot: The Lorax beat John Carter by $8.5 million.

For weeks, movie industry watchers have been commenting about the woeful inadequacy of Disney's marketing campaign for John Carter. The Daily Beast ran a long, extensively reported story detailing the uninformative billboards, incoherent trailers and foolhardy title alterations that plagued the attempt to sell the movie. "Although the character has been known as 'John Carter of Mars' and was envisioned as a movie trilogy under that name, Disney marketers dropped the 'of Mars' part," the Beast reports, "because of industry-think holding that female movie fans are more likely to be turned off by such overtly sci-fi elements."

So, to avoid that peril, Disney left its massive film, based on generally unfamiliar source material -- the Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1917 novel A Princess of Mars -- with a title that gives no hint of what it might be about.

John Carter

Harry Knowles, proprietor of Ain't It Cool News, pointed out the terrible irony that Disney of all companies should fail to see the potential appeal of a title with the word "princess" in it. "You see, Disney is selling this like it's a crazy action film," Knowles writes, "and there is crazy action in this... [but] what I love most is that the story is still a romance."

Which might have appealed to those female moviegoers Disney was so concerned about turning off. Instead of emphasizing the romance -- which is engagingly performed by the two lead actors, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins -- Disney's trailers focused on a desert arena battle that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to a sequence from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

The predictable result was a lack of interest -- even of awareness -- among the ticket-buying public. But consider Disney's response to the box office letdown: "Unfortunately, [John Carter] failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped," said Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, in a statement released on Sunday.

That isn't what happened at all. Ross doesn't yet know how the film has connected with audiences; he'll have to wait for word of mouth to disseminate before he can make that determination. All he knows is that the advertising failed to connect. But apparently, to Ross, there is no difference -- or maybe marketing is all there is?

The Blame Game

"Moviemaking does not come without risk," Ross' statement read. "It's still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of 'John Carter.'"

These words are utterly mournful, completely defeatist. Ross doesn't even stick up for his product, only for the people behind it -- suggesting that Disney execs can't be blamed for having entrusted the property to Stanton. (Astonishingly, ads for John Carter failed to mention that the movie was co-written and directed by the man who brought you WALL-E, one of the most popular films of this century.) There is no possibility, in Ross's interpretation, that the underperforming film might actually be good, that it might be able to attract viewers on its own strength, rather than via the power of PR.

Disney's head of distribution, Dave Hollis, sounded slightly more optimistic: "We would have hoped for more considering the larger economics of the film but are still encouraged with how it's been received by audiences that have seen it and hope to see that generate positive word of mouth for the balance of the run." And that is what is likely to happen -- for, as A.O. Scott, chief film critic for The New York Times, noted, John Carter is "messy and chaotic... but also colorful and kind of fun." That "kind of" is the professional critic's obligatory hedge; audiences are more unabashed. (John Carter is currently rated 7.0 out of 10 by users on the Internet Movie Database.)

In a separate, widely-cited article -- cruelly titled 'Ishtar' Lands on Mars -- the Times reports that "Disney will be forced to take a quarterly write-down of $100 million to $165 million" because of John Carter, citing unnamed analysts. Don't necessarily believe it: Despite all the anti-Mars alarmism, John Carter has a decent shot at being one of those rare movies that picks up steam as its run continues. Even all this bad, bottom-line crazed press could be beneficial, stirring up some curiosity. It's a better ad campaign than what Disney devised.


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Seksi Vitez

As soon as I saw the trailer I cringed. But at the same time I do not remember wanting to see a movie more. I had read the books when I was 11 back in 1977. I spent more time drawing the characters from these books than any other source.

Just watched the movie again and I enjoyed it even more. It has a tremendous amount of heart. The editing, though could have been better. It would have profited to have been a slightly longer movie.

Disney marketing ruined the film though. I wonder how much of the $250 million went to advertising. They went all out and I believe it will go down in history as one of the (if not THE) worst ad campaign in movie history. Seriously. If you are going to promote a film, make damn sure you only let people who actually understand the actual film and source.. and especially LOVE IT.

Heads should roll at Disney corporate as well as in the marketing department. Hell anyone who thought changing the freaking title from the book.

May 25 2012 at 5:07 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Seksi Vitez's comment
Seksi Vitez

*If you are going to promote a film, make damn sure you only let people 'work on the promotion' who actually understand the actual film and source.. and especially LOVE IT.

May 25 2012 at 5:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Wayne Bradshaw

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May 05 2012 at 11:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
gmsexton

anytime you let marketing weenies take over you suffer the consequences.... as i have always said.... accountants can save you right into bankruptcy and marketing people can spend you into bankruptcy.... who ever is running the studio is the one responsible... he let it happen...

March 13 2012 at 8:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
BudThePatriot

or maybe people are just not wanting to watch a stupid movie like John Carter..i doubt i will watch it even on netflix

March 13 2012 at 6:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to BudThePatriot's comment
Seksi Vitez

Wow! You REALLY put a lot of thought into whether a movie is good or not. What the hell made your troll butt get motivated to write such an ugly, generic troll comment? You, sir are one of these toxic people I was warned about as a kid.

May 25 2012 at 4:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
garydpdx

Two things that Disney failed to do in marketing this movie ...

a) it needed to promote the Burroughs book(s) a year in advance, and its history, and find fans among the likes of George Lucas, etc. to speak on its behalf. Promote the original book(s) online (Amazon) and at stores (Barnes & Noble) with the publisher. Build buzz ...

b) the title should have been "John Carter of Mars" or better, "John Carter and The Princess of Mars" in order to give a big clue on what the movie's about ...

March 13 2012 at 5:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to garydpdx's comment
musikhut

Your option"a" would have been nice, but "b" was essential. Silly PR people at Disney really dropped the ball on this one.

March 13 2012 at 5:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
garydpdx

Two things that Disney failed to do in marketing this movie ...

a) it needed to promote the Burroughs book(s) a year in advance, and its history, and find fans among the likes of George Lucas, etc. to speak on its behalf. Promote the original book(s) online (Amazon) and at stores (Barnes & Noble) with the publisher. Build buzz ...

b) the title should have been "John Carter of Mars" or better, "John Carter and The Princess of Mars" in order to give a big clue on what the movie's about ...

March 13 2012 at 5:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
garydpdx

Two things that Disney failed to do in marketing this movie ...

a) it needed to promote the Burroughs book(s) a year in advance, and its history, and find fans among the likes of George Lucas, etc. to speak on its behalf. Promote the original book(s) online (Amazon) and at stores (Barnes & Noble) with the publisher. Build buzz ...

b) the title should have been "John Carter of Mars" or better, "John Carter and The Princess of Mars" in order to give a big clue on what the movie's about ...

March 13 2012 at 5:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
garydpdx

Two things that Disney failed to do in marketing this movie ...

a) it needed to promote the Burroughs book(s) a year in advance, and its history, and find fans among the likes of George Lucas, etc. to speak on its behalf. Promote the original book(s) online (Amazon) and at stores (Barnes & Noble) with the publisher. Build buzz ...

b) the title should have been "John Carter of Mars" or better, "John Carter and The Princess of Mars" in order to give a big clue on what the movie's about ...

March 13 2012 at 5:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jda7175098

Read Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 60s..He is the Grand Father of the Star Wars, Avatar type movies...Same type of plots...We are just looking at mordern day Special effects.

March 13 2012 at 3:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Kaci

I loved it! I already new the story, my Dad had bought the original book back in 1917. He bought the series and talked about it often. I couldn't believe it did so poorly at the box office. Sort of Star Wars and Indiana Jones with romance.

March 13 2012 at 3:12 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply